Rob, now 21, reads the Bible daily in his small apartment at Daybreak. Photograph by Larry C. Price.
Every time I’d get a paycheck, they’d wanted it.
Barely 19 years old, Rob found himself working to support the drug habits of his mother and his sisters and their assorted boyfriends. Social services had taken him away from this same, drug-addled mother when he was only 7 years old. He’d had nine foster families in 11 years. When he turned 18, fantasizing about having a real home, he’d returned to his biological mother.
I thought it would be different.
His mother’s drug habit was worse than ever. Rob was paying the rent and buying the food while an ever-growing cast of characters hung around getting high. It finally became more than he could stand. Figuring that there was no point in working if everyone else was just going to drink or smoke up his pay check, Rob quit his steady job at Home Depot. Soon after, the family was evicted. Locked out with only the clothes on his back, Rob was homeless. It was winter, 2007, in Dayton, Ohio. And he didn’t even have a coat.
That first night on the street Rob slept on a dirty mattress in a dirty garage with nothing but a cheap little candle for light. The place was packed with other homeless people trying to stay warm. An older man gave him a tarp to cover himself with as the temperature dropped below freezing. Later, another homeless buddy would come up with a coat for him.
Except for a few nights of couch hopping, taken in by people who felt sorry for him, it would be almost a year and a half before he sleep again in a warm, safe bed. During that time, Rob learned to trust no one, to be alert and to keep his counsel. He learned to carry two rocks tied into a sock as protection against the sort of things that can go bad without warning.
He worked odd jobs, replacing gas tanks, mowing yards, shoveling snow. He scrapped cans for 25 cents a pound. On the coldest nights, he’d walk around and around, just to keep the blood flowing. He got sick, very sick, a staph infection, ear, lung, skin infections. At the hospital, he denied that he was homeless. He knew that the nurses knew that he was lying, but he was too afraid to admit the truth. Too afraid he’d be forced to go to a homeless shelter where he was certain he’d become one of them, the hardcore, the crazy, the lost.
His weight dropped to a skeletal 90 pounds. He tried to keep warm with things he found in the trash, a torn blanket, a tarp with a hole in it. His every thought was about finding enough money to buy food. He stole and didn’t get caught but felt like he should. He had a high school degree, he wanted a real job, he longed to return to Home Depot, but, and he looks so ashamed when he talks about this part, he didn’t dare apply anywhere decent because he stank so bad.
Finally, in November 2008, Rob found his way to a church where the pastor told him about Daybreak, a nonprofit Dayton organization that provides housing and social services to runaway and homeless teenagers. Now 21, Rob has been at the new Daybreak shelter near downtown Dayton since late 2008. He has his own room with a warm bed and a hot shower down the hall, three meals a day and people who, he says, seem like family, a good family. He’s getting job training and looking for work. His ambitions are simple: a job, a bed, hot and cold running water, heck, he says, even a cup of cold, clean water is more than he had.
People who try to conquer big things have to go after little things. The little things add up to big things.
There are things that happened during Rob’s time on the street that he won’t talk about, things that he saw that make the lines around his eyes tighten. He looks down and away, nervous, with the residual anxiety of someone who has come through a horror, like war.
He is far older than his 21 years, but for a moment, when he lets himself fantasize about his new life, complete with a dream house, his eyes shine like a little boy’s.
Oh yes, he knows what he wants in this dream house. He would have a tower on some land, a place where he could look out over the trees and up at the sky. His room would be all white with white tile floors, white to reflect the other colors. There would be a mirror over a fireplace.
There are going to be trees. I can build a fire, right?
He smiles at the thought.
It is a simple fantasy, no home theater or even a flat-screen TV, no fancy sports car in a three-car garage. Just a tower in the trees with pure white walls. Safe and clean and his.
And one more thing, he says.
Everybody needs to take their shoes off when they come in my place.
— Debbie M. Price