“I’ve led an interesting life.”
Kenneth “Kenny” Bridgeman has indeed had a very interesting life. He was born on a reservation in Alabama, as a part of the Creek Indian tribe. He had a big family growing up as one of eight siblings. Sadly, a car crash killed some of his family members and altered the course of his life. After the accident, what remained of his family became scattered, and Kenny found himself in and out of boys homes or else staying with relatives. Kenny found himself drifting a lot from place to place as a youth. At 14, while living with his grandmother,
he started working in a mill. He fondly remembers coming home late every night to his grandmother, who would wait up for him and talk with him until the early hours of the morning. His grandmother was also trained as a traditional medicine-woman, and in turn taught him.
Eventually, he was brought to New Orleans in 1960 and was living at the Milne Boy’s Home. He stayed in New Orleans until the draft during the Vietnam War forced him to relocate to Atlanta for basic training. Instead of joining the Army during the draft, Kenny instead volunteered to join the marines, and stayed in the military for eight years. When he finally left the service, he had achieved the rank of Gunnery Sergeant. After volunteering for every training he could, he eventually saw combat and somehow survived.
“I’ve been shot, stabbed, set on fire, and blown up twice- but I’m still here. A lot of my friends from then aren’t”.
However, Kenny is also grateful for the experiences he was able to have while in the service. He had lost most of his family by the time he joined the marines, and therefore did not have anyone to visit during leave- so instead he traveled. In his lifetime, he has seen at least 27 different countries, and he loves learning about other cultures. Thanks to his experiences and his own determination, he can speak Creek Indian, Ojibwe (Chippewa Indian), Apache, French, and Spanish!
After the war, Kenny was not told of resources or help available to veterans, and so he taught himself skills to try and make an honest living. Over the years, his remaining siblings had mostly turned to more unscrupulous methods, but Kenny wanted a different path for himself. “I learned how to be a painter and I learned how to be a carpenter… I don’t cheat, lie, or steal.” Eventually, he became a licensed contractor.
Sadly, Kenny’s troubles were not over- he has outlived two wives and one of his two biological children. He became father to the three children of his second wife, but following her death they drifted apart. Now, all that he has left is his son, one brother, and a niece and nephew.
Before losing his second wife, Kenny owned and worked land with her. However, after her loss, he became depressed and could no longer keep up the work by himself. Eventually he found himself drifting back to the streets of New Orleans.
After returning to New Orleans, Kenny was homeless for eight years. During that time, he spent a lot of his days at the Rebuild Center. Kenny even remembers when the Rebuild Center was first opened. He is very grateful for the services given to him by staff and volunteers at the Rebuild Center. “This place has always been a godsend for people who are poor…They really help a lot of people”. Finally, two years ago, Hope Center and the VA helped him get housed. He says that it is all thanks to his Case Manager that he was finally able to get proper housing.
Now, Kenny works side jobs when he can, and has been searching for more steady work. He helps out with repairs every now and then at the Center too. He spends a lot of his time reading every book he can get his hands on. He is comfortable, and does his best to repay kindness to others. He has been known to open his heart and home to those in more need. In fact, just recently, he met a young woman with mental disabilities on the street who was lost and confused. Kenny offered her “supper and a shower” and brought her to the Rebuild Center. He helped her contact her father and made sure that she had a way home.
Kenny has certainly led a colorful life, but he has never forgotten his roots. He keeps his hair long, following the Indian tradition of only cutting his hair when he is mourning. He has not cut his hair in 17 years, since he lost his second wife. He smiles as he remembers the love and kindness he’s experienced over the years through the different channels of life.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor in this life. It’s better to laugh than to cry.”
Kenny has had some rough times, and experienced some terrible losses. Still, he perseveres. He has learned that life goes on, and he keeps moving forward.
“When you don’t give up and quit, things will eventually change for you.”
Kevin is a guest of the Rebuild Center who is currently waiting to be placed into a permanent supportive housing program. Here are his responses to the question “What gives you strength and encouragement to carry on?”
“I have realized that the past struggles that I have experienced are not put there to hurt me – but to show me who I can be as a person and to learn from those struggles. Also, I
realized that nothing remains the same in life and that it is important – in the midst of struggle – to carry on to the next phase of my life.
I have a strong motivation to carry on. I know that if I don’t give up and quit, things will eventually change for me.
I believe that there are 4 steps to creating positive change I want to see in my life:
- Placing myself around positive persons
- Winning the trust of these positive persons
- Opportunity will come your way through associating with positive persons
- After opportunity, then progress will begin. Where there is progress, there is hope.”
“I live in a palace now.”
“Where did you live before?”
“Until last week, the bushes behind Harrah’s Casino…”
David is a sweet and kind gentleman who has been going to weekly church service at St. Mark’s Methodist Church since coming to New Orleans almost two decades ago. David was recently housed with the Rapid Rehousing for Chronically Homeless Individuals Project, a housing program administered
by Depaul USA with assistance from the Harry Tompson Center. In August, HTC Program Director Kip Barard first noticed David as someone who frequently visited the Rebuild Center and who might be eligible for “housing.” In fact, we learned that David had been coming to the Harry Tompson Center since before it was called that (next door to Immaculate Conception Church) though he didn’t become truly homeless until about 2 years ago. Kip began the navigation process to move him off the streets and into housing. The hand-off was made in early November when Depaul USA Case Manager Jonathan Goodman of Depaul USA conducted a housing search process resulting in comfy 1-BR apartment which David now calls “his palace.”
David, a Marine Corp Veteran who fought in the Vietnam War, came to New Orleans for work 18 years ago. He readily admits his own part in the circumstances that led him to becoming homeless. “I wasn’t saving, I was just spending.” However, David always made sure to pay child support to his ex-wife, citing his responsibility and love for his children. “Children are all that you really have in this world- you could die today, and they will be what you leave behind, so why not give them everything you can?”
His failing health led to an extensive stay at an area hospital and then a longer stay at a nursing home to recover. The nursing home decided he had “recovered” after 8 months, gave him “a full bill of health” and released him to the street, without a penny to his name. The entirety of David’s Social Security checks had gone to the nursing home to cover his expenses. All his belongings at his previous apartment where he had been living before going into the hospital had been discarded. He had no savings, no belongings and nowhere to turn. For two long years, he lived on the streets, scraping by – receiving food and survival services at the Rebuild Center and other places. The recent help he received from HTC and Depaul USA helped him to leave the streets (and bushes) behind forever.
Now, David is happy to be warm and housed. Depaul USA provided the bed and other furniture and household supplies for David. They will maintain continued contact with him to ensure that he remains housed and healthy. David is an avid reader, and was proud to say that he’s already started his own “library” in his new home. Even though he’s almost 70, he still has a dream to some day buy and operate his own shrimping boat, the water being his place of tranquility.
His journey from the bushes to his palace hasn’t been easy, but David is ready to take charge of his new start.
“I am starting to be able to build my life back up.”
You might recognize Nick as a finalist from last year’s MyNew Orleans Photo Contest. We are happy to report that now, thanks to help from the HTC case management team, Nick has been housed! Nick has conquered many hardships, and is on his way to rebuilding his life.
Nick is originally from California, and used to travel the country as the caretaker of horses at the racetracks. Unfortunately, during one such show in New Orleans, Nick had all of his belongings stolen, including his only form of identification. He suffered
some health problems not long after, and wound up on the streets with no way to work, no identification, and no access to his accounts. He was on the streets for nearly three years. After being placed in a Permanent Supportive Housing Program in August,
he says that it sometimes still doesn’t feel real when he wakes up in the morning to realize that he has a place to live and things that truly belong to him.
Last October, Nick was one of the finalists featured in the MyNew Orleans Photo Project, and had his picture printed in the calendar they came out with. This year, Nick is once again a finalist, and will have his winning picture featured both in the 2018 MyNew Orleans Photo Project Calendar and at a special exhibit and reception at the New Orleans Downtown Library on Tuesday, October 10, from 5-8 p.m. Being picked as a finalist for two years running has lifted Nick’s spirits during difficult times, filling him with pride in his skills as photographer.
Nick is looking forward to the start of racing season this fall, and since he now has the proper documentation, is ready and willing to start working at the racetrack again. Nick considers the horses that he works with “his precious children,” and is very excited to be able to care for them again.
“The Rebuild Center and the Harry Tompson Center gave me a place to rest and get everything together again…I am starting to be able to build my life back up.”
“I made a promise to myself.”
Jacob has been through a lot in his young life, but his promise to keep going and improve his situation has kept him moving forward. Originally from Texas, Jacob came to New Orleans six years ago for Mardi Gras and never left after falling in love with the people and culture of the Crescent City. He is determined to stay in the city that captured his heart, and thanks to the efforts of staff member Jessica, Jacob was housed in May.
Formerly in the Navy and having served his country in Afghanistan, Jacob has faced and survived struggles with his emotional and mental health. He was in combat, though his main job overseas was working with steel and building bridges. After leaving the service in order to overcome his mental and emotional distress, he made promises to himself to keep going and improving his life. He is the process of getting back into school at Delgado in order to complete and earn his welding certification, which he feels is his calling. It is his dream to build and work on ships and boats. He works as much as he can and meets with the good friends he has made in New Orleans as often as possible. Things haven’t been easy for Jacob, but he fights every day to fulfill his promise of a brighter tomorrow.
Wandering no more
William is one of thousands who has served in the U.S. military but is currently homeless. “United States Armed forces, 8th Calvary, Support and Transport; you need it there, I’ll get it there,” William recited with such confidence that you can almost see him wearing Army green. Despite his service, he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the military for getting caught smoking a marijuana cigarette. He served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan where he was injured in a bomb explosion and he lost much of his vision. Despite this devastating injury during his time of service, William is not recognized as a veteran eligible of housing assistance by the United States Government because of one mistake.
Now, William is struggling – with help from the V.A. – to get the status of his discharge changed so that he may be eligible for V.A. housing and other assistance programs. In the meantime, he is the newest resident of the Tiny House located at the Rebuild Center, while awaiting permanent housing placement. He loves the security offered by the Tiny House. “It’s better than sleeping on the streets… You get all kinds of people who want to steal your stuff…”
William, as a self-proclaimed Navy brat, grew up on Military bases in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and elsewhere. He continued that transient nature into adulthood, and has a love for travelling. He has had many occupations over the years, and even has degrees in landscaping and biochemistry, but his wanderlust has kept him on the move for decades. He decided to come to New Orleans because he wanted to experience the Crescent City and life by the swamps. It is his goal to one day catch a gator, just to say he did.
“New Orleans is my home now. I don’t ever want to leave here.” Please pray for William as he is about to undergo eye surgery to recover sight in his injured eye.
Not all who wander are lost, and it looks as though this wanderer has found his place, and hopefully soon a real home, in the Crescent City.
Meet Brett, a long-time guest at the Rebuild Center. Sixteen months ago, Brett came to New Orleans from Iowa in search of work, but unfortunately soon found himself on the streets. However, thanks to the Rapid Rehousing for Chronically Homeless Individuals program a administered by Depaul USA in collaboration with the Harry Tompson Center, Brett will have his own place to stay for the first time in 23 years. He says that he is beyond excited to be housed.
The first thing he wants to do once he has stable housing is to find a part time job so that he can move forward in his life. Brett has three main goals after he moves into housing- to get a bike for
easier travels, a phone to regularly contact friends and relatives, and a television so he can watch the news and be more aware of what is going on in the world. To Brett, it is necessary to know what is happening in the world, and having a home will help Brett do just that.
A regular guest at the HTC who always manages to make the staff smile, you might recognize David from his interview with WGNO’s News with a Twist Kenny Lopez about the “tiny house” that he moved into in August. In the news story by WGNO, which you can watch by clicking here, you can see David’s first happy “homecoming” to the tiny house that he lived in for months, in the parking lot of the Harry Tompson Center. Now, though he is living at St. Michael Senior Housing and someone else calls the tiny house home, he hasn’t forgotten how living there for several months helped him get back on his feet, and he has plans to assist in building the next tiny house. “It was a come-up from the streets… I was able to close both my eyes and sleep for the first time in a long time.”
David was born and raised in the heart of New Orleans, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, one of the several schools that had to be closed post-Katrina. After the death of his parents, unfortunate family circumstances left him living on the streets for the first time in his life. David has had a very versatile work history, but unfortunately he suffers from idiopathic epileptic syndrome, which makes it very difficult to maintain a job as there is no warning for his seizures. He jokes that he is destined to hit all the potholes in life- He claims that if there is one anywhere, he will find it.
Despite all the obstacles he has faced, David has still done his best to keep a positive attitude, saying that he does his best to not “carry stuff” from the past, going so far as to even forgive the circumstances that caused his homelessness. He says he has survived this long by setting small goals, and reaching them step-by-step. Furthermore, he focuses on the good things in his life, such as his pride in his daughter, who recently graduated.
He is very grateful to everyone at the Harry Tompson Center, especially to Executive Director Vicki Judice, because he feels that it is thanks to the help, guidance, and encouragement given to him by HTC staff and volunteers that he has made it to where he is today. Like his former high school, which is expected to reopen in the near future, David has begun to rebuild.
Curtis is a calming, peaceful presence here at the Center. Growing up in the Uptown Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans, Curtis got to know people from all backgrounds, “I don’t see color, I can feel who a person is.” He received his CNA certification and worked for many years at a nursing home, but the deterioration of his spine cut his career short and he could not make ends meet.
Tragedy struck when Curtis discovered that his family including his brother, sister and mother had perished in Hurricane Katrina. “There were many nights I spent walking up and down Tulane Avenue with tears streaming down my face. I wanted to give up when I lost my people; I was devastated. I remembered what my Grandma told us, though, that no matter what happens in life, hold on to God.” Curtis now has an apartment and is grateful to be off of the streets. With unwavering optimism and a radiant smile, Curtis declares, “With every breath, a new possibility is around the corner.”
Ten years ago Hurricane Katrina hit the City of New Orleans driving out thousands of people including one of our guests, Edward, who landed in Memphis, Tennessee. Despite being a Southern University college graduate with a degree in Criminal Justice, Edward struggled with homelessness for 8 years, both in Tennessee and in Louisiana.
After returning to New Orleans, Edward became a regular guest of the Center in October of 2014 when staff learned of his chronic homelessness. He shared that the hardest part about being homeless is sleeping. “Not knowing who is standing over you. And not knowing if a rat’s going to bite you. And the heat.”
Soon afterward, he became a participant in our Rapid Rehousing Program jointly administered with Depaul USA and made possible through a grant from UNITY of Greater New Orleans. He has been happily living in his own house in the 7th Ward since July of last year. What’s his favorite thing about his own house? “Having peace of mind. Being able to take a bath and read. Sit in the backyard and barbeque. And thank God I’m not outside in that heat.”
Edward spends his days looking for employment, going to church, watching movies, reading and counting down the days until August rolls around and Secondline season starts up again. His self-proclaimed greatest gift is his ability to sing. He loves to sing and hang out in Armstrong Park or at the Aquarium. He wants to be a productive member of the community and offers encouragement to others currently still homeless to “keep on pushing and don’t give up because there is help in New Orleans. When I came back, I had nobody but I stepped out on fate. Sure enough, this place helped me.”
Katie is a cheerful, humble young woman who grew up in New Orleans after spending an idyllic five years in Hawaii as a young child. Difficulties with her family over the years eventually lead to her leaving her home and living on the streets. While always outwardly sunny and personable, Katie says the biggest struggle for her living outside has been getting a good night’s sleep, and having to deal with a constant stream of harassment.
When asks what keeps her positive she says, “What keeps me positive is knowing that I always have tomorrow. I have a new day to look forward to and to me that is promising enough. Also seeing people happy and having good news always keeps me going.
Katie previously worked in housekeeping, gym maintenance and restaurants and has traveled extensively. She found herself most drawn to North Dakota and Montana because of the outdoor activities and peaceful atmosphere. Some of her hobbies include art, dancing, music, rock climbing, adventure, food and “just about anything enjoyable in life that there is to do!”
She says that the misconceptions of people living outside are that they are, “dirty, lazy, into drugs or criminals. Many of us just want to do good in life and be respected individuals. We don’t deserve to be disrespected or treated badly because we have no money.” Katie serves as an example of someone that deals with the daily struggle and stress of homelessness with grace and humility.
After living by the river for 4 long years, Mark recently moved into his own apartment after becoming a participant in our new housing program operated in collaboration with DePaul USA. One staff member described him as, “a gentle man, kind and unpretentious with much to teach us about life.”
Originally from California, Mark spent much of his youth growing up in Amite, Louisiana and has worked in many environments from a health spa, to an aquatic park to a bottling plant. His passions are many – beadwork, leather craft, writing, camping, gardening, art, and technology. Mark is also an accomplished poet and has written pieces for various Center events. He wishes people knew that “those experiencing homelessness may be facing many problems, but there is a humanity and awareness that come from being on the streets.” When asked how he stays so peaceful in an uncertain lifestyle Mark says, “Don’t hold grudges, be satisfied. Have tolerance, be tolerant. Return to the old ways, good ways of simplicity, organized effort. Encourage all.” Below is one of Mark’s works:
“I am a wall
Lean on me
Attach your ideas
Build on me
I have a foundation
Truth build me
And I encourage you
To rebuild me”
Robert, a peaceful, soft-spoken New Orleans native is a serene presence at the Center. He describes his upbringing as a happy one where his parents taught him to remain upbeat and positive. He has worked mainly in the hospitality and food industries. While Robert is currently homeless, he is positive about the future and says that there are many misconceptions about those on the streets, “People assume that you failed or are lazy. They don’t know my struggle. As Frederick Douglas once said, ‘without struggle there is no progress.’ I use that as my motivation”.
Robert’s passions include drawing, painting and listening to an eclectic mix of music. When asked what brings him to the Rebuild Center (where the Harry Tompson Center is located), Robert says, “I like the name ‘Rebuild.’ It’s rebuilding my life, not just on the outside, but on the inside. I feel like by coming here I have been cleansed.” Robert says he will continue to come to Center even when he has stable housing because he wants to give back. Robert remains confident about his future, “God always has my back. When one door closes, another one opens.”
Stephanie Charles, a New Orleans native from the Mid-City area, has lived an incredibly rough life. She describes her childhood as a chaotic one with extreme poverty, an abusive mother, and a rat-infested home. After graduating from Warren Eastern High School, she took up a variety of jobs from housekeeping to babysitting, to selling gift items with a local entrepreneur. In 2010, Stephanie became homeless after a devastating series of events regarding her section 8 housing and now sleeps wherever she can seek refuge for the night. While Stephanie was dealt a number of hardships in her life, her faith is unshakeable, “Keep your peace and trust in God.”
Fighting the Good Fight
Born and raised in Westwego, Veril is an incredibly brave man. Despite tribulations and heartache, Veril has continued to fight the good fight. He has worked in many restaurants over the years, but his failing health has not allowed him to return to the workforce after becoming homeless several years ago. Struggling with lung disease, diabetes,and the other aches and pains that come from living a hard life on the streets, Veril is unsure if his body would be able to handle a job. Furthermore, his inability to read has made it very difficult for him to get a job that does not require physical power, though he would love to learn and pushes himself every day to try.
Despite these challenges, Veril has remained hopeful while working with one of the HTC’s Case Managers, Jessica Lovell, to find permanent housing. For Veril, Jessica is a blessing and a guardian angel, and he looks forward to seeing her every day.
“She really is trying to help me get off that ground… It’s real scary out there, you don’t know if you are going to make it through the night.”
Though Veril has troubles with his health, he still expresses his love of cooking. He proudly claims that as a native to the GNO, he can cook anything, especially Cajun meals, and his favorite thing to cook is pot roast. Veril is currently in a temporary shelter after recovering from a stroke, and hopefully will be housed soon.