By: Sophie Beal
When I asked Ron if he’d be willing to sit down and share his interesting story with me, he laughed. “People are always telling me how ‘interesting’ my story is . . . Interesting, huh? I guess that’s one word for it.”
Truth is it’s hard to find words to describe Ron’s story. When he was done speaking—I was left speechless. He went from corporate consultant, to homeless, to Gateway resident, to cancer patient, to a healthy student with a bright future. Yet through it all, he has always been a brilliant man and a kind friend. At the end of the day, Ron’s message is this: Our destiny is greater than our history.
Ron grew up in Newport News, VA, the eighth of nine children in what he describes as a “solid family unit.” He graduated high school in 1975 and went on to the prestigious Howard University in Washington D.C., where he joined the Air Force Reserve and graduated in 1979 with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Marketing. That same year, he got married and had two children soon after: his daughter in 1980, and his son in 1982.
Ron had always planned on Law School eventually, but was “bit by the sales bug” after landing his first job with Toyota. In 1997, Ron founded his own D.C.-based marketing firm called “Marketing Solutions, LLC.” He chose to specialize in nonprofit consulting—creating programs to help organizations improve, working closely with historically black hospitals, and eventually was hired by Corporate Public Relations at AT&T. “I was always good at community relations—anything dealing with people,” Ron said. “And that was my life for over 30 years. Normal and good . . . working in marketing and sales.”
Ron and his wife had been divorced for several years when he finally met another woman from Atlanta who he “thought” he was in love with at the time, so he requested a transfer to AT&T’s Atlanta office to be closer to her. At first, things were going great—Ron had a decent job and good income. During this time he was traveling often and playing a lot of golf. He even bought a new house in 2010. “Life was good,” he said, “I even wore the cap that said so.”
Homeless at Hartsfield
In November of 2011, things took a downhill turn. In the wake of the recession, AT&T was forced to do some layoffs. “I heard rumors, but never thought they’d mess with the marketing people.” But they did, and he was cut.
I had the perfect financial storm going on: all of a sudden I had no job, no income, going through savings like it was water (and in retrospect, I had not been saving enough). I had nothing to fall back on because I was in Atlanta with no family, no real friends, my relationship had ended . . . I had no network of support.
Unable to afford his mortgage, Ron soon found himself homeless and began sleeping in the Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta Airport atrium. The airport, to Ron, was a safe and familiar place because he had spent so much time there traveling during his consulting years.
Every night, for a full year, Ron would sleep in the airport’s atrium with a duffle bag full of supplies (clothes, hygiene items, necessary documents, etc.). Every morning, he’d clean up in the airport bathroom and take the train into the city to look for work.
“I went from flying to hardly being able to get on MARTA. That’s a long way down.” Ron explained,
I had been down before, but I had never been destitute. My pride and my ego were stripped. I had no frame of reference to know how to navigate this situation. It was a maze I had never seen. Reduced to my least common denominator—I became somebody I did not even recognize.
Ron fought to maintain his sense of self and discovered a talent for public speaking with Toastmasters International speakers’ group, which he discovered through Clifton Sanctuary Ministries. And in it, he won several awards for his speeches even while being homeless.
After a year of staying at the airport, others experiencing homelessness began to arrive in large numbers, thus drawing attention to those who had been there peacefully long before. The growing homeless population at Hartsfield Jackson became a problem for the city, so all those who had been staying at the airport and not flying were made to leave—Ron included.
Ron was still looking for work a year after becoming homeless and felt discouraged. He no longer looked like the golf-playing, jet-setting corporate man he’d once been. He was advised by many to “humble himself” and search for low-paying jobs in restaurants and maintenance, but was unsuccessful even at that. During this time (2012), Atlanta had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 9%–higher than the national average. “How was I going to find a job if nobody was finding a job?” Ron asked, “I learned it had nothing to do with my education or experiences. The economy was just bad. And I was caught up in it.”
After leaving the airport, Ron spent evenings in 24-hour places like McDonalds and Waffle House that didn’t mind him sitting in booths during the night. He accessed meals and services from the few social service organizations he knew, spent a lot of time at the Public Library, and walked almost everywhere.
It became hard to feel normal. I felt like I was losing my mind because everything that had been me wasn’t me anymore. I’d get looks from people who were still in the mainstream and I became paranoid when I felt like people were looking and judging me because of my bags or appearance. . . But sometimes it wasn’t even a look—it was a lack of a look. Not even acknowledging I exist. There’s nothing like walking down the street and being ignored.
It wasn’t until Ron met Jill and Jenna at a free lunch hosted by Church on the Street in spring 2013 that he learned about Gateway Center. Ron, Jill, and Jenna (Gateway’s Mission Year interns that year) became fast friends. He told them his story and, because he was already an experienced public speaker, they invited him to join Gateway’s Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau—an extra-curricular program offered by Gateway to both residents and non-residents to empower those experiencing homelessness to tell their story and hone public speaking skills.
For the next several months, Ron came to Gateway only to attend Speaker’s Bureau meetings and to say hello to Jill and Jenna on occasion. But things went from bad to worse for Ron in October 2013 when he suffered a pulmonary embolism due to a blood clot in his lung. Ron’s doctors decided that he could not return to the street, and so transferred him to Gateway’s Recuperative Care Program co-hosted by Mercy Care Clinic on our 2nd floor.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ron said shaking his head, “I had been to Gateway before, but only as a visitor and member or the Speaker’s Bureau. And now I was a ‘client?’”
Ron was disappointed to be in a place he’d considered a ”shelter,” but learned quickly that relationships built under Gateway’s roof could be meaningful in the long term. Ron became friends with Gateway’s Mission Year and DOOR interns as well as Bec Cranford, GWC’s Volunteer Coordinator. He remained active in the Speaker’s Bureau, explaining “the Speaker’s Bureau was a good place to get my chops.”
While at Gateway, Ron began thinking about what he could do to make a difference in the community. “I once told Bec that my dream was to run my own nonprofit and she told me that Georgia State had a nonprofit management program. I didn’t think it would be possible financially, but she just told me to trust God.”
Ron remained at Gateway attending doctor’s appointments for the next two months before deciding to take advantage of a housing opportunity through a sponsor at Savannah Suites facilities, believing at the time he had found a marketing job with Delta Airlines.
Mere days before leaving GWC for Savannah Suites, Ron was diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer. He was in and out of the hospital for months after his diagnosis, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Thus, due to his sickness, Ron was unable to go to his new job and his time at Savannah Suites ended. This time spent back on the street was the darkest for Ron. His health and his life both felt out of control and he wasn’t sure he would ever get better. He began drinking briefly to cope with his depression, but quickly decided that drinking was a waste—“it wasn’t for me,” he said.
Reconciliation and Revival
Around the first of the year, 2014, Ron made a conscious decision to do everything he could to live. Ron sought out counselors through a local church to help him mentally and spiritually and he began meeting with them twice a week.
Nothing about my situation had changed, but I had changed. It was good to be able to just talk and be listened to. They helped me navigate through that dark place. It cleared out my head and allowed me to see opportunities I couldn’t see before when I was bogged down with depression.
One such opportunity available to Ron was SSI disability financial assistance because of his cancer. And another, most importantly, was an opportunity for education.
Ron learned of a program through Department of Veterans Affairs that would pay 100% tuition for veterans to the grad school program of their choice. Remembering Bec’s suggestion at Gateway almost a year earlier, Ron decided to pursue a dual degree in Law and Public Policy offered through the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State.
Ron studied for the LSAT every day for three months at the public library, took the test in March 2014, and scored well. A church sponsor paid for all of his application fees, and he found out in April that he had been accepted.
Since his acceptance, Ron has been taking summer school courses in Fundamentals of Policy, Policy Analysis, and Statistics to prepare for classes in the fall. So far, he has gotten straight A’s and has developed close relationships with his professors, who are amazed that a homeless man nearly 40 years out of school is doing such amazing work. On top of all this, Ron was recently accepted to Georgia State’s Graduate Assistant program as a Teaching Assistant, which provides housing and support for members.
Ron is on route to get his degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Nonprofit Management, coupled with a Law degree by December 2015. And he intends to use it.
“I don’t want anyone to tell me I’m not qualified. Being homeless does not qualify you to solve a problem; it just means you can relate to the problem. You need to know the knuts and bolts.”
And what of Ron’s cancer?
Ron has been cancer free since April 11th, 2014 and has been living his life to the fullest ever since. His relationship with his children is better today than it has been in years. His daughter, now 34 years old with two children, is sick with Fibro Myalgia and Ron talks to her on the phone almost every day.
I used to ask God, ‘Why do I have to walk so much?’ But now I know it was so that I can go back and show my daughter how to walk again. I know what it feels like when it hurts to walk. I know what it feels like to seem like you’re not getting any better. Seeing me get another chance at life gives [my son and daughter] strength.
Ron starts classes full time on August 25th with tuition fully paid by the VA. He still stops by Gateway when he’s in the neighborhood to give hugs and show pictures of his grandkids. Ron’s journey out of homelessness is finally coming to an end, but his greater journey has only just begun.
“There’s something I say to my kids every so often. I texted them each the other day and said: ‘Our destiny is greater than our history.’ And you know what they both said? ‘Amen.’”