John’s a man of the people. He smiles wide and shakes hands as he crosses the courtyard — trying hard to greet guests by name.
“[My favorite thing] is making people happy and seeing them smile,” he said. “I just hope that I can make someone’s day better — even if I don’t really know them. Because it makes me feel better.”
His story isn’t one most people associate with homelessness. He didn’t do a long stint in prison. He didn’t have a drug problem. He hadn’t been homeless before.
But when his third marriage ended in divorce five years ago, John found himself on the streets at age 46.
“When that happened, I didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “I didn’t have steady work, so I ended up homeless — just like that.”
Like father, like son
“I’m a military brat,” he said. “But I had a normal childhood: I was in Boy Scouts; I was an altar boy at church; I played football and soccer; I was in the marching band.”
The family relocated to Colorado Springs in 1981, when John was 14 years old. The year after he graduated from Doherty High School, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. He once again found himself in California, but this time it wouldn’t be for long.
“I was an antitank assault guy, so I got to make big booms and I liked it,” he said. “My dad retired from the Air Force — my intention was to retire as a Marine. But that didn’t work out.”
John injured his back while participating in a training exercise and was medically discharged after just two years of service.
“I was offered a discharge benefit,” he said. “But my first check was just $18, so I figured they needed it more than I did. … I never collected medical benefits and still don’t.”
Disappointed and in pain, John returned home to Colorado Springs. He worked a series of odd jobs — including work at an auction house and a dude ranch — until settling on a position that led to 20 years in sales.
“I’ve sold cars, mortgages, vitamins, meat … pretty much anything you can think of,” he said.
Busy making other plans
John’s work couldn’t sustain him through the divorce, and he was thrown into a period of instability. He soon found himself homeless, unemployed and turning to the bottle for comfort.
But it wasn’t long before he was accepted at a residential addiction recovery program for veterans in southern Colorado. For three years, he ate well, stayed warm and received treatment for his alcohol abuse. While there, John pursued an education in renewable energy and graduated with his degree in December 2017 — at age 50.
“My plan is to get medically cleared and go to work for the city,” he said. “I want to be on the team that decides what happens with the Drake Power Plant … and be part of the change that is happening.”
His time in the program was fruitful, but his experience with unemployment and homelessness continued. After returning to Colorado Springs, he lived with his parents and got a job with the city. But after two weeks, it became clear that he wasn’t physically fit for the job and was let go. So his second stint of homelessness began.
“I lived at [the Salvation Army] R.J. Montgomery [New Hope Center] for a little over a year after that,” he said. “It wasn’t all bad. That’s where I met my girlfriend.”
John has been at Springs Rescue Mission for around nine months now and said it has filled him with hope and given him a positive outlook.
“When I got here, I went straight into the work engagement program,” he said. “The support I’ve had is great. With work engagement, I have such a sense of pride in being able to give back to what we’re doing. … It has been a good building block for the future. There are definitely advantages to being here.”
John and his girlfriend are now on a wait list to receive housing assistance. In the meantime, they are working hard to support themselves — moving forward together through life.
“Here there are opportunities to do things and move forward,” John said. “They give us great support. It’s a good feeling. There is a plan to get out of here. It’s good here, but I’m ready to find a place of our own.”
Just keep smilin’
John considers himself a spiritual person. He grew up Catholic, became an altar boy, but fell away from the church over time. Now, he’s non-denominational and likes to study the Bible.
One piece of scripture he gravitates toward in particular is “the golden rule.” It’s one of the things that keeps him smiling through storms — a life lesson worth walking out.
“Give what you expect to get,” he said. “If you give good, hopefully you’ll receive good.”
For John, this translates to greeting everyone with a kind smile and a quick “hello.”
“For me, it helps to say “hi” to someone and give them a smile,” he said. “I hope it helps them too.”
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