Mark talks about having a sense of community, a support system geared for success, and feeling safe and secure - perhaps for the first time. Now in Pathlight HOME’s Restore Program, the traumatic memories of a five-year-old living in a small Florida town flash in his 57-year-old mind: a burning cross in the front yard…poisoned animals… an FBI agent…a schizophrenic brother… small country schoolhouses…desegregation…divorced parents.
Growing up with “a mother who probably should never have had kids,” and a brother who was “malicious and mentally ill,” Mark became independent at a young age. Though a nurse, his mother couldn’t grasp the facts that one son had psychological issues and the other craved emotional support.
Mark, who was white with black friends, reacted to the racial strife during his schools’ desegregation by becoming angry and a loner. “The less I had to do with humanity, the better,” he remembers. “Overall, my attitude was negative. I became a rebel. I hated everything, but I didn’t act in a negative way (to a racial situation)…didn’t actively start trouble…but I would fight if provoked. It was a toxic atmosphere.”
“One of the traits I developed was paranoia,” says Mark of his young years. “That same paranoia has saved my life! The first thought that comes into my mind is, ‘What do you want?’ I’m only paranoid when I’m wrong,” he reasons.
Smoking pot and clashing with a teacher ended Mark’s school days, landing him “locked up in juvenile detention for two years.” Released from jail to a father he hadn’t seen in 12 years, Mark moved with his dad’s family to Orlando, got a job, and paid them rent. When he learned his dad was “being paid (by the system) to take care of me,” he left.
Mark got involved in a relationship and began working in a restaurant. However, he “never became ambitious…to realize it could become a career,” blaming his “stunted childhood.” When they broke up after 10 years and the restaurant went out of business, he felt he had nothing left.
He sold his belongings, packed his clothes in eight suitcases and began life on the streets of downtown Orlando. Mark wrapped the suitcases in garbage bags and buried them in a field. “When I needed clean clothes, I’d go dig it up. I didn’t know about laundromats. When something got dirty, I’d throw it away.”
For 12 or 13 years, he wandered the streets, stayed at homeless shelters, and got arrested for trespassing or “sitting and reading.” He worked as much as he could at day labor jobs, and sought places to sleep, away from predators. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find a good spot.” When he was able to save some money, he stayed in a hotel for several nights, risking the loss of his spot.
“People liked the way I worked,” he says with pride. That led to a two-year, full time position at a prominent downtown business club, along with their help to find housing. The job ended with a change in management, and Mark found himself back on the streets, battling to get his unemployment compensation. When it came through thanks to Legal Aid, a large sum burned a hole in Mark’s pocket.
“One of the first things I did was to get new clothes,” he recalls. “I went to a motel and to a restaurant. It gave me a sense of belonging.” He was able to exist for more than two years, “sometimes in the streets; sometimes in motels,” but this time was different. “There was no work.”
“Sometime in 2015, these two gentlemen showed up, Joel and Brad from the (Health Care Center for the Homeless) HOPE Team,” Mark recalls. “By this time, I’m shot mentally…getting physically weaker every day.” He has since been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and a degenerative disk in his back.
“Joel told me about the Restore Program. I told him, ‘No, you’re insane! That program can’t exist.’” But the program does exist; and Mark “was manic” about getting in, only calming down when Restore Programs Manager Audrey Sanford told him he “was in.”
Mark’s paranoia gripped him his last night on the streets. “I have never been so terrified in all my life (about something bad happening). I have 12 hours to go before I’m behind (my own) walls. I stayed up all night. God likes to do practical jokes!”
“Finally, they handed me my key,” he smiles. “When you go in, you have the basics. You have to build up…” And now that Mark receives disability benefits, he is trying to build and is “absolutely happy to pay my rent.” It goes fast, though. He’s working on budgeting skills and is very grateful for hygiene kits and other donated items from the community.
“One thing that keeps me grounded here is that I’ve done nothing to be given this chance. I haven’t earned this. Other people have made it possible for me to live, not just survive,” he explains. “People need to understand that the main rule and regulation (in Restore) is to act like a grown-up. It’s up to you to decide if you’re a success or not. If you fail, you fail…NOT the program."
And the greatest benefit to this former man on the streets? “A sense of security and safety. You’ve got four walls, a door and a lock. You can’t buy that with money. A sense of security is invaluable.”