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Homelessness: It can happen to anyone

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If there's a message in these photographs, it's that no one is immune to homelessness. To lose your home doesn't mean you should lose your humanity and dignity.

Cynthia Edwards (left)

In the yard of her former East Durham home, Cynthia Edwards watches her two sons play basketball across the street, then waves and says hello to old neighbors.

Edwards' past drug abuse and unpaid debts forced her family to uproot from the big house on the corner and live for five months in a shelter.

But Edwards is turning her life around. She recently got a full-time job at the Marriott and graduated from a Durham Tech computer skills program. Her three children, two grandchildren and mother are supporting her in her journey.

She says her son, Nathan, received the highest end-of-grade test score in his class while her other son, Dontae, just returned from playing in a basketball tournament in Florida. Both earn good grades and excel in multiple sports. Most impressively, the boys have developed caring personalities and strength despite the significant hardships. They say they already see the mother they once knew.

When money was tight, Edwards nurtured her family as best she could, keeping up appearances and continuing to put food on the table. But Edwards says she was cheating herself by abusing drugs. She owed four months in back rent, and despite leniency from her landlord and a full-time job at Wendy's, she couldn't keep her home.

Since then, Edwards has had the support, sustenance and structure to leave the shelter. No longer dragged down by the past, she sees only the future: "I'm just so close."

Cliff Sexton (above)

Cliff Sexton's pride was hurt as he waited in the long line that formed outside the shelter around dinnertime. He says the worst part, however, was the selfishness he felt.

He stood next to families who were homeless because of house fires, layoffs and foreclosures. Sexton was in line because he had a drug problem. In addition to staying at the shelter, Sexton spent time sleeping in Hyde Park in East Durham.

"It's a state of someone's despair, someone's unfortunate situation. In my case, my choice to choose addiction over living," Sexton says.

Sexton originally arrived at TROSA, a substance abuse halfway house where he lives, as part of an agreement to turn a 12-year sentence for eluding police after stealing a car into two years' probation. Sexton works security at TROSA and is studying to get an electrician's license. He says he feeds off the love and camaraderie of his peers for support.

Sexton fears relapsing every day, but his desire to achieve simple but important goals motivates him to stay clean: "I can't take anything with me when I leave this world. All I can do is leave what I've done."

Michael Kelly (above)

Michael Kelly, formerly known as "White Mike" while panhandling and living near the railroad tracks along Main Street in Durham, says he would often speak to God when it rained on his campsite. "I would say, 'God, I want to thank you for everything you've given to me, and ask for just a little bit more.'"

These days, Kelly is giving back by passionately working to help find housing and support for homeless people in Durham.

At one time, Kelly earned a good living, $60,000 a year driving tractor-trailers, albeit he had to work 70 to 80 hours a week. The distance and time from his family took its toll, and he began drinking heavily. Because of bad luck and poor decisions, Kelly wound up homeless in 2005, and he panhandled for money.

Kelly's engaging personality and wit made him a very effective panhandler. Starting in the early morning, Kelly would politely greet patrons on their way into a store; when they left, he'd ask them for money because they were more likely to have change.

Despite the routine, Kelly says life was tough for him. "I was a lost spirit. I had lost my way on the course of life. I lived in the woods, I was lost in the woods."

He became seriously ill and was twice rushed to Duke Hospital within three weeks. "It got to the point where it was an easy decision to make: Did I want to live or die?"

With the help of Housing for New Hope, where he now works helping other homeless people transition off the streets, he found employment and housing. Kelly's passion and success helping the homeless is giving many around town just a little bit more.

Mike Byrd (left)

Outside Cosmic Cantina or on the steps of Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church resides one of Ninth Street's fixtures, Mike Byrd. Unlike some panhandlers, Byrd, a 55-year-old diabetic, uses the money for his stated purpose: food and shelter. He says he doesn't smoke cigarettes or drink.

This summer Byrd earned money mowing lawns instead of asking for money on the street. "I feel more comfortable working for it than I do asking for it, anyway," he says.

Unlike his friend Michael Kelly, whom he admires, Byrd says he isn't ready to leave the streets. Nonetheless, Byrd holds out hope for better things in the future: "Things gonna be better one day; this might be the day."

Alex Barcenas (middle left )

Alex Barcenas spent 10 years intermittently being homeless, abusing drugs and joining gangs. Now the soft-spoken Barcenas talks of the love and respect he receives at the Urban Ministries shelter and alcohol support groups.

Barcenas says he has been clean for eight months and hopes to marry his longtime girlfriend. He has moved back to Texas to be with his family. "I can sleep easily and wake up fresh." While he feels more secure, he says he must stay busy to keep his demons away. He tightly schedules his days to stave off old thoughts and habits, but he still works to let go of his past. "I had it all bottled up in me. I didn't want anyone to know what I did while I was doing drugs," he says.

Scott "Country" Brandt (below)

Scott "Country" Brandt says there was a time when he felt too guilty asking for money because he was able-bodied and healthy. He was a successful carpenter and studied at N.C. State University. He's been homeless 10 years, because, he says, "I told the Lord to get in the backseat and let me drive."

Now Brandt suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and MRSA, a serious staph infection he says he acquired in prison. He can't stand for long and daily tasks prove difficult, such as his walk from his camp in the woods out to the intersection of Fayetteville Street and Interstate 40 where he asks for money.

This year, Brandt has twice been close to getting housing through Projects Assisting Transitions from Homelessness (PATH), only to back out of the federal program.

Michael Kelly, who works on PATH outreach, says for someone who has been on the streets for as long Brandt has, living in a home often feels like a crisis. Brandt acknowledges that it is less stressful for him to live in the woods but insists he's ready for housing: "It's kinda hard to come out once you been here a while. It's easier to just stay. See how peaceful it is out here?"

Versal Mason (right)

Versal Mason says he's making the best of what he's got, and his easygoing demeanor enables him to find happiness while homeless.

Mason built his house in the woods along Highway 98 in Durham using plywood for walls, milk crates for chairs and a tarp for a roof. He sweeps his dirt floor clean, pushing debris to the perimeter of his camp. He lives with a long-term girlfriend and works unloading truckers' rigs.

His jittery feet count down the seconds to noon on a Sunday morning, when a nearby gas station begins selling beer. Mason admits he wants better. "I'm not ready to quit drinking, but I'd love an apartment or house," he says. After several overdoses, Mason says he's reeled in his life by avoiding drugs and drinking with more moderation. "I can't even stand the sight of needles anymore," he says.

In July, Mason lost his home after Highway 98 was expanded. Mason, who receives some financial help from the government, briefly flirted with renting an apartment. However, he's been unreachable since.

Selma Johnson (above)

"I was mad at God," Selma Johnson says. After she says a client failed to pay an enormous debt to her janitorial business, she lost her home two years ago. Johnson eventually rebounded, but her journey from financial security to homelessness and back was difficult.

Johnson says she was in such despair she considered robbing a bank, adding she "always depended on the mighty dollar."

"When everything was happening to me I really didn't know what was going on," Johnson says. "I really wanted to damage somebody."

Johnson lived out of a 1985 Ford Explorer with her grandchildren and struggled with finding a place for them while rebuilding her life. Johnson now works at the transitional housing program Genesis Home, where she was also a member. She says life has humbled her and made her less judgmental as she has worked toward starting another janitorial business.

"God was trying to start me all over fresh and new," she says. "I don't think I would change a thing, because it was a learning experience. I learned a lot."

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Click for larger image • Outside Cosmic Cantina (above) or on the steps of Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church resides one of Ninth Street's fixtures, Mike Byrd. Unlike some panhandlers, Byrd, a 55-year-old diabetic, uses the money for his stated purpose: food and shelter. He says he doesn't smoke cigarettes or drink.
  • Click for larger image • Outside Cosmic Cantina (above) or on the steps of Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church resides one of Ninth Street's fixtures, Mike Byrd. Unlike some panhandlers, Byrd, a 55-year-old diabetic, uses the money for his stated purpose: food and shelter. He says he doesn't smoke cigarettes or drink.

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