Joe Harris didn’t look like a homeless man when he walked into the Beacon Journal’s office dressed in a tie and vest with matching pants and the well-groomed look of a Marine, which he once was.
“Do I look like a homeless man?” he asked a reporter as he volunteered to be the subject of a story.
Harris pointed to his 2005 Cadillac Escalade and explained that he had been sleeping in it for about two months.
He considered himself homeless, but he’s far from the public’s image of a destitute man sleeping in a stairwell. He has a family, a job and an income.
However, he is representative of national statistics, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ analysis of the latest Census data. Homelessness declined in 2012 in all subgroups but one: People in families. And one-third of all homeless were sleeping in cars, streets, abandoned buildings or other places not meant for habitation.
With homelessness growth of 7 percent from 2011 to 2012, Ohio was tied for 12th with Nebraska and Kansas, and slightly behind Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Through his experience, which included bankruptcy, Harris said there are lessons about how a person should handle tough times.
It started with what he called exploding plumbing in the third-story bathroom of the house he was renting in West Akron.
That sparked a landlord dispute involving who was responsible for the plumbing problem. He also faced high expenses and a cash shortage that eventually put him out of his house.
Through it all, he remained proud that he was able to “make do” and not submit to the kind of street-corner begging he despises.
“I became homeless due to faulty plumbing in my home,” he said. “The pipes burst and the owner tried to blame me and he brought in his insurance adjuster and told the adjuster that my family and I caused the flood.”
Everything in the house was destroyed, even the clothes he needed to work as a chauffeur.
“I had to save a couple of suits for work,” he said. “I’m required to wear suits for work and they even smell of mildew, must, and I dry cleaned them and dry cleaned them and there was nothing I could do.”
He said he had experienced prior problems with the house including black mold, animals entering and dying in the chimney, and faulty wiring.
By late May, he had lost patience telling the landlord: “I can’t do this anymore. I give you $1,950 a month for this. This is crap.”
At one point, he threatened to put his rent money in escrow, a procedure tenants can use in landlord disputes, but he did not carry through.
By late May, he and three of his children were evicted.
“We had nowhere to go,” he said. “I took the children and spread them out.”
His autistic son went to his godmother’s house. An older girl went to live with a friend. A son he recently adopted stayed with another friend.
The landlord declined comment, but then added that Harris had failed to pay his rent. Harris conceded that he only paid part of his rent in April.
Harris, 56, said he makes more than $50,000 a year, but losing all of his possessions made renting another home impossible.
He filed for bankruptcy about the same time he was evicted. He said a major reason he became broke came from paying the bills of a woman he had been living with. She’s gone now.
The three people who started taking care of his children were paid. He also pays about $500 a month for alimony.
“The reason I couldn’t stay with any of my children, my grown children, or any of my friends?” he said. “Well, first of all, I have a couple of friends who are on AMHA [public housing], so I don’t want to jeopardize their housing. I have a couple of friends who have families. I don’t want to intrude on them.”
He said he could afford about $100 a month but refused to live in a motel.
“Drugs and crime are my issues,” he said. “I wasn’t going to go to the places I could afford because of those issues.”
Harris grew up in a troubled area of Washington, D.C., and was familiar with tough times.
“We grew up in poverty, holes in our shoes,” he said. “We had alleys with rocks and dead bums in it and dead dogs and cats. This is the type of thing we grew up in but we were encouraged by our mother.”
Eventually, he said he fell into selling, but not using, drugs.
His life turned around when he moved to Akron to live with his father. He says he also learned a lot from a two-year stint in the Marines.
So when he found himself with no place to live in May, he slept in the SUV parked in front of a police station, or a friend’s driveway or in his employer’s parking lot.
He cleaned up where he could.
“I made do with this homeless situation, I made do,” he said. “I would go to McDonald’s, into their rest room, to take care of my private issues.”
He also used the shower room at a local gym and sometimes at the homes of people watching his children.
At first, a local charity offered help, but they learned of his income and turned him down. In August, they offered him a temporary place to stay, but by then he had saved up enough for the deposit and first month’s rent on a home in West Akron that is big enough for his whole family.
They moved in in early September.
So why does he want to tell his story?
“My biggest reason for coming in to tell you is … homelessness does not mean helplessness. I’ve done everything I could as a man to support my family. Any kind of way that is available to me without degrading my family. It’s a disgrace to stand on a corner with your child and stroller and your wife with a sign up. That’s a disgrace. There’s too many agencies that will help a single mother. That mother had no business on the street. The father? Maybe. Maybe! But there’s too much grass he could be cutting, too many leaves he could be raking, too many windows he could be washing.”
Harris said he never makes eye contact with the street-corner beggars, but if they did confront him, he would say: “You’re a man, you have no business standing here and begging. You’re a man. Get out of here and find some work.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.