Paul is a 47-year-old veteran currently experiencing homelessness in Huntsville, Alabama. Paul grew up on the second story of an apartment complex in Tennessee in a very religiously strict, Pentecostal household. His family was very poor and Paul was made fun of in school for "being dirty." He shared that his parents never had a car and that his dad rode a blue bicycle with a basket around town. He also never had a new pair of shoes or clothes until he was 15 years old. Paul's parents grew up very poor, and since they had no running water as children, they only took baths on Saturdays. This habit was applied to Paul's life as well and he was only allowed to bathe himself on Saturdays to prepare for church on Sundays.
Paul grew up with an older brother, however, a severe head injury caused him to become brain-damaged and have Down Syndrome. When his brother was 5, he dressed up in a Superman costume for Halloween and slid head-first on the railings of the stairs in their apartment. Paul's brother was bullied for his disability and Paul shared: "That's why I always took up - I would fight, I would do anything I could to take up for any mentally challenged person or anybody who was disabled even though I was picked on myself."
In regard to his religious upbringing, Paul shared that being Pentecostal was "supposed to be about love" but that his dad would use the Bible to punish him. For hours on end, his father would shame him over everything he did stating that Paul would "go to this burning place called Hell." Paul mentioned that he couldn't go to a public pool because he wasn't allowed to take his shirt off in from of any members of the opposite sex nor was he allowed to go around women who had their clothes off, or who were in a bathing suit. He also wasn't allowed to watch anything on TV that cursed or listen to any secular music. Paul said that "done in love, it could've turned out differently," but that his dad did it more out of anger than love. His father was physically abusive and everything was argumentative. Paul did admit that he was "definitely rebellious" but that his father was also "definitely angry."
For example, he shared, "When I was 4-5 years old, we went to a restaurant and I yelled that I wanted my hamburger because they didn't bring it out in time. My dad didn't take me out to eat for almost 10 years because of that. It was so strict, that once you did something wrong, you would never build that trust back up. So, that's why later in life, once somebody looks at me and [sees] that I'm not perfect in any way, I'll run from it because I couldn't build my trust with [my father]. Any mistake I made, he wouldn't let me live it down."
Paul's rebellion started in 2nd grade. He sucked his thumb and his teacher would hit his hand with a ruler and put duct tape, masking tape, glue, etcetera on his thumb to try and stop him. He stated that this humiliated him so much that by 3rd grade, he really started acting out. Paul began rebelling against authority figures. He shared: "If you were an authority [figure] and you liked me and treated me right, I would do anything for [you]. But, for all the ones who didn't know how to handle me, who didn't show me love - I rebelled." Paul would curse teachers out and act out verbally, but he was never physically aggressive.
Due to this behavior, his father took him to the police station at 15 and gave him up to the state because he "couldn't handle him" and he "didn't want him anymore." Paul was then put into the system and went into group & foster homes. However, he would regularly run away and would not stay in them for very long. He shared: "This is the way I've done it most of my life - I will do good for a couple of months and then as soon as I get in trouble or as soon as anybody notices anything negative about me, I run from it. I'm good until I make a mistake."
Paul ran away from group homes so much, that at 17, he stole a car and was put into juvenile prison. Here, he was beaten regularly for being a "white boy." He was "ganged or jumped just over and over and knocked out unconscious." Paul stated that he believes that this head trauma contributed to his MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) and his social anxiety. He was released from juvie at 18 and a half and immediately went into the U.S. Army Reserve. After BootCamp and AIT (Advanced Individual Training), Paul enrolled in college. During his time in college, Paul married his first wife at 19 and began using marijuana. He shared, "I really believe that [my marijuana addiction] took away my motivation. I allowed it to take away my motivation. I could smoke it and close the door to society and not feel stress, not feel anxiety. But, at the same time, it caused me to be antisocial." This lack of motivation later caused Paul to drop out of college after a year and a half.
Additionally, Paul had two children with his first wife at 19 and 21. Unfortunately, Paul was forced to be a single dad for most of their upbringing, as his wife went to prison three times and is now back for her fourth sentence. The first time she went to prison was when their kids were 3 & 1. She went for 8 months and was charged with stealing a credit card from an elderly man she took care of. Then 2 years later, she went to prison for 4 years and three months for faking and cashing payroll checks (criminal simulation and criminal forgery). 2 years after she was released from prison, she went back for 7 years for 72 counts of both criminal simulation and criminal forgery.
During his time as a single dad, Paul began using painkillers and drinking alcohol. He quit at 24 but then started back up and continued use into his 30s. Nevertheless, Paul worked 3 jobs and put in great effort to support his children. They stayed in Tennessee for quite some time, but he moved to South Carolina when he was 30 (2005) for 3 years before moving back to Tennessee in 2008. Unfortunately, Paul's children were taken away in 2007 at 11 and 13 years old. Paul stated that he was working his third job at a car dealer, so would put his kids to bed at 10:30 PM and work from 11 PM - 7 AM and then come home to put his kids on the bus. So, his older child was left to babysit the younger one was he was gone. In South Carolina, a 12-year-old is not allowed to babysit a 10-year-old, so this is why his children were taken away. Paul did not know about this law, as it was legal in Tennessee.
Paul tried to get his children back for a year, but the state never let him see them, so he quit. Paul shared: "I became so depressed after losing my kids that I never left my house." This caused him to no longer work. Luckily, while Paul was working, he moved his mom into his house. So, when he stopped, she was able to continue paying for rent. This was their living situation until around 2013 when he remarried. He and his mom then moved in with his second wife and she paid the bills. Unfortunately, Paul's mom passed away at the end of 2019 and his wife passed away on January 3rd, 2020, 2 and a half months after his mom's passing.
The passing of his mom and his wife seriously amplified Paul's mental health struggles and he began using meth in 2020. He shared: "I think a lot of my pre-homelessness or what led up to my homelessness was my mental health. I would just lock myself away in a room and not come out...I wasn't doing anything bad, but I wasn't doing anything good either. I just wasn't doing anything. [And] I began my homelessness when I mixed mental illness with drugs."
Paul was now 44 and his experience with homelessness began. At the end of 2020, he moved to Alabama for the CSRC program hosted by the Salvation Army, a Christian-based program focusing on work therapy and overcoming addictions. Paul stayed in the program for 5 months but then relapsed. For the next year and a half, he was living on the streets. Paul would get into halfway houses and group homes for about a month, but would relapse and move back onto the streets. This pattern repeated itself for 2.5 years in total.
However, Paul is now doing incredibly and is working to get back on his feet! He has been completely clean for 7 months and has worked at a thrift store for almost 7 months as well. This is the first time he has had a job in 15 years! He also started his first mental health treatments 7 months ago, and has mentioned that these have helped him tremendously. Although Paul is still experiencing homelessness, he has been at a rehab halfway house called Stepping Stones since October 17, 2022. He shared: "They saved my life for the past 7 months." He has also been with the North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless (NACH) for a year and a half. Paul stated: "They helped me get my driver's license, my birth certificate, and my social security card."
In regard to causes of homelessness, Paul shared: "I would say crystal meth goes hand in hand [with homelessness]. Most homeless people not only have some mental issues, but are masking that with drug use. So, I think meth and heroin are the number 1 drugs for homeless people. I became homeless due to drug use. Not only was my wife dead, my mom was dead, and I didn't have my kids, but when I started using drugs to cover all of that up, I became homeless."
Thank you so much to Paul for sharing this story! I had a great time speaking with you and I believe that your story is incredibly powerful. And, of course, thank you to NACH for partnering with Project WHY to facilitate this interview.
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