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A Long Road Home

by Opportunity House

Nov 27, 2018
Joe
Most mornings, Joe’s outside, scoping out the sidewalks and side streets around the shelter. The trash he finds—paper cups, snack-food wrappers, cigarette butts—goes into a black plastic bag. No one told him he had to. But he’s been doing it since April 2017, when a Shillington cop drove him and his sister Lisa here because you can’t live on a bench in the park. Trash detail suits this thoughtful man in his early 60s, a former altar boy and self-described “searcher,” whose life is much like anyone’s: a mix of missed opportunities, regret—and redemption.

A 1974 graduate of Exeter High School, Joe had a loving family, athletic talent, and smarts. What he lacked: worldly ambition. He attended Kutztown University and declared as a biology major, but dropped out after his junior year. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. So when a friend of his father’s said he’d help him break into the insurance business, Joe said sure. He studied, passed the test, and sold insurance for the next several years. “I almost went to New York to be a stockbroker—I had a job offer,” he says. But the big money wasn’t a draw. Joe stayed in Reading, and worked as an assistant manager at a local steakhouse and as a shipping manager for a software company. In the mid-90s, he met Joyce.

She’d come to Reading with her two kids to escape an abusive relationship in Baltimore, and they were friends from the start. When she and her kids returned to Baltimore a decade later, Joe went, too, and formed a close bond with her children. He stayed in Baltimore for over 6 years, living with friends, working odd jobs, and just being Joe, for better and for worse. In mid-2010, his father called from Reading. “I heard urgency in his voice, and decided to come home,” says Joe. His instinct was right—his father was sick. The footloose man who’d spent a decade away from home, stepped up to care for his family. “My parents were not thrilled with my choices,” says Joe. “So I was thankful for the time my dad and I had to rectify our relationship.”  His father died later that year. Joe stayed in Reading to care for Lisa, whose learning disability leaves her unable to hold a job, and his mother, who’d developed dementia. For the next three years, keeping her safe was Joe’s full-time job. When his care was no longer enough, she was placed in Keystone Villa in Douglasville, and passed away in 2015. Thus began the siblings’ two years of home insecurity.

Joe and Lisa moved from apartment to apartment until Joe could no longer afford rent. The pair moved to a hotel in Kutztown. When they could no longer afford to pay rent there, they lived in Joe’s car. When the car was impounded because Joe couldn’t pay the insurance, they moved to that park bench. “That’s when we were brought to Opportunity House,” he says. Once at the shelter, Joe struggled to adjust. “I had some depression,” he says. He’s also worked through some regrets with his life choices. But he looks back on his “rich life experience,” as he calls it, with humor and some pride. He was there for Joyce’s children—and still is. He was there for his parents when they needed him. And he’s still here for Lisa. “My goal is to get her established and settled in a life of independence,” he says. When that happens, Joe will be on his way—somewhere. A voracious reader and born philosopher, Joe would like to write a book about his life that might help others. “I have stories to tell and experience others could benefit from.” And he’ll carry his stay here with him wherever he goes.

“When my sister and I needed shelter, Opportunity House was there,” he says. “I’m grateful for that. “Everyone should experience homelessness at least once. I was never one who cared much for possessions, the big home, the good job. My life has been adjustment after adjustment, and I’m becoming more accepting of and content with who I am and what I have. It’s not much by most people’s standards, but it’s enough for me.”

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