credit: James Marshall

Street Sense Media Vendor Marcellus Phillips hawks newspapers on 14th Street NW. “Street Sense for sale, help me help the homeless!” he hollers to entice would-be customers. What passersby don’t know about Philips is that he has a disability. It is not immediately apparent — he is physically fit and a lucid conversationalist. However, the 38-year-old has been living with epilepsy for 20 years.

His first bout with seizures took place on the night of his high school graduation. On the way home from the ceremony, he tried, unsuccessfully, to jump out of a moving vehicle traveling over a bridge. Phillips has no recollection of this shock episode. He was told about it by his family members who were in the car.

Not long thereafter, he got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. His supervisor took him aside one evening and asked him why he was taking bites out of the chicken and putting it back into the bucket. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Phillips told the supervisor sincerely. Phillips was not convinced he was justly accused until his co-workers approached him about the incident too. The second time the supervisor caught Phillips snacking on the Colonel’s chicken on the clock, he was fired.

These two incidents led to Phillips’ epilepsy diagnosis, and he has been living with the disorder in varying degrees ever since. When Phillips seizes, he loses consciousness for 10 seconds to a minute, and cannot remember what happens during that period. He has as many as eight seizures a day during periods of high stress or as few as twice a week when his medication works properly.

“With my seizure disorder, it’s hard to maintain a job,” Phillips said. “When you have a nine-to-five, they don’t want to hear that you’ve got a neurologist appointment once every other week.”

His regular neurology, therapy and primary care appointments overwhelmed him to the point where he became homeless more than a year ago — he has been sleeping on his sister’s floor. Philips is one of the 55 percent of homeless people nationwide who self-report having a disability, according to University of Pennsylvania social scientist Dennis Culhane.

[The disability system is failing, says Dr. Dennis Culhane]

Phillips, a D.C. native, is noticeably upbeat as he walks into the Church of the Epiphany for an interview. He stands trim and tall with a smile that is much more cheerful than the ominous music coming from the organ in the nearby sanctuary. Today he is happy. He just got his first disability check.

Several framed articles written by Marcellus Phillips hang on his apartment wall. hang on a w

Marcellus decorates his new apartment with his work from Street Sense Media. Photo by Marcellus Phillips

Without a full-time job to balance with his involved health care regime, Phillips was able to focus his energy on applying. It took him one year to get approved for Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance, which is no small feat. Successfully applying for disability is a meticulous and grueling process that can take years to bear fruit. That it took Phillips only a year is a testament to his determination.

He said that instead of waiting for other people to apply for him, he took initiative.

“I was telling my case worker and social worker what to do at some points,” Phillips said. “I want out of my situation as soon as possible. I’m tired of being homeless. I’m tired of sleeping on the floor.”

Despite his now-reliable disability income, Phillips is more ambitious than ever. He sees his disability and Street Sense Media income as stepping-stones on the way to his ultimate goal.

“I want to have my own LED retrofitting company. I could wire this whole building,” he said, looking up at the lights in the Church of the Epiphany’s community room.

Phillips has done electrical work since he was 21 years old and talks about it passionately. He shrugs off the suggestion that being an epileptic electrician is dangerous, because “any master electrician will tell you that you shouldn’t work with live electricity. Besides, when I do my electrical work, I’m not worried and I’m focused,” Phillips said.

After a year of struggling with homelessness and disability applications, Marcellus Phillips is the tenant of his own basement apartment as of Nov. 1. While he does not own his own retrofitting company yet, he will be hawking Street Sense on 14th Street NW and seeking other sales opportunities until he does.

“I’ll never live a normal life with my seizure disorder,” Phillips admitted, “but I’m good as long as I’m not going through stress, which is where I’m headed right now.”


Check out Marcellus Phillips’ own work for Street Sense Media here.