Ken Martin began his journey with Street Sense speaking to teenagers about homelessness, alcoholism, drugs, being a teen, and having dreams. During the first hour of his first day vending the newspaper, a teacher from Wilson High School had found Martin and asked him to share his story. He’s certain that more than one of those kids will make a difference in the world.
Speaking to students may be old hat for Martin, who worked as a “youth prevention counselor” through AmeriCorps VISTA in the 80s.
“That was just after alcoholism was first classified as a disease,” Martin explained.
While he set out to steer young people away from alcoholism — a personal demon from his own early year — Martin found himself more often helping them get into college, obtain GEDs and apply for food stamps. Being able to give something back in recovery to a community which Martin felt he had taken from as a practicing alcoholic, meant a lot.
As a teen he was influenced by then, leader of Youth Pride Incorporated, Marion Barry. He laughingly remembers Barry saying to him at 13, “Go home son, see me next year when you’re old enough to work.” He did. Later, unbeknownst to Barry, that same kid became nominated and elected to serve as Ward 5 representative for Barry’s Statewide Alcoholism Advisory Council (SAAC). Martin served two terms. He was then the youngest ever to hold that seat as well as the youngest member of the Near Northeast Community Improvement Corporation Board of Directors. He resigned that seat to work for them as a crisis intervention counselor. Ken was influenced by many active community activists including his cousin Stanley Anderson, a founding member of the D.C. Council.
Coming up in community work gave Martin a front row seat to both local politics and national civil rights actions. One of his supervisors was good friends with Councilman John A. Wilson. Reverends Jesse Jackson and Joe Lowery frequently passed through Wilson’s office.
“I may have been a gopher, but I got the experience of being a part of it all -from the ground up,” Martin said with pride.
He believes many people today read about the civil rights movement without comprehending it.
“It was about upward mobility for all. Literally, justice for all. Total empowerment,” Martin reflected. A strong advocate of Justice, he gave his daughter that name.
He eventually wound up managing a 750-person homeless shelter with the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. Martin left the Coalition to counsel and later manage the first transitional housing program, McKenna House, which he claims was his favorite place to be employed, ever. He was also an unpaid consultant for the creation of So Others.Might Eat’s Isaiah House.
“Today, they think that is the end of the housing crisis: when you get to a Single Room Occupancy the job is done.” Martin said. “That couldn’t be more wrong, it’s the beginning. We saw that as the starting point of new life.”
A natural entrepreneur and underpaid social service employee, Martin left McKenna house to start what would become a successful business on K Street with his wife. Martin traces his inner-capitalist back to age three, when he and his brothers would pull a wagon through the street collecting empty bottles to sell for 2 cents each. Since then, Martin has profited from all manner self-employment, including shoe shining, grocery delivery, custom greeting cards and real-estate.
Above all, he considers himself a father for “two beautiful kids:” Justice, 12, and Ronald, 17. When Martin was diagnosed with heart disease, everything really collapsed. Martin’s medication caused symptoms of depression, and in 2009 he found himself homeless.
Ambling down the East Coast, Martin began to get back on his feet in Atlanta, Georgia, but returned to the streets of D.C. to be close to his children.
Determined, Martin turned to his strengths and approached Life Asset for a small business loan to pull himself back up. Unfortunately, repeated health setbacks did not make him an optimal candidate. Martin has survived three heart attacks and is in need of serious dental and vein surgery. He already had the vein surgery once in 2010, but had nowhere to rest and recuperate properly.
“I know I’m blessed. I have purpose. If I wasn’t’, I wouldn’t still be here,” Martin assured. “You get back up and keep on living.”
The director of Life Asset did not turn Martin away, but instead referred him to Street Sense for his immediate needs. Martin was not interested. He had been a paperboy at age eleven and wasn’t keen on regressing, now almost 60.
But his opinion of Street Sense changed.
“I didn’t expect to see people in the middle of the mucking mire produce as well as these people did. They were very productive and original and I am proud and honored to be part of it,” Martin said. “I thought it would take away my self-respect and dignity, but it enabled me to remember who I once was.”
Martin utilizes his skills and expresses his views through some of the workshops at Street Sense. He writes, takes photos, blogs, and is involved in forums that address the issue of homelessness. He appreciates the FACE group (Focus Attitude Commitment to Excellence) the most. It gathers homeless people and allows them to build community. And from his point of view, it shows the world that homeless individuals’ lack of a roof doesn’t make them less than anybody else.
Now approved for his Life Asset loan, Martin has begun to outfit his customers in the perfect hat for their personality.
His new hat business is a means to an end. Martin aspires to start a foundation for children with dyslexia and selective mutism. He believes that those children don’t have a voice and that they need someone to take the initiative to lend them a hand.
“I am a homeless guy trying to do better,” Martin said.