Fifteen years homeless: Harry Warner shares story
Harry Warner strummed his guitar. It was an Aria brand — decorated by masking tape remnants and nicked edges. He wore black gloves with hand-cut finger holes to play in. The temperature was 20 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of below zero. He sat on the ground outside of Mizu Sushi Bar — a restaurant on Main Street that had gone out of business months before. Behind him was a cardboard sign that read: “HARRY WARNER HOMELESS IN NEWARK.”
There are at least 50 homeless people in Newark, Warner said. According to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, there are roughly 564,708 homeless people across the nation. Sixty nine percent live in shelters or transitional housing; the rest call the streets home. In Newark, all 50 call the streets home. There are no shelters or transitional housing.
“I’m going to talk to the mayor to get a nonprofit organization going,” Warner said. “There is no shelter in Newark, and I’ve been wanting to get one started. You need grants to set up a shelter. You need a doctor to donate time. You need a lawyer to donate time. And you need property. All of that costs money.”
The closest thing to a homeless shelter is the Friendship House, a nonprofit Christian organization that helps homeless individuals in New Castle County, Del. While the Friendship House primarily works in Wilmington, Main Street offers the Newark Empowerment Center in the Newark United Methodist Church.
The Center provides access to clothing, restrooms, phones and mail and helps with food or shelter referrals. It provides a job readiness program for individuals to work on resumes and fill out applications. Still, many don’t get appropriate assistance.
Whereas the Friendship House created a special program called Code Purple, which provides housing to the homeless when nighttime temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the Newark Empowerment Center does not deal directly with overnight housing or food distribution.
Eight churches participate in the Code Purple program in rotation. They provide a place of shelter between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and usually serve food. Space is limited — there is room for 25 individuals per night. Fifty percent of Newark’s homeless sleep out in the cold.
“Last year a buddy of mine died,” Warner said. “He froze to death at the bus stop.”
Some of the city’s homeless population are victims of drug and alcohol abuse or have mental disabilities. Some are simply going through hard times and have had the misfortune of losing jobs, money and homes.
Warner’s friend, George, has a mental disability. He gets a disability check from the federal government every month, but never sees the money. George’s family has been keeping it from him.
Warner and George go together to establishments, including Panera Bread, to buy a drink or charge their phones or use the bathroom. Panera is good to them. However, a few homeless people are banned from the establishment.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 30 percent of individuals who are chronically homeless are mentally ill. In 2010, President Obama implemented a plan for preventing and eradicating homelessness across the country. This plan, Opening Doors, aims to get and keep people off the streets. The plan seeks to help individuals into permanent supportive housing.
According to Opening Doors, this housing will cost less for taxpayers than paying for other public costs for homeless individuals, which can be as high as $50,000 a year. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, implementation of the Housing First approach will eradicate chronic homelessness by 2017.
The plan relies on programs already established in the areas where homelessness is prevalent. According to Delaware’s Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness constructed in 2013, all programs within Delaware’s Homeless Prevention and Response System will utilize the Housing First approach. An individual must call and speak with one of four specialists and then transport themselves to an area, such as a shelter, that the specialist recommends.
However, calling and communicating with a specialist can be difficult for someone who has a mental disability. Finding a mode of transportation may be impossible.
For an individual such as George, with a family who would rather keep him out on the streets, this system just will not work.
Warner, 52, has spent 15 years of his life homeless, although he said it began by choice.
He was a struggling alcoholic and had been in and out of the Alcoholics Anonymous program since the age of 15, when he first got in trouble with the law and his attendance was court mandated. A short time later, he was arrested for drunken burglary and was incarcerated for two years. It was in jail that he graduated high school — in the top 10 percent of the state — and played guitar for the Heavenly Voices choir. It was also in jail that he developed a work ethic. When he was released, he got into construction and never stopped playing the guitar. He also never stopped drinking.
He was married for seven years and had a daughter. He said he moved out because he did not want them to see him drunk. He put his construction, carpentry and Boy Scout skills to use and built a shack in the woods. His wife, fed up with his drinking and unimpressed by his housing situation, left him. Warner said he was so devastated that he was “just going to drink [himself] to death.”
But he didn’t.
Warner admitted himself to rehab and got involved with A.A. again. He went back to work. Despite the effort to clean up his act, Warner remains homeless.
Over the course of 15 years, Warner has lived in seven different hand-built shacks. Over the course of these years, Warner was never been able to keep a job. He is currently unemployed and survives on cash he makes playing guitar on the sidewalk.
He has been sober for nine months, but cannot find a job because of his criminal record and his lacking a mode of transportation. If he were to find a job, the wage would be so low he would not be able to afford rent.
He is stuck.
Warner plans on moving south where he won’t have to worry about freezing to death on the streets. Before he moves, he will wait for his daughter to get out of detox. He recently admitted her for heroin addiction, he said. His daughter is 21 years old.
Warner’s story is just one of thousands across the country. Yet he is one of the few who remains hopeful about his situation.
“Nine months of sobriety gave me hope,” Warner said as he reached for his guitar.