I wasn’t born homeless. I was born and raised in New Jersey living in a house with my parents and siblings. After high school I moved to Atlanta where I lived and worked until 2009 when I moved back to New Jersey after my father took ill.
While living in New Jersey, I worked for a renovation company and that’s how I got hurt. I fell down a manhole. After that, I couldn’t work because I couldn’t do manual labor.
My dad passed away and his house was sold. Not being able to work I resorted to living on the streets. I was doing drugs, drinking and not taking care of myself. Living in shelters never worked for me either because I have sleep apnea and snore loudly. When I snored people got angry and gave me problems. Knowing that shelters have a reputation for violence I stayed on the streets.
While living on the streets I always had my laptop with me. That’s the first thing I bought with my own money, and that’s the first thing I ever thought had real value to me as an adult. Believe it or not, my laptop kept me motivated to get out of homelessness. It was my window to the world at that time.
One New Year’s Eve; over 5 years ago, I was standing in the train station and I had a little radio with me. I heard a guy on the radio talking about people making New Year’s resolutions. I just remember saying to myself…“I just want to plan my next 5 years, not my last 5 years” - I made it my New Year’s resolution and said a prayer. That same night I saw some friends of mine and I was so embarrassed. I thought they were going to make fun of me for being homeless but they didn’t. They came and spoke to me and recommended that I go to an AA meeting.
After going to the meeting and hearing other people’s stories and struggles I realized I wasn’t alone. I said to myself, I’m going to try to stay clean; adding that to my New Year’s resolution.
Starting that year I worked really hard at staying clean and I did. During this time I had a couple of odd jobs and I was able to rent a place in Brooklyn, living in someone’s basement. Not long after that I met this woman who was a music vendor; she had rented space in a store and sold cd’s of old music to her clients.
I started helping her out and it worked well since we both lived in Brooklyn, I had a laptop to do work remotely and I love music…always have.
While living in Brooklyn, the owner of the house I lived in sold the property and I had to leave. I had nowhere to go so I went back to living on the streets in New Jersey because I was familiar with the area. Sometimes friends of mine would let me stay with them or, wash up, shower and change. I knew people in New Jersey so it was a little bit easier for me to survive.
When I was in Jersey, I still would travel to East New York to work with the music vendor. Sometimes I would go to a Starbucks or someplace that had free Wi-Fi and work on my laptop from there. People I knew would laugh at me saying “why are you coming from Jersey to Brooklyn to make $30 a day and you’re paying for the MTA as well as the PATH trains?”
I would tell those people, because if I don’t make $30 a day then I sit home or in the streets and do nothing. I had to do something, I hate being idle, music is what I loved to do and I was being paid to do it so it didn’t bother me.
Having a job also made me feel empowered. I didn’t have to beg anyone for money; I didn’t have to rob someone...I didn’t have to do anything illegal and risk relapsing or going to jail for the money I was making. I was earning my pay and I was proud of it. She would pay me for 5 days a week, sometimes even on Saturday.
$30 a day is not a lot, but believe it or not if you save that and just buy the necessities it will get you through. $30, it was just enough for me to not get high because I knew I needed that money for more important things.
Sadly, the music vendor whom I worked for in Brooklyn passed away. It was traumatic for me because this lady was the only person that was actually trying to do something for me. She treated me like a human being and never made me feel like less of a person because I was homeless.
She also educated me on how I could go about starting my own business. I was able to speak to her children who were handling her affairs after her death. They were fine with me continuing her business without her.
As I took over the business I started making more money so I was able to start saving. Now, I still create playlists for clients, but I also create holiday gift packages as well. I mostly work from home now because my health has gotten worse, since I have more business I have some friends and family that help me.
I found out about Urban Pathways while I was street homeless and traveling between New York and Jersey. I met Hilton, one of the organizations housing specialist.
Hilton’s a great listener, he’s just a great guy overall. He would tell me the only way you are going to get somewhere is if you work for it. He helped me get into Urban Pathways and assisted me with the housing application saying: “this is what you need to get back on your feet.”
I’ve been at Urban Pathways for almost 2 years now, and I have been clean for almost 5 years. I am hoping to move on from transitional housing (where I am now) to permanent housing.
The staff at Urban Pathways couldn’t be better at helping me move forward and keeping me motivated. Hilton especially knows my story, he knows that I struggle from time to time staying motivated, but I appreciate him because he is always there when I need him. Hilton usually asks me: “How are you feeling?” he is someone who hears me out, talks to me and listens to me when I need it.
The things Hilton said to me were very inspirational and have helped me continue my path of independence and wellness.
Sometimes people fall on hard times and it takes them a while to get their feet back underneath them, especially if you’re doing drugs. It’ll take you down so far, so fast, and so quick. I am just glad I had people who helped me out and cared about me when I needed it the most.
I am proud of myself and what I have been able to accomplish after being street homeless. I think I am ready for permanent housing. I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to do. It’s not easy and no one is perfect, but I am determined to get permanent housing and continue to be a productive member of society.
Sadly, Jerome Smith passed away a few weeks after this interview. He is survived by his sister Denise and many close friends from his residence at Cluster House. After speaking with friends and family we found out that Jerome’s mother recently passed away as well. We also found out that Jerome spent daily time caring for her before her death.
His sister Denise was also very much involved in his life. She made the final arrangements for his funeral service and is working to acquire all of her brother’s possessions; including his beloved laptop.
We at Urban Pathways appreciate Mr. Smith for speaking to us about his journey from street homeless to housing. We are saddened at his death when he was on the verge of achieving so many of his goals. Mr. Smith will always be remembered as a kind-hearted man that enjoyed speaking about how he changed his life for the better as well as driving to different places in the city to enjoy the scenery.
About Urban Pathways
Urban Pathways is a New York City-based, nonprofit organization that provides housing and support to homeless and at-risk adults throughout the New York Metropolitan area. Urban Pathways serves more than 2,000 homeless individuals a year and provides transitional, extended stay and permanent housing to chronically homeless individuals. www.urbanpathways.org