Don Gardner in front of Metropolitan AME Church. Photo by Elli Bloomberg

The only two constants in Don Gardner’s life have been faith and. By the time he started founding nonprofits and hosting community events, Gardner, 59, had performed across the nations, owned his own business, given tours at the White House, worked for the government and experienced homelessness.

Today his preferred title is “ambassador to the Lord.”

Gardner was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His father left when he was 2 years old, which he said left him with a lot of anger and frustration. Still, his mother and stepfather did everything they could to provide for him, his brother and sister, and his stepbrother.
As a child, Gardner played the drums in a family band called Turn of the Century. With his mother as their manager, they booked shows all around the city. He continued his musical career at Miami Dade Junior College where he and some friends formed the Kool-Dudes, a gospel group which performed in 25 major cities.

Gardner returned to the District in 1997 and experienced homelessness for the first time one year later, after losing his job and struggling with drugs and alcohol. He lived at the Central Union Mission shelter for 18 months and became a speaker for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

At the same time, Gardner put his D.C. knowledge to. He waited in line for free White House tickets in the morning, then led tours through the building and received generous tips. This became impossible after 9/11, so he got a job with the Department of Health distributing information after the 2001 anthrax scare.

The job ended and he was later arrested for bank fraud, which led to three years’ incarceration and a release back into homelessness. He lived in Franklin Square Park for six months, going to the nearby shelter when the weather was especially bad. Sometimes, he slept on buses or Metro cars.

During this time, Gardner became a Street Sense vendor. “The paper was so powerful back then,” Gardner said. “People had never heard of anything [like it]…It took D.C. by storm.” With the money from his paper sales and a job at TGI Friday’s, he was able to rent a bed for $80 a week at the Gospel Rescue Ministry. He then transitioned to a room in Northwest.

Metropolitan AME, the oldest church in the District, has been an important part of Gardner’s life since his release. He went to a service there the day he got out of prison, and has been an active member of the congregation ever since. The church directed him to the Daniel Alexander Payne Community Development Corporation, which provides services to returning citizens. It was there that he met his mentor, the late Clarence Nixon, who helped him break into the shoe shine business. Working under the name Shining Star Footwear, Gardner quickly expanded.

Despite that success, he has maintained close ties with Franklin Square Park. He has celebrated his last seven birthdays there, and brings donated clothes once or twice a month. Gardner recently started Real Love Ministry, a nonprofit, in an effort to do even more for the community. His mother, his best friend, and her children work with him. A Sept. 10 event was the nonprofit’s first undertaking. Once the organization is registered as a 501(c)(3), Gardner hopes to begin raising funds to locate and house homeless veterans and their children.