‘It’s about making people happy,’ Main Street icon says
“I’m the mayor of the homeless,” Harry Warner, 49 years old, says.
Warner, a resident of Newark for 45 years, has been homeless on and off for the past 12 years.
“I know where to tell you to go get help,” he says. “If you need your electric bill paid, I’ll help you. If you need a place to stay, I got you.”
Most university students would recognize Warner as the guitar player stationed outside of the post office on Main Street. He can be found there playing music and taking song requests at all hours of the day, alongside several other homeless individuals.
Guitar playing serves as Warner’s only source of income. He might not make very much, but that’s not the reason he plays, he says.
“I’m an entertainer,” he says. “Yeah, making money is okay, but it’s about making people happy.”
Warner’s self-stated benevolence is exemplified by the multiple instances that he interrupts this interview to greet people walking by. He interacts with Newark residents and students daily, never asking them for money, only saying “hello” or asking them how they’re doing.
“I tell people to smile,” he says. “[Sometimes] they walk by and ignore me.”
Junior Jim Celia is not one of those people. While walking down Main Street one day, he overheard Warner playing The Marshall Tucker Band’s song “Can’t You See.”
“He was hitting the notes and really feeling the soul of the song,” Celia says.
Celia didn’t have any money on him, so he ran back to his dorm and grabbed five dollars. But by the time he got back, Warner had finished playing the song. Noticing Celia’s disappointment, Warner offered to replay the song, Celia says.
The two then proceeded to bond over their favorite bands and shared passion for classic rock.
Warner says he learned how to play guitar at the age of 15. His mother would pay his friend five dollars a week to teach him—and what he didn’t learn, he taught himself, he says.
Warner learned to read sheet and tab music on his own. He can even play by ear, he says.
“I’m not being arrogant—I’m just good,” he says.
Most of Warner’s song requests are for classic rock tunes. He says a lot of people ask for “Sweet Home Alabama” and other Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. Immediately after stating this, he jumped into a cover of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” before seamlessly transitioning into Nickelback’s “Rockstar.”
“Rockstar” could not be a more fitting song for Warner to play. Its lyrics, which follow a man who is tired of his average life and yearns for stardom, reflect Warner’s goals and hopefulness for the future, he says.
Warner says he worked as a carpenter for most of his life, where he owned a business in Atlanta, where he lived for seven years.
“I was making $5,000 a week when I was working in Atlanta,” Warner says. “I wanna do that again.”
Accompanying his success, however, is a lifetime of addiction and family troubles.
When Warner was just four years old, his father committed suicide, he says. His father was an alcoholic, and, like the majority of the men in his family, Warner quickly picked up the addiction as well, he says.
Warner has been to rehab twice before, but slipped back into his addiction immediately after being released, he says.
Warner says sleeping on the streets is a source of his drinking.
“It’s scary—it’s part of the reason why I drink so much,” he says. “[I] don’t know if I’m going to be safe or not.”
Mary Berlin, program manager at the Newark Empowerment Center on Main Street, echoes Warner’s rationalization. The center provides assistance to the homeless community and deals with addicts and alcoholics regularly, Berlin says.
Berlin says many homeless people slip into alcoholism because drinking helps them to fall asleep outdoors or temporarily alleviate their depression. Most are unable to shake the addiction because after a while they no longer see a future for themselves, she says.
“It’s a matter of survival,” Berlin says. “It’s how much you put into that survival.”
Alcoholism is not the only reason that Warner fell into poverty. While he was working in Atlanta in the nineties, his wife left him and their 6-month-old daughter to run off with another man, he says.
“I had 12 employees,” he says. “I had to shut down the business and go home [to Delaware]. What was I gonna do with a 6-month-old baby girl, you know? I’m a carpenter.”
Despite the adversities Warner has faced, he says his optimism for the future remains intact.
He says he plans on moving to Georgia or Florida one day and hopes to take classes in architectural engineering. Ideally, he’d like to start his own carpentry business again, he says.
But his first priority is getting clean, once and for all, he says.
Last Tuesday, Warner entered rehab. He’s currently at a facility in Pennsylvania where he’ll be for the next two weeks, he says. While there, he hopes to find a 90-day program to enter after completing rehab, he says.
Warner seems confident that this stint in rehab will be his last.
“I know I can do it,” he says. “It’s just a matter of setting my mind to it.”