I was working on my new book when the phone rang. One of the guys from the shelter where I was operations manager called to tell me that a fella I knew and cared about had died.
Jeff Johnson made quite an impression. He had grit and grizzle — a real fighter. But, in the end, the damage done by chronic homelessness wins. Last night Jeff lost. Here’s his story from my 2020 sequel about homelessness, Still Left Out in America.
Excerpted as follows:
Eight or so years ago, Jeff dragged himself out of the tiny space between a theater in downtown Harrisburg and its neighboring building. Jeff had carved himself a secret and secluded place to live. From this narrow passage, he could go out and return without his belongings. He left his large duffle bag in the space where he slept. Day after day, no one ever noticed he, or his bag, was there.
Jeff’s health had been declining for quite some time. He’d missed more and more work—until he lost his home. Jeff knew he needed some sort of medical attention, but he had no health insurance. For years Jeff had been plagued by gut issues, but homelessness seemed to be making him worse.
In 2011, a group of exasperated young people staged a sit in on Wall Street in New York City. In short order, the Occupy movement, spread across the nation with satellite occupations in cities large and small. Many critics of these protest franchises blamed them for not having an agenda. To many on the ground, the lack of agenda was the point. Young people, working for low wages, crippled by debt, had even less purpose than their movement had. Even though many of the occupation force left the camps daily to go to work, they were labeled as loafers. In their despair, these mass campouts signified both a real and a seeming lack of purpose.
The folks who occupied Harrisburg fed many of the street people. Most occupy forces across the country did as well. Jeff Johnson, sharp as a tack, went to the gathered protestors who fed him and tried to help. Jeff said they kept him alive for a while. Jeff felt he might not have survived as long as he did, without them.
Jeff was too sick. The protestors free soup couldn’t cure him. Jeff took his giant duffle bag and dragged it away from the camp. A passing motorist slowed to speak to Jeff. The motorist took him an emergency room.
There’s an abundance of scarecrows in inner city urgent care facilities. Jeff was told that he needed to go back where he came from—he couldn’t be helped. Jeff muttered under his breath that he shouldn’t have gone with motorist. Jeff said, “I should have gone up on the bridge, tied myself to my bag, and thrown myself in.”
Ironically, Jeff wasn’t suicidal. No, our smart as a tack friend was passing commentary on the sorry state of the U.S. healthcare system. He merely pointed out that he could be more useful if he actively assisted their Dickensian objective and just died “to decrease the surplus population.”
The moment he uttered suicidal language, Jeff landed himself three days in a hospital mental health bed for observation. Luckily, while in the hospital, one of the observing physicians noticed more than his cynicism. Jeff Johnson was scheduled for and received a colostomy and the cancerous sections of his colon were removed.
Of course, the hospital social workers didn’t want this gravely ill man to return to the crack between two buildings. That was no place to convalesce from his surgery. The administration arranged for Jeff to go to an emergency shelter 18 miles away. There, Jeff could recuperate at night on church floors. By day, he could rest in the shelter’s resource center wellness room—in the company of sixty or more total strangers.
Each night shelter residents would gather at the resource center and prepare to walk or—if they had better transportation—ride to a neighboring church to set up mats and sleep on the floor. The 3-inch mats gave little comfort. Covered in plastic, each resident was expected to disinfect their own mat—if they worried about things like germs or vermin left over by the last occupant.
I could tell you horror stories. Like the times that Jeff’s colostomy bag leaked in the night. Or when he ran low on supplies. Jeff recuperated in the shelter for months. I have no idea if his healing took longer than it would have, had he had a bed, a full set of sheets, a shower in the next room, assistance from a loved one.
During this fiasco, Jeff—I forget if he has two master’s degrees or one—applied for disability. He developed a surly tough exterior that he would let down on the rarest of occasions when he realized no threat existed.
I met Jeff about a month before the doctors reversed his colostomy and re-attached his bowel. The county had a van that transported the indigent to their medical appointments—but the van didn’t run early enough to take Jeff the 40 miles he needed to travel to get to the hospital in Hershey by 5:00 a.m.—for that Jeff relied on another homeless man. A kind-hearted morning DJ who got up early anyway. Jeff’s good Samaritan worked for a Christian broadcasting station. The DJ walked his talk on more than one occasion. Although with homeless DJ’s it’s arguable whether the station lived its mission as well.
Post-surgery, Jeff returned to the three-inch mats and church floors. Jeff agreed to do television and newspaper interviews so that folks in the area might understand that those experiencing homelessness had a bigger story to tell.
A lot of other things happened to Jeff along the way. People he loved died. He finally won his disability case. He got a home. Jeff’s tenacity, education and brains helped him survive the industrial world’s least humane healthcare system. Now he runs a non-profit that helps other down and out folks in the community where he nearly died.
I’m grateful he’s ok. What’s the sense in looking back? All’s well that ends well, right?
Last night Jeff’s ending got updated. Like most folks with histories of chronic homelessness — Jeff is dead more than a decade ahead of his time.