Thomas, age 29, looked as relaxed as any college student dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie. Tracy and I found some seats at a long rectangular table toward the back of the San Marco Library. Amid the hushed conversations and occasional flutters of book pages, Thomas opened up to us about his life and being a student. One could guess rather easily at some of the challenges a student might face: exams, papers, demanding professors, and balancing study time with a social life. Thomas has another obstacle most students don’t encounter; he’s homeless.
“I made my own bed, and I’m lying in it still,” Thomas explains. At 15 years old, he says, he started down the road of making bad decisions. Dealing with anxiety and depression, Thomas turned to drugs to cope with the difficulties of his home life. He had an absentee father and a rocky relationship with his mother. Thomas’s grandparents stepped in and helped to raise him. His mother had problems of her own, including an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. These issues made her presence in his life inconsistent.
April of 2016 is when Thomas’s life took a turn down a dark path. He had lost a friend to a drug overdose, which sent him spiraling out of control. What started as dabbling in heroin escalated after the death of his friend. Thomas says that his mother and grandparents had no idea this was a problem for him.
The bottom came after a heroin binge in a hotel room. Thomas had mistakenly overdosed and was unconscious when his mother and her boyfriend found him. He says that he only survived due to them reviving him with a shot of what was possibly Narcan.
This incident was the wake-up call Thomas needed to change things in his life. “There were days when I would sit and just shake all day. I did like four or five stints in mental institutions.” With the support of his family, he’s been able to stay clean for the past couple of years. Thomas is pursuing his dream of becoming a sports journalist and is in his second year at Florida State College at Jacksonville. One of the ministries in our previous blog, Saved 2 Serve, helped Thomas get the laptop supplies he needed for school. William Darnell of Saved 2 Serve says he feels rewarded when he’s able to help motivated people change and improve their lives.
When asked if he encounters others like himself who are living on the streets, he says, “I try all the time to help people going through what I went through. It’s hard for me to talk about because I’m not proud of it.”
None of his classmates know that Thomas is homeless. It’s a fact he keeps to himself as he goes to class and mingles with the other students. Staying with his mother and her boyfriend isn’t a possibility since Thomas dislikes the dynamics of their relationship. According to him, his mother’s boyfriend gets physically abusive with her and doesn’t want her to have a relationship with Thomas. His relationship with her is inconsistent due to Thomas’s need to hide that they communicate at all.
It seems he could choose to stay at a shelter, but Thomas shakes his head. As we have heard on more than one other occasion, the shelter schedule doesn’t work for him. He cannot go to the shelter early enough for check-in and still attend his classes. He’d rather stay on the street with a few familiar faces he trusts. He does admit, though, he usually does not get enough sleep, averaging only four to five hours per night. Thomas says he always feels tired. The fact that he can successfully complete his coursework seems a testament to his strong will and inner drive to make something of himself when it would be much easier to quit.
The resources currently available to the homeless, from Thomas’s point of view, is mostly lacking. He would like to see “the system” change from a one size fits all model to one that assesses and meets individual needs. “Everyone is different. You need to listen.” He continues that what might work for one individual might not work for someone else.
Thomas feels people sometimes give solutions for the homeless problem lip service, but the follow-through is lacking. “People aren’t willing to go the extra mile and pull out of their comfort zone. If you’re going to help someone, listen. If you’re listening, they’re more likely to open up to you.”
His five-year goals include starting a blog as a sportswriter primarily for football and baseball, but he likes all sports. Ultimately, he’d prefer to end up living on the west coast. On the way out of the library, we chit chat a little.
“You ever watch tennis?” I ask since it’s my personal favorite.
“Well, you must like Federer then, right?” I ask since I’m a major Fed fan.
“No, I like Nadal. He’s better.” He states matter-of-factly over his shoulder as he walks around a bookcase.
Hmm, I think to myself with a grin, we’ll have to agree to disagree.
***The interviews are told from the interviewees’ perspectives and are not verified beyond their word. If there are untruths and inconsistencies, there are also many truths, enough that we as readers can step into their world and understand the need for change.
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