Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Many skilled homeless hope to be successful again

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

A little more than a week ago, Ted Williams was a homeless panhandler in Columbus, Ohio. Now, he is famous around the world.

A newspaperman's video of Williams standing at an off-ramp begging for money and a chance to use his "God-given gift of voice" ricocheted around the Internet. Millions have seen the video, and Oprah Winfrey and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team have been among those offering Williams a job.

It is hard to say what made Williams' video such a sensation. Perhaps it was the irony of hearing such a beautiful voice coming from such a disheveled-looking man. He also spoke with sincerity about wanting to get back to productive work after ruining his life with alcohol and drugs.

Williams' story is extraordinary. But Ruth Mark knows there are many more people like him — homeless men and women with God-given talents who, with help and encouragement, can realize their dreams of getting off the street and finding work again.

Mark has seen these people every week for the past five years as director of Pyramid Professional Resources. The non-profit organization is housed at Christ Church Cathedral and receives support from several local businesses and six other churches: Southland Christian, Second Presbyterian, Church of the Good Shepherd, Faith Lutheran, Imani Baptist and St. Martha's Episcopal.

PPR is open three mornings a week for the 20 or so homeless people accepted into its program at any given time. They get a place to shower, do laundry, store belongings and receive mentoring to overcome self-defeating habits, find a job and keep it. PPR's offices have newspapers, Internet computers, LexTran passes, donated clothing, voice-mail and mailboxes for them to use while job-hunting.

"We do not provide jobs for them, but we provide amenities they need to get jobs," said Mark, a nurse who also helps clients find treatment for medical problems. PPR operates on an annual budget of only about $15,000; every staff member except the office manager is a volunteer, Mark said.

Williams' vocal talent might be unusual, Mark said, but his fall from a middle-class lifestyle into homelessness is not. Substance abuse, criminal convictions, health and family problems cost many people their jobs and homes. The slow economic recovery has made it that much harder for them to get back on their feet.

About half of PPR's 250 clients each year — the vast majority of whom are men — get full-time jobs, although some end up out of work again. Mark estimates that, over the long term, about one-fourth of clients manage to break out of homelessness and support themselves.

"I think this serves a unique subset of people who are genuinely motivated," volunteer Clay Dorsett said. "So many of them have skills and talents they have effectively used before, but they have fallen on hard times. They just want to get back to using them."

Jesse Curran, 44, said that describes him. The PPR client from Pennsylvania said he has two associate's degrees in mechanical engineering and used to do and supervise computer-aided design work at a factory in Versailles. But a few years ago, the work was sent overseas, and Curran lost his job.

"I started drinking a lot," he said. "I was always an alcoholic, but I finally admitted to the fact."

Since living for a time at the Hope Center and getting sober, Curran said he has had a lot of part-time and temporary work in everything from fast food to construction, but he can't find a full-time job.

It doesn't help that he has a misdemeanor conviction on his record.

"With so many people looking for jobs, (employers) can wait for Mother Teresa," he said.

Curran earned money shoveling snow earlier this winter, but his feet became frostbitten, and he can't work much until they heal, he said. He is living temporarily at St. Agnes' House, an Episcopal mission that provides shelter for sick people.

Like the man in the Internet video, Curran said he has been successful before and is determined to be successful again. He carries around his annual Social Security statement to remind himself how much money he used to earn.

"If you want it bad enough, you can get it," he said. "I know I just have to keep trying."