One man’s journey through 19 years experiencing homelessness
David Gardner, 34, had been homeless since he was fifteen years old. “When I was taken away from my mother.” He is a native Washingtonian and just moved into the first place of his own this year. Gardner has had work on and off but said he has also bounced between jail and drug treatment programs. While homeless, says he learned gratitude. “I congratulated someone for coming down and helping me out and uplifting my spirits,” he said. “It is hard out here.”
This is his lived experience, shared during an interview at McDonald’s in downtown D.C.
Reginald Black: Over the years being homeless, what kind of facilities did you encounter?
Gardner: As a child, I was sent to shelter houses from the age of 15 till I was 19, for a crime I committed with some co-defendants of mine. I really learned that I have to be independent if I wanted to be something out in the world. When I came home, I juggled with trying to get back into my family life. But I didn’t believe Didn’t believe my family have my best interest at heart, you know? I was dealing with a drug addict sister and she was into prostitution and I would be outside and it was just unsafe for me.
Can you describe some of the shelters?
Gardner: I was told to stay out my neighborhood, so that’s when it lead me to come to the shelters and come downtown. This was 2003.
The shelters I have been to in Washington, D.C., they’re run by Catholic Charities, for the Department of Human Services. You would think that a church would be a safe haven for people to go in. But once you get there, you have to be there at a certain time. It’s a line where you could actually be hurt or harmed for standing in the line because people will burst in front of you and try to take your spot.
One thing that happened to me that I was afraid of was when my sheets were stolen off my bed. I can remember my first day there, I was excited to finally get my bed. And i put my sheets on my bed and they were stolen. I went up to the front desk and was like “Oh my gosh, what’s going on here? Someone stole my stuff! I do not feel safe here no more.” One of the guys at the desk explained to me there was a lot of stealing going on and that there’s a lot of people that you’re going to meet who do not have your best interest at heart.
I picked up some charges in the shelter because these guys decided to pick on me and we got into an altercation. I got arrested for assault, so I didn’t really have nowhere to go. But I also met a lot of good people and a lot of friends that I stick to and we are trying to progress and to become something in our lives.
Before you were homeless, what kind of environment was that? Do you think it led to your homelessness?
Gardner: Well, prior to me being arrested, I had to be a little kid, seven or eight years old. In my neighborhood, a lot of the boys used to hang outside. My thing was hanging outside. At some point, some people came around to try to help [my friends] out and explained to them that [my friends] were homeless. So that’s how I first found out about being homeless.
I had a single mother and four siblings growing up. My father was dead when I was born. So it’s been hard, you know? I don’t blame nothing on my family because they tried to do what they had to do, especially my mother raising four kids. I went to school and, like i said, I was arrested at 15 and sent out to Virginia. I went to grade school and always had good grades. I always studied and learned and listened to the teachers and did my homework. Once I came home from residential, I was able to get my GED. When I was a juvenile, I did two years in college and in between time from living in the shelters and back-and-forth from what they call post-to-post,” I would pick up temp jobs and try to work and just try to better myself.
Did the services at that time help you with employment?
Gardner: Well, at the programs I have been to, I feel as though I put forth a lot of effort to progress in my behavior. I believe they helped me strengthen my mindset and my mind frame to get my life together. A lot of times it did help me just by giving me somewhere to stay at and not be locked up and arrested, and someone to talk to, you know? I made it my goal to see my case manager every two weeks when I was in the shelter, which was good. Little things like that really help a person out.
It sounds like you have seen different services change over time. Have they gotten better?
Gardner: A lot of these services and a lot of the people that come with these services — I’ve learned they’re in there to just get a paycheck. A lot of them will allow you to be hurt, harmed, put in bad hands. The people I was working with, they didn’t inspire me or assist me with what was going on at the time. But in a lot of the day programs that are opening now there are people that come out and serve and it’s really helpful.
Where have you found direction or inspiration lately?
Gardner: Well, I signed up for a constituent scholarship and got accepted into to the National Alliance [to End Homelessness] conference [in July]. What I do is sign up for everything and let the people call me back. My thing is my focus. Everybody wanna sign up for the partying events or cookout events. I pick events where I have to go to places like the Wilson Building.