From Homeless to Homeowner: One Man’s Journey
I’m standing in the middle of the Pathways to Housing PA (Pathways) common area, watching two men excitedly sharing stories, shaking hands and laughing. One is a Pathways participant who moments earlier was telling me how depressed and discouraged he was feeling. The other is my coworker, Ken Wilson, and there’s a reason his connection with this participant is so immediate and warm: he understands, in a way most of us never will, what the veteran in front of him has been through.
Ken’s story of homelessness started at only 7 years old, when an adult at the home where his family spent their summers began sexually abusing him. His parents were loving and supportive of him, but Ken had this secret that he didn’t feel he could share. He locked it up inside himself, and tried his best to continue his life. The abuse went on for 10 years until Ken was old enough to refuse to see the abuser.
Unfortunately, ending the physical abuse was only the first step in a long journey of healing. Ken began experiencing Post Traumatic Stress symptoms, having vivid nightmares when he slept, and “daymares”-horrifying flashbacks during his waking hours. Desperate to escape, he began to smoke pot in increasing amounts, numbing his memories and calming his anxieties. His parents went from concerned, to frustrated, to exasperated and finally kicked him out at 21. He joined the army, and continued abusing pot and experimenting with other drugs.
When Ken left the military four years later, not much had changed for him. He was more addicted than ever, and returned to his parent’s house. One day a friend introduced him to a new drug called crack, and things rapidly began to deteriorate for him. He stole from his parents and lost his housing, he stole from others and was put in jail, and he ended up on the streets where he was to live for 13 years.
Ken remembers the routine he had in those days. “I would find an abandoned house, and I would move in. I would go down to the local fast food chain, and pull out burgers and nuggets, all the food people had thrown away during the day, and I’d hand them out. It got to the point where the employees would just bag up all the leftover food at the end of the day, and just hand it to me. And then I’d go back to my house. I’d have a bucket for going to the bathroom in, and I’d use some water to wash off with.” Sometimes, neighbors would get suspicious of Ken and call the cops. So he quickly learned, “If I just swept up the sidewalk in front of my house, and neighbors houses, and didn’t cause any trouble, they’d leave me alone.”
It was not an easy life. He was always fearful for his safety and his belongings, and beneath it all, he was still tormented by his memories. He would live on the streets as long as he could and then either get arrested or enter rehab for a month or so to rest before returning to the streets. Then one day at the Veterans Administration Medical Center Rehab, a health tech finally got through to him. She said, “Ken, you’ve got to find the core. You share eloquently, but it’s not the core of your issue. You need to begin to expose whatever it is that’s really bothering you.” And for whatever reason, Ken trusted her enough to finally share the truth about the abuse he’d experienced, and the terrible trauma it had caused him.
Sharing his story was Ken’s first step in a 6 year journey of getting clean. After the first disclosure of his abuse, Ken experienced incredible shame and guilt, and left the center the next day. But a few months later, he remembered how freeing it had been to tell his story, and he tried again, this time with a trained therapist. Ken was officially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and began joining groups. He would do well for a while and be sober, and then relapse and get arrested. This went on for years until a judge pointed out that he had been doing crime for as many years as most people have worked and retire from a career.
Ken started taking his Narcotics Anonymous (NA) program seriously; going to every meeting, meeting with his sponsor, and following the steps. He went to Veterans Court, completed the Fresh start program, and then received HUD-VASH housing; the same housing that many of the veterans here at Pathways have. Ken came to work at Pathways in 2013 as a Certified Peer Specialist, utilizing his personal experience to motivate and encourage others who are stuck in cycles of homeless and addiction.
Ken’s experience on the streets informs his work in so many ways. He runs the tenants meeting and accompanies participants to NA meetings. Recently, he started a program to get participants memberships to the YMCA and help them learn about the myriad benefits of exercise. He especially hopes that sharing his story will help others who have experienced child abuse to understand the freedom that sharing their story can bring, and how important it is to get help.
In May of this year, Ken completed a huge milestone in his journey when he purchased his own home in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. It has a huge kitchen with a chef stove where Ken recently cooked up some delicious shrimp scampi. He loves watching movies, and has set up a surround sound stereo system. It sounds so good that he says he doesn’t even need to go to the movies. “I’ve got a theater in my own home.”
One of the most important things about Ken’s new home is the sense of peace he feels there. It has a large back porch. Ken says, “I wake up early every morning- ever since the military- and I spend 45 minutes or an hour out there just listening to the birds. I think about my day, and just bask in that quietness.”
Ken was sitting on the porch with his wife one evening recently, when she looked over and realized he was crying. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “I just can’t believe this,” he told her. “It feels like yesterday that I can remember having a bucket, standing on a towel in an abandoned house, washing up, getting ready to go out and commit some crime, and thinking ‘this is normal, this is my life.’ Look where God has brought me now.” Ken believes that all of that suffering is there so he can help others who cross his path.
Back in the common room, Ken and the participant hug, and Ken tells him, “Just keep coming back here, man. Just keep coming, and we’ll help you. Just trust us, stick with it, and you’ll pull through.” And though the veteran standing with Ken can’t possibly know all that Ken has been through, he can sense the gravity and certainty in Ken’s voice. He relaxes and smiles, and I know that when he walks out of our building he will have the confidence and encouragement he needs to walk another day in his own journey towards recovery.
About the Author
Rebecca DeWhitt has been working at Pathways to Housing PA since 2013. She loves getting to hear participant and staff stories. On her free time, she enjoys traveling, doing coffee tourism, and spending time with her 7 month old, Theodore, pictured below.