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From Homeless to Hopeful

A Homes With Hope Success Story

Antwayn places a box of Honey Nut Cheerios on the metal shelf. “Everyone wants these,” he exclaims. Against the wall are 23 bags he’s filled with groceries for food insecure people who will pick them up later. “We’re renovating, you know,” he waves his hand toward the back of the food pantry in the second level of Gillespie, a Homes With Hope homeless shelter. “This place has to get cleaned up.” He knows Westport’s shelter well, having lived here twice as a client.

Like every other Gillespie client, he never thought he’d be homeless. Four years ago, in 2018, he had a full-time job, a home in Bridgeport with his girlfriend, a newborn and a toddler. Then, one evening in March, he lost everything.

Please take a moment to consider that we live in the town in which Antwayn briefly lived, but in an alternate universe. We enjoy advantages, trust, and liberties that he did not. Still, he re-assembled his life and his dignity and WLM is honored to tell his story which continues up to the writing of this article. (And certainly beyond.)

Antwayn's parents divorced when he was young. His mom raised him in Stamford. At 12 years old “I thought I knew everything,” he admits. His friend, Pookie, was in a gang - the Ebony Kings - and persuaded him to join. For initiation four older members jumped him and he fought back. He walked away with a “busted lip” and an indoctrination into the Ebony Kings family.

Though he never abused alcohol or drugs, he willingly assumed the life of a gang member. If a brother said “Jump that guy” he did. He fought with rival gang members and ignored his curfew (“when the streetlights go on, 7:00 p.m.”). One winter day he packed snowballs around eggs, instead of rocks, to hurt other kids his own age. His mother wondered what happened to the dozen eggs she had just bought.

When he turned 13 his mom sent him to live with his dad in Georgia. “I was furious,” he recalls. “But she knew I’d end up getting shot or shooting someone. At 13 you don’t understand the consequences.” Today, he concedes that his mother saved his life by shipping him South.

He graduated from Jenkins High School in Savannah. At 19 he already had two kids with two different women. “No one was teaching me anything,” Antwayn says. “My dad let me do anything.”

Georgia was different than Brooklyn. It was about manners, “Yes, please, no thank you”; an entirely new world for him. After graduating high school he earned a certificate and worked as a daycare assistant at the YMCA. Then he worked as an assistant camp counselor. “I love kids,” he says.

In 2003 he moved back to Connecticut and lived with his mother. He worked at Party City, then got a gig at Costco in 2007. He worked these two jobs for ten years. “I was earning $21.95 at Costco,” he proudly states.

He later moved in with his girlfriend and together they had two kids, a boy, Antwayn (now 7), and a girl, Aalyah (now 4). Then the day in March, after he returned from work, his girlfriend kicked him out of their home and the police arrested him for violating a restraining order.

Antwayn couldn’t pay the $25,000 bond so they locked him in a cell for 28 days. “You don’t want to go jail,” he cautions, shaking his head.

Costco fired him for work abandonment. He had no home, no access to his money. His car was towed shortly after his arrest, his mother had no room for him in her home, and no business would hire a man fresh from the slammer. And he was not allowed to see his kids.

The only thing he had on the 29th day, finally out of prison, was his innocence. Not that it mattered. “I was confused. Lost. I lost it all in the snap of a finger.”

Devastated and shell-shocked, he dialed 211, the hotline for essential community services. They guided him toward a shelter in Bridgeport and for 15 days he lined up at 5:00 p.m. to get a bed for the night. Then he was granted room in Gillespie.

After six months in Gillespie, the program manager, Ryan Soto, located and contacted Antwayn’s father in Oregon. He agreed to share his home with his son. So Antwayn relocated across the country. 33 days later he returned, shaken by his father’s violent mental health issues and veiled threats.

Again, he found himself with nowhere to turn. By miracle, Ryan discovered he was back in the system. He got a room for Antwayn in Gillespie. During the long months of his second residency he was pessimistic and untethered. Then slowly, with Ryan’s help, he took the difficult, unnerving steps to overcome fear and submit to the power of hope. Ryan says, “He says ‘Ryan, you give great advice so I’m going to listen to you.’”

Then Antwayn became one of Gillespie’s favorite success stories.

Gillespie found him affordable housing and hired him part-time in the food pantry. He serves meals, cleans up, assists with food and clothing donations. Every morning he comes an hour early - a free hour, no one pays him - to make coffee, clean the refrigerator, whatever needs to be done.

His gratitude is intoxicating; if he can be thankful for what he has, can't we all?

“I want to stay working here,” he enthuses. “Miss Pat’s worked here for 17 years. I want to beat her record.” He’s strong, good, and happy. His eyes light up  when speaking of his manager, Ryan, “Man he’s the best boss I ever had in my life. He knows how to talk to people with good respect.” Then adds, “I love this job.”

Helen McAlinden, director of Homes with Hope, nominated Antwayn for the prestigious Carol E. Walter award, for persons who were once in a shelter and who now provide service for the same population. Antwayn won the award and received the plaque last June. Receiving this award is one of his proudest moments.

I scheduled an interview with Antwayn in late March for this feature.

Ryan emailed me twice to cancel this interview because of a “family emergency.” Always a concerning thing to hear, especially in this case - he had to be in court and with little advance notice.

The emergencies concerned his children. But not for negative reasons. On April 5, he won sole custody of his son and daughter. He beams, “I’m so happy! I take it day by day - everything’s fresh. It hasn’t been a week yet!”

When he has a moment to talk to Gillespie residents he tells them to look on the bright side, to pick themselves up and start over. He tells his story to help others like him find the smallest toehold in the crag of hope, so they can, one day, follow him to the summit.

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