by Jessie Jones
Homelessness: the very title says it all. What is a home? Although the dictionary defines “home” as a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household, I think that definition only scratches the surface. To most people, “home” does not just signify the four walls described above. It’s an idea that means much more than that.
When a person thinks about “home,” they think of memories, a family living together in a like-minded way and working towards one common goal, holding each other in constant consideration. It’s a place to love and be loved.
Unfortunately, as I said before, the very word “homelessness” says it all. For so many, the idea of being loved is so foreign and strange that when presented with authentic affection and consideration of their well-being, it’s an instant trigger for either immediate disbelief leading to utmost gratitude, or suspicion and doubt leading to a naturally developed defense mechanism.
For some, the privilege of “family” or “home” has been taken from them by a wide range of circumstances, whether physical abuse, drug abuse, poverty or any other of the million possible scenarios. With that said, the most common denominator I’ve seen in my experience is the lack of security and love that can only be developed from having a “home” — not a house, but a home.
I myself have been homeless in the past, first as a child living with my mother in battered women’s shelters, and later as an adult living in my car, and bouncing from couch to couch. But now I have been blessed with the honor of working with those facing the same predicament.
My father was a drug addict early on in my life who later found recovery and reconciliation before his untimely death, and my mother was a hard-working, loving woman who just so happened to remarry a man who she thought she knew, but secretly was abusive.
In response to my environment, I faced a lot of personal obstacles like drug abuse, and I constantly searched for community and affiliation, due to the lack of reassurance in my identity that could only come from a healthy, established foundation within the family unit.
In search of a loving, yet appropriately authoritative father figure, I found gangs. They would show me an illusion of what family is, but again it was just a selfish mentality that said: “We’ll love you, as long as you’re contributing for us.”
Loyalty and self-worth in that environment were only distributed so long as you were contributing, but I learned after years of trying to find an authentic family unit in that environment that it was just a mirage. It was nothing short of a clever disguise to attract young men like myself in search of acceptance, and it led to us being misled and used. After discovering my pursuit for acceptance was failing, I began to realize that looking for others to affirm my worth was in vain.
I was getting nowhere, and the feelings I had felt were not going anywhere. That’s when my quest for a home took a long, dark turn for the worse, though at the time it didn’t appear like it could get much worse than it already was.
I began to turn towards drugs, alcohol, and sex to mask the pain. I suppose the ideology at that point that I was clinging to for dear life was simply, “If I can’t remove the problem, then why not just hide it?” It made more sense to suppress my feelings than to address them.
As a young man without a father to educate me properly on what I was feeling — and how to deal with those feelings — I was ignorant in how exactly I could even try. Much like the rest of the homeless population, or hurt people in general, I was not searching for a house to live in, or the four walls described in Webster’s Dictionary, but I was in pursuit of a safe, loving environment we have defined as home.
All of this being said, redemption and growth only comes from trial and perseverance within. Eventually somebody in my past displayed love and genuine compassion for me and treated me like a human being with God-given worth and not just another lost boy clinging for dear life to the streets. I was rescued from the hell I was in and am now able to pull from my experience and gratitude and repay others with that same compassion.
When I was about 16 or 17 years old, with two children and no understanding of how to take care of myself, let alone them, a man with a similar background as my own took me into his house and his home and treated me with love and respect. He was a friend of a friend who I had never met before, whose first time meeting me was unique, to say the least.
I was hiding in a bush, down by a public marina pier, trying to avoid the police for something stupid I did, when he and a friend pulled up in their car and told me to come with them. This was the moment when life as I knew it was going to change. This man brought me into his house, introduced me to his family and called me brother! He fed me, he allowed me to sleep on his couch, and he bought me new shoes because mine were falling apart. He put me to work with him, paying me a fair wage for someone with no work experience at the time.
This man also facilitated a Christian 12-step program once a week that he would bring me to, where he told me and the others how God loved each of us so much that he sent his son Jesus Christ to die for our sins. That God not only forgives me, but he wanted to offer me acceptance, that he wanted to offer me a home. Not a house, but the home that I was so determined to find.
He told me that God saw worth in me and had a purpose for my life. This man is still my best friend and mentor to this day. The message he brought to me, the love he gave me, and the home he offered me changed the course of my life forever. He was the tool God used to save my life!
I have since gone back to school to earn degrees in theology, biology and behavioural psychology. I now facilitate my own Christian 12-step program every week and I have pastored multiple churches throughout the Bay Area working with drug-addicted and gang-related teens.
I’ve spoken in several high schools in front of thousands of students at a time, encouraging them to live out the purpose God has for their lives, and reminding them of the worth God has given to them.
I’ve worked for Alameda County and now Contra Costa County as a case worker, specifically for the homeless and drug-addicted teens and adults alike.
I’ve been blessed to travel throughout the country and to other countries delivering that same message of hope and redemption that was shared with me. I’ve been blessed to get to cry with strangers, laugh with strangers, share meals with strangers, endure cold nights with strangers, offer a helping hand, a listening ear, a loving heart, a warm smile, and the most precious currency we as people have to give — time out of my day to just say “how are you?”
I’ve been given the greatest gift you can receive from personal trials, and that is being able to use that experience to give someone else faith, joy, and motivation.
I’ve discovered that my life has its most significance when it is used to show another life its own significance. As rewarding as all of this now is, the greatest manifestation of this reward and the most defining ability I walked away with from my life experiences is that I’ve learned how to create the idea of “home” within my own four walls.
Because it was invested in me, I have learned how to offer my wife and two children love, affection, acceptance, trust, faith, and hope in the idea of family. And because of that, we have built a home.
But it doesn’t stop there. My two sons, Bryson, nine years old, and Jayden, six years old, have assisted me in bringing gifts to the poor on Christmas and meals to the homeless throughout the cold winter. They’ve hugged strangers and told them that not only God loves them, but that they love them, after offering prayer and a warm meal and blanket to sustain them for the night.
We inhabit the four walls of my home, but it is God that the foundation of our home is built on. Because of what was done for me, I have been able to pass that on to my sons, and together we have not only sustained our home, but we are fighting together to expand our family and bring “Home” to others seeking to find it.
Jessie Jones is the supervisor for the YEAH shelter for homeless youth in Berkeley and a case worker at The Trinity Center, a homeless shelter in Walnut Creek.