On any given day in Philadelphia, approximately 4,000 persons are homeless, according to Project H.O.M.E., an anti-poverty social service agency. North Philly native Neal McLaurin Jr., is deeply familiar with homelessness, having lived life on the streets for months. His alcohol-induced stupors greatly contributed to his homeless condition, but his spiritual faith and a 12-step program, eventually helped turned his life around.
McLaurin, 33, epitomizes a true American underdog story with a great ending that’s not fully written, nor realized. With his chiseled physique and menacing looks, McLaurin’s hard-boiled exterior doesn’t match his warm inner spirit.
When asked what major factors contributed to his homeless situation, McLaurin said, “I’m a recovering alcoholic. My drinking controlled me … it led me to living on the streets.”
Addiction disorders, poverty and mental illness are some of the major causes of homelessness in America. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) reports that, “50 percent of all homeless people are a ‘single’ adult who has a drug or alcohol problem.”
While living on the streets, McLaurin had to struggle for things many people take for granted.
“(Finding) shelter, getting food, people not understanding (my life situation),” he said.
McLaurin also admitted his disdain for the police harassment he endured and the blatant condescension he had to tolerate from everyday citizens who considered him, and other homeless persons, “trash.”
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that the current recession will force 1.5 million more Americans into homelessness over the next two years. The U.S. Conference of Mayors cited a 12 percent increase of homelessness since 2007. Disturbingly in 2004, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported that children under the age of 18 accounted for a whopping 39 percent of the homeless population in the United States; 42 percent of these children were under the age of five. Youth that couch surf, bouncing from one friend’s house to the next for shelter, may not consider themselves homeless, but they are. Homelessness is no respecter of person, age, religious faith, political pedigree, ethnicity or educational background — one life calamity or one bad decision can result in someone (or an entire family) becoming homeless. In fact, every day, legions of people are just one frightening step away from becoming homeless.
As harsh as homelessness is, some homeless citizens refuse the assistance and safety that shelters can offer.
“The way a lot of shelters are ran … with so many rules and regulations, sometimes you feel as though you don’t have any freedom,” McLaurin said. He also cited inhumane treatment, horrible food and filthy conditions as reasons for some shunning shelters, opting instead for life in the streets.
McLaurin recalls a chilling experience he encountered when he solicited the services of a local men’s shelter.
“When I first got into the streets, I didn’t really know (about the shelter system), ’cause it was the first time I was homeless,” he said.
McLaurin credits an older gentleman for recommending a shelter to help aid his plight.
Originally from North Philadelphia, McLaurin (along with his siblings) was raised in a faith-based home environment; his father was an ordained minister and he says his mother was a member of the Black Panthers Party. He parents married at a young age; soon after they both graduated high school. They would later divorce.
“My pop was an ordained minister, I grew up a Jehovah Witness religion, then I was in the Nation of Islam, then I (became a) Sunni Muslim. Right now, I just work on (my) spirituality,” McLaurin said. Currently, he doesn’t claim affiliation with any organized religious denomination, “I’m just trying to develop a personal relationship with God.” He admits to reading the Quran and the Bible, but he mostly reads and study the Bible, “Well, spiritually, I’m not really comfortable where I am right now,” he said adding that he’s trusting God to lead him in the best direction. “My spirituality helped me overcome (my homelessness). God does help us, I’m a prime example. I shouldn’t even be here,”
McLaurin credits God for removing his alcohol addiction.
Family members weren’t able to help McLaurin because of a myriad of reasons, “I couldn’t live with my father … my mom, her husband wouldn’t let me (stay with them) … my sister was living with her boyfriend at the time, I really had nowhere to go.”
He tried connecting with a brother in Florida but nothing panned out there so he was stuck in Philadelphia. McLaurin tried a few recovery houses but their restrictive two-month black-out periods were too stringent for him.
“The only times I could go outside were for (clinical treatments/group therapy) meetings, so I decided to try my fortune (living) outside, and that’s what I (did).” he said.
McLaurin’s mission to transition out of homelessness began with a plan.
“I was selling papers, I was working under the table a little bit, my father he helped me out with a little money, I got public assistance — I saved that … money up, and I finally got me a little room.” he said.
Though he suffers from dyslexia, McLaurin didn’t let that stop him from hatching a plan to improve his living situation. He took it upon himself to enroll at Community College of Philadelphia as a theatre major. There, he receives some classroom support to accommodate his dyslexic condition. McLaurin graduated from Simon Gratz High School but because of his dyslexia, he said he was labeled as a special education student. He admits he was a troubled kid because the older kids would bully him because of his size, he experienced racial epithets at the hands of his white peers, but sports, particularly basketball, helped him cope.
Selling newspapers was key to McLaurin’s economic recovery.
“One Step Away, is a (news) paper for homeless people, we are the writers for it, we are the distributors for it,” said McLaurin, who credited a friend who turned him on to it. “I started selling it, and I became the number one vendor in the city.”
According to its website, “One Step Away” is Philadelphia's first street paper aimed at raising awareness of homelessness and providing employment to those in need. With each dollar received, 75 cents goes directly to the vendor. The other 25 cents covers the printing costs. The vendors are residents of various shelters in Philadelphia.
It seems McLaurin’s life is on the upswing, about one month ago, “I threw out the first pitch at a Phillies’ baseball game.” That was a special arrangement he credits to local boxing legend Matthew Saad Muhammad’s Knock Out Homelessness 2012 campaign. McLaurin actively participates in local spoken-word performances. His poetry is gritty and poignant. It gives him an outlet to express a harden life that’s being transforming for the better. He is also an inspiring actor and is pursuing classes at Freedom Theater. McLaurin is working with a local playwright who’s interested in producing a one-man show about his life’s story.
McLaurin’s general advice is positive.
“We can do anything we put out mind to … if we keep God in our life,” he said. “There will be good times and bad times, but you have to keep working towards what you want to do.”