Sunday, January 16, 2005

Most Likely to suceed.. Donald Whitehead

Most Likely to Succeed

Formerly homeless, Donald Whitehead is now the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington D.C.

My five siblings and I lived in a three family home that we occupied with other relatives. We all shared one bedroom and my parents slept in the living room. My mother was a lunchroom worker at our elementary school. She later became a teacher's aide and then a licensed social worker. She insisted that education was the top priority. This early focus on education was a lifeboat in the sea of desperation that my life would later become. My father, usually a very happy person, worked hard to care for us. For most of my early childhood he worked two jobs. One evening my father crashed his car into a tree. From the time of my father's accident things were never the same. The accident disfigured his face, leaving a visible scar. He became a tyrant. Our house became a war zone. My grandfather, who was unwilling to ignore my father's abuse, shot him. Even before the trauma and the abuse I remember feeling different. I remember feeling lonely. At home I created imaginary friends and my play-acting was so vivid that my poor mother had me tested for sanity.
When I left elementary school I went to Walnut Hills High School, one of the top public schools in the nation. I didn't stand out because everyone was smart. I also didn't fit in socially. Because of my father's progressive addiction and unwillingness to maintain employment on a regular basis we were forced to live in poverty. Most students at school were from affluent families and I always felt that I wasn't as good as everyone else. The growing dysfunction in my household began to have a negative impact and I began to experiment with drugs. I was asked to leave Walnut Hills High and for the first time I experienced academic problems. My academic problems were not related to my ability to do the work, but rather they stemmed from my newly acquired practice of skipping classes. I take full responsibility for my actions, but I place some blame on the teacher's strike of 1977 that allowed me to perfect the art of skipping class on a regular basis.
In the next three years I attended three different schools. By this time my addiction had progressed to the level of blackouts. I lived a "Jekyll and Hyde" existence. By day I was the class vice president, the prom king, most likely to succeed, a football player - I was even selected to be "councilman for a day" in Cincinnati. After school hours, I was an addict who had already tried almost every drug that didn't require needles. I knew that this was not how I wanted to live - the only problem was I just couldn't stop.
By the time I graduated high school I had tried to regulate my using. I was attending the University of Cincinnati when I realized that I had to change immediately. People were starting to say things like "you're just like your father." I decided in one of my moments of sanity that the military was the answer. I now realize that I was searching for a geographic cure for my disease. My time in the Navy was a roller coaster ride. I started out with a lot of promise, scoring in the high 80s on the entrance exam. I was selected as one of the only minorities in the Strategic Weapons System Electronic Program (SWSE). Since the program dealt with servicing ballistic missiles, I am glad that my addiction (and the many reprimands I received as a result) forced me out of that program and out of the Navy.
When I left the Navy my self-esteem was totally devastated. My addiction had caused me to fail repeatedly at things I was perfectly capable of doing. I returned to Cincinnati and experienced a period of clarity, going through several good jobs such as restaurant manager, car salesman, and environmental activist. I also held not so great jobs such as pizza delivery driver, telemarketer, and short-order cook. I got married, bought a house in the suburbs, and began living the American Dream. The dream quickly turned into a nightmare. Despite my short-term success, I failed to come to grips with my disease. I eventually lost everything - my job, my wife, my house, and my will to live. I had always been a functioning addict up until my divorce. But now I was slowly committing suicide through my addiction.
At that point I became homeless. My homelessness was not the traditional homelessness that we see in video clips and magazine articles. My homelessness was the invisible homelessness that is so prevalent in America. I lived bouncing from couch to couch, spare room to spare room. Finally exhausted by broken promises and the negative behavior associated with using, I ran out of places to go. It was then that my homelessness became more traditional. I slept in abandoned cars, abandoned houses, on fire escapes, in public restrooms, or in parks. I remember the feelings of emptiness, sadness, and loneliness. I remember sinking a little deeper into depression everyday. One of the worst things about my time on the street was how other people treated me. People passing me on the street almost never made eye contact as if I was Medusa, and if they looked into my eyes they would turn to stone. My only relief from the pain, guilt, and shame of being on the streets was from whatever drug I happened to use that day. I used to live and I lived to use.
My spiritual awakening came in three forms, all equally important. One day I saw my mother driving down the street. It was on a weekend, which is the worst when you're homeless because there's very little to do other than walk the streets. (I later found out that she had been canvassing abandoned buildings very confident that she would find my body.) Normally I could get her to buy one of my stories and she'd give me enough money to buy something to take the pain away. However, this time my mother was practicing tough love. I was stunned as I watched her drive off. (She later told me it was the hardest thing she ever did.) Suddenly, I realized that I was completely alone in this world. It was at that point that my life began to change. I went back to the shelter I was staying at and I lay down on my mat. (I always slept in the back so that no one could hear me cry. Many times I cried myself to sleep silently because after all I was "most likely to succeed.") However, on this night I did not cry silently - I cried for help. One of the workers at the shelter came to my mat and asked me to come with her. She knew what was wrong because she was a recovering addict. I told her I wanted to die and I couldn't stand living the way I was living - but I couldn't stop. She called a friend on the phone. This friend, named Courtney, took me to a meeting. It was August 25, 1995. I have not used since that day.
Today almost seven years later my life has changed a great deal. Influenced by many wonderful people at the Drop-Inn-Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, I have become a homeless advocate. People like the late Buddy Gray have taught me how to care for other human beings and fight injustice in society. I spent two years as an outreach worker at the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. In my role as outreach coordinator I helped increase public education by helping to start Street Vibes, a street newspaper, as well as a public access radio and television show.
After spending two years as outreach coordinator, I was hired as Executive Director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition. I was then elected to the board of directors for the State Coalition for Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, and as a member of the board of directors for the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). I was elected board president of NCH in October of 1999. I am now the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington D.C. I am the youngest, first African-American, first formerly homeless, and first recovering addict to hold the position.
I am proud to have recently finished my second independent film, Get Right or Get Left. I received a regional "Emmy" for my first film Open the Sky. I also regularly perform as a stand-up comedian in comedy clubs throughout the country. A second chance I wish that I had enough room to name the many wonderful people who are responsible for my recovery, from counselors and cooks to co-workers and my loving family. I have tremendous gratitude for all of them. They all had one thing in common - a firm belief that miracles do happen, recovery is possible, and that any addict seeking recovery can find it if there are people willing to go the extra mile to assist them. I know today that I have been given a precious gift, a second chance, and that chance only came because beneath my smelly clothes and my dishelved exterior was a person who was most likely to succeed. I succeeded because other people took a chance and helped me. These wonderful individuals were willing to ignore my outward appearance and help me free my true character that lay paralyzed by the stranglehold of addiction.
My life today is a daily fulfillment of the dreams that were deferred by my addiction. I have been given the opportunity to pursue many other interests. I have regained the strong relationship with my family that is so critical to a healthy life for me. Today, I am far from the streets of Cincinnati, although I know that social acceptability does not equal recovery and that I am only promised one day at a time. It's been almost seven years since I last used. On this anniversary I realize I have experienced a great deal of pain during that time. I lost my daughter, my father, and my mentor - causing unbearable pain, but I know I must face it head on.
On my anniversary, I ask that if you see a homeless man or woman on the street, that you look them in the eye and let them know that they are still part of the human race. Remember - behind the shopping cart or standing on the sidewalk may be a person who's "most likely to succeed" if you give them a hand.

Formerly homeless, Donald Whitehead is now the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington D.C. For information, visit


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