Former homeless share stories with Elon audience

The Nov. 19, 2014, program took place during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

By Kaitlin Dunn ’16

Four formerly homeless people shared their stories of hope and resilience on Nov. 19, 2014, at a “Faces of Homelessness” panel sponsored by the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement and the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.

Panelists told of their personal experiences and perspectives on the issues of hunger and homelessness as part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

The program took place in the LaRose Digital Theatre.

James Davis

Davis grew up in South Carolina, in what he called a “normal family.” They took vacations together, celebrated holidays together and nine out of 10 of the siblings graduated from college.

After college, Davis had a steady job that allowed him to travel around the world, but he suffered from depression after his parents died. That, combined with the stress of his job, led to his eventual divorce, layoff and subsequent mental breakdown.

Davis moved around, first living with a friend, then with his brother and his cousin, but he tried to keep his homelessness a secret from most of his family.

“I had a lot of pride,” he said. “I didn’t want them to know.”

Davis did not want to stay in a shelter because of all the negative stereotypes he had heard, so he took his chances sleeping in a bus station and a park bench. One cold night, he found himself huddled under a building to keep out of the wind. When he reached down, he found a rat under his blanket, which made him immediately shell out the money for a hotel.

“That was the last night I slept outside,” he said. “I don’t do rats.”

Davis finally got back on his feet after volunteering with Street Sense and the National Coalition for the Homeless. Today, he serves on the board of directors for NCH. 

John Mickle

Mickle was kicked out of his house when he was 12. He joined the military at 17, but after being honorably discharged, he had no place to go. While he was in a single-occupancy shelter, he met other people in his situation, and they started a nighttime street outreach program.

Mickle eventually became president of that coalition. Even as a successful businessman, he said, he kept in mind the people for whom he worked.

When Mickle was running late to speak at a function, he encountered a homeless man on the street. Instead of ignoring him or rushing past, Mickle brought him to the hotel for lunch.

“People looked at me like I was crazy, but I don’t work for them,” said Mickle, today a married father of three. “I work for that guy on the street, just trying to survive. We’re all just individuals trying to make it another day.”

Rebecca Hackney

Hackney, a 2014 graduate of Elon, found herself homeless last year after she said her financial aid fell through. Although she spent only a few months without a home, the experience is one that stuck with her.

Hackney struggled like many students to balance a full course load and a part-time job. When she lost her job, she had no way of paying rent. She bounced around on friends couches, slept in the library and napped in her car, until she finally found a family through her church that was willing to take her in for the rest of the year.

“If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I would have graduated,” Hackney said.

Steve Thomas

Thomas wasn’t homeless until he was 51. “I want you to understand that nobody in his right mind chooses to be homeless,” he said. “Homelessness is very embarrassing. The second you find out someone is homeless, you start to treat them differently.”

Thomas grew up in an abusive home and turned to drugs and alcohol. After losing his job as a truck driver, he found himself living on a bench in Washington, D.C., for 18 months.

He watched people dump urine and feces on homeless people. He watched a lady yell at her dog for sniffing a homeless person. Thomas was at a point where he considered suicide, when he met a man who saved his life.

A man pulled the blanket off of him one night and started talking to him. Because of him, Thomas has been drug free for eight years.

“I don’t know what he said, but every word was the perfect word,” Thomas said. “It was as if the heavens opened up and sent an angel.”

Thomas encouraged students to do what they can for homeless people, even if it’s a simple as saying hello.

“The best thing you can ever do for a homeless person is to acknowledge their existence,” he said. “If you make eye contact with a homeless person, speak. Within each and every one of you is the ability to affect change in the lives of those less fortunate than you.”