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Fighting for a new life after homelessness

Published August 23. 2014 09:00AM

Neel Kashkari made news last month when he wrote in The Wall Street Journal about "going homeless" to learn how the homeless live.

Robert Friend doesn't have to read about the homeless to know how they live. Until four months ago, he was homeless for more than a decade.

It was the faith and perseverance of his sister, Jeanne, that changed his life and gave him the chance to enjoy the everyday niceties we take for granted.

Their story is one I want to tell you because it's interesting on two levels. It's the story of a sister who wouldn't give up on a lost brother. It's also the ongoing story of one man's fight to climb out of the pit we call "homelessness."

As Bob sits in his sister's comfortable home, he recounts his life and talks candidly about how he went from a middle class upbringing to life on the streets.

"My brother Paul and I left home to do what young men should do earn our way in life," he says.

Soft-spoken and gentle-natured, Bob was content when he had enough money for the basics.

He worked as a day laborer before being hired to clean oil tank barges in port.

"When I showed I could do any job, I was given a good job that required living on ships. I was renting my own house and was able to put money in the bank," he recalls.

The last time Jeanne saw Bob was shortly after their mother died. At the time, he was working and renting a small bungalow.

"I never saw a bachelor keep such a meticulously clean house," Jeanne says.

What she didn't see was what happened to her brother after he lost his job.

When the company went bankrupt, Bob was unable to find work. He lived on his savings until he could no longer pay his rent.

His "new home" became a spot on the ground under the bridge. He became one of the nameless homeless men whose idea of desirable real estate is "the driest spot under the bridge."

Although Bob admits to drinking ever since he was a teen, he says drinking intensified when he became homeless.

Did he drink because he was homeless? Or did he remain homeless because he drank?

"I want to be honest, but I'm not sure about that answer," he says. "All I know is I only had one priority surviving another day. Drinking allowed me to sleep at night."

Being homeless, he says, requires the right mindset to survive. "You learn to get by with just the bare essentials a blanket and clothes from nearby churches, food from a soup kitchen, a few pieces of bread."

The worse thing about being homeless for him wasn't sleeping on the ground in all kinds of weather or not knowing where his next meal was coming from.

"The worst thing was the loneliness," he says. "I stuck by myself to survive. There are some crazy people living there, and you live with danger all the time."

Bob admits he stopped thinking about the life he once had. "I just thought about getting what I needed for the day. I couldn't afford to think about things like family and a comfortable bed," he says.

His sister, Jeanne, didn't stop trying to find the brother who dropped out of sight years ago.

As a woman of faith, she asked her church group to pray she could find him.

The rest of the story is fairly miraculous. Armed with posters with Bob's photo, she planned to put them around Tampa's homeless area.

"I thought someone would recognize Bob and tell him his sister wanted him to call," she said.

I told her combing a big (and dangerous) area looking for one homeless guy would be as hard as finding a needle in a haystack.

When she and her sister drove to Tampa, the streets were strangely deserted except for one man walking toward them.

Against all odds, it was Bob.

He said it was the first time he was ever on that street, and he doesn't know what brought him there.

Jeanne brought Bob back with her to her new home, telling him he could stay with her as long as he didn't drink.

The next day Bob was admitted to the hospital with internal bleeding. "Doctors said he was one day away from dying when I found him," Jeanne says.

With tears in his eyes, Bob says, "My sister saved my life."

For many addicts, recovery is not a straight line, and that's the case with Bob who "slipped" twice in a four-month period.

To help conquer his addiction, he goes to AA meetings, sometimes three times a day.

"I like the people there. They understand what I'm going through and are willing to help me," he says.

Because he understands how easy it is to skid into homelessness, he's trying hard to build a new life for himself. "I never want to go back to my old way of life."

But years of addiction are hard to overcome.

"Every day is hard," he admits. "I'm doing it one day at a time, one night at a time, one meeting at a time."

I really like that gentle guy. I'm adding my fervent prayers to those of his sister.

We'll pray. But the really hard work is up to Bob.

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