JR spent his childhood in Wisconsin and talked with us about his family. “I grew up going to Catholic school. I was a good Catholic boy and went to church six days a week because I had to. I was in a toxic environment… I have two brothers and one sister. One of them has passed away. They all drink too, but they only drink beer and they do not like when I drink the hard stuff around them. I still try to be in touch with them as often as I can. We do not get together as often as I would like, but I love them.”
Throughout the interview process, unwelcome memories often emerge. This remained true for JR’s interview, yet he found ways to express his love for life even when the shadows of darkness fell heavily. “After school, I went to an institution for my drinking a few times. I am not crazy. I am not mean. I am a joker and I love to make people laugh. Even when things are tough for myself, I always make people smile. I also love anything outdoors. Hunting and fishing with my family is when I am the happiest. I spent a lot of my time fishing for my favorites—walleyes or even bluegills. Those [fish] are good to eat too. We would get 12 to 13 of our family members together and go hunting. I love deer and pheasant hunting. The outdoors is where I feel most at home and I am overall the happiest.”
The harsh realities of living on the street and how dire the situation becomes in the winter represent experiences JR knows firsthand. “On July 15th of 2020 I became homeless again. For a while before that I was living with a friend. Within two days [of being homeless] I had my phone stolen. I have not had a phone since the summer . I have gotten a lot of stuff stolen and I have been taken advantage of almost every day since then. I want to help everyone and I have a really hard time saying “no” because that is who I am. I just want to help when I can.”
Like many of our friends experiencing homelessness, JR described the winter climate and his frustration with the situation. “Almost every day, I get kicked out of the parking ramp. Where am I supposed to go? Everywhere that was open for the homeless is now closed during the day. The ramps are the last place, out of the wind, that block the wind. As I look at my worn tennis shoes, my feet are cold, and I am freezing. I miss my family, I miss fishing, and I miss hunting. Next time they catch me in the parking ramp, they can either take me to jail or do whatever they want with me because I am not leaving. I want everyone that is homeless to stick together and stay in the parking ramps when it’s cold outside. This way, the cops will either have to take us all to jail where it is at least warm and we get meals or they will let us stay in the parking ramp.”
When we asked JR if he was close to being housed, he shared his experience with us. “I have been close before, but I have always given it up to someone that needs it more. There are a lot of people that cannot handle the cold and the life on the street, but I could. Now that I am older, it is getting harder to sleep outside, I am hoping to get into housing soon.”
JR left us with a final message, one that remains difficult to hear, but we hope that it helps others to realize that they are not alone. “My message is to not end up a drunk, homeless person like me.”
Not to our surprise, but JR did not mention his kindness and he barely addressed his use of humor to bring laughter to most situations. We know JR as a humble and kind soul who aims to make the day better for anyone who enters his journey through life. When fighting to survive each day, seeing past the next moment proves challenging. We know hope exists in JR’s future and wish him the best in finding a home and a place to fish.
Authors’ Note: JR wrestled with the difficult memories that emerged from sharing his story of homelessness and we remain eternally thankful for the story he shared. His laugh and kindness remain contagious every day and thanks to a pair of boots, his feet are now warm even during the coldest of days. We share his story to help him and others realize their own value in life. Even on difficult days when you cannot fathom your own value in life, someone else in your journey knows the value and impact your life had on them. Thank you, JR, for sitting down with us, sharing your story, and trusting us. We love you, your humor, and your heart.
Artist’s Note: We know JR as someone with a caring heart. The fishing pole bends to the shape of a heart to symbolize the love that he gives to others and his love for fishing. The empty chair beside the water is waiting for JR to come and take a seat, rest, and enjoy the place that brings him happiness.