Yesterday was a great Thanksgiving for us, and one like we have never had before. My brother in law is a police officer. About three months ago he arrested a homeless man (Wayne) who turned himself in on a warrant for a revoked license because he was hungry and knew that in jail, he could at least get a meal. Jeff saw something in Wayne and offered to help him if he wanted it. Not much later, Wayne came looking for Jeff and has since kept a job and an apartment. The rest is in the article I posted at the end.
Jeff invited Wayne to Thanksgiving with our family. It was so neat to have him with us. It's the kind of Thanksgiving or Christmas I had always envisioned, having someone there who needs our help, who has no family, who is truly grateful just to be here, and to be alive. He is a very kind and gracious man. When he first came in, Jeff asked him what he would like to drink and Wayne said, "Wine would be great, I get nervous around white people I have never met!" (he is a black man) He was very open with us about his life, which has been rocky, his addictions, and how he is so thankful to God for turning his life around and bringing Jeff into it.
It made me very aware and very thankful that I have a house to live in, a husband who works so hard to provide for us, and God who never gives up on us. Wayne was homeless in my little town, and I mean little, about 800 people. It really opened my eyes to the fact that this is all around us. And thankful too, that my husband, fyftn, has a heart for helping people just like Wayne. It was one of my favorite Thanksgivings. And I hope we get to share more of our blessings with Wayne in the future.
Alcoa officer answers call to help transform a life Mark Boxley Published: November 21, 2007Hanging up a pay phone at a gas station on Alcoa Highway, Luther Wayne Kennedy stood impatiently on a warm July morning, waiting for a police cruiser to pick him up and take him to jail. And the only thing he could think about was getting there before the jail stopped serving lunch.
of The Daily Times Staff
He had been living under a tree - actually, it was hardly a tree. His home was better described as a large bush with a floor made of slabs of stone scavenged from a nearby garden. There he lived with a sleeping bag and a small suitcase containing everything he owned - which wasn't much, a trio of shirts, a couple pairs of pants and whatever toiletries he was lucky enough to have that day.
But it wasn't all bad: He was within walking distance of the crack house where he got his drugs and he was far enough away to stay out of trouble if the police came. And that was something that happened more often than not.
But because his 22-year habit took every cent he came across, Wayne - as he was known by his friends - hadn't eaten in three days.
He had gotten up that morning to a grumbling stomach and with no food in sight, and he remembered he had an active warrant for driving on a revoked license. Jail's not great, he thought, but at least he would have food to eat, clean clothes to wear and he wouldn't be sleeping under a tree.
So he called the police and turned himself in.
"I would rather be in jail than live like I was living," he said. "(In jail) I got food, I got shelter, I can take a shower and they've got clothes. I know it sounds crazy, but that's how bad off I was."
When the officer did arrive just before noon that July 12, instead of the gruff police officer Wayne was expecting, he was approached by Alcoa Police Patrol Officer Jeff Parsons.
"Jeff got out of the car and there was an air about him," Wayne said. "Like he really didn't want to put the handcuffs on me."
Wayne is 58 years old, and when Jeff Parsons first saw him, he could tell the man had been living a rough life.
"He just looked horrible," Parsons said. "He looked like an old gentleman who life had just beat him down."
The two made a connection, even with Wayne handcuffed in the backseat of the cruiser. Jeff could see there was something different about the way Wayne talked about his life and how he wanted to change.
"On the way to the jail, he just kind of poured his heart out," Jeff said.
It was the sincerity in Wayne's voice that moved him to give the man his police department phone number. And for Wayne, that one gesture was what occupied his thoughts during the next 12 days in jail - the thought that someone would be waiting to help him when he got out.
"He said on the way on up (to the jail ... 'If you want help, if you truly, honestly want help, I'll help you,'" Wayne said. "And all of a sudden I felt - I had a feeling like, man, I don't know, I just wasn't scared any more.
"I said, 'When I get out of (jail), I'm going to have help. I'm through with drugs.'" But that wasn't exactly how it happened.
Wayne was released from the Blount County Jail on July 24, a Tuesday. It just so happens that Jeff is off on Tuesdays, and despite many attempts Wayne just wasn't able to track him down. Nonetheless, his spirit wasn't broken yet.
Walking from the jail with nowhere to go, Wayne looked down Lamar Alexander Parkway.
"When I was in jail, I said I was going to make a left turn (in life) instead of a right turn," he said. "If I go right, I go into the hood - straight into the drug world."
And he went left, literally. Ending up at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Wayne explained his problem to someone at the church, how he couldn't get in touch with Jeff.
"They sat down and said, 'Just a minute,'" he said. "She came back in about five minutes and said, 'We have a room for you at the Executive Lodge for one night. ... This should give you time to get in touch with him.'
"Man, I was so happy."
But again, the next morning Wayne still couldn't get Jeff on the phone. Wayne had left the jail with a Bible someone had given to him, and he was angry - at Jeff, at God, at everything.
"I wanted to tear that Bible up, man, I really did because I said, 'This guy lied to me,'" he said. "So, I just tore the cover off the Bible.
"(And) I went back to the drug world."
Back to the tree
The next 10 days, Wayne says, were the lowest of his life. And looking back it was God's way of letting him hit the bottom before building him back up, he said.
"I did drugs for 10 days - for 10 days I went back to where I was at before I met Jeff," he said. "I was living under a tree, man - it was a tree.
"I was actually, actually homeless."
But one day, he remembered what it was like in the back of that police cruiser, and the hope Jeff had given him. So he made the decision to try one more time.
"So, one morning ... I was determined, I said I'm going to see Jeff," he said. "So, I got up and started walking."
He was in Rockford.
"First I went by the Days Inn, because they have a breakfast there," he said with a laugh, explaining how the staff at hotels don't always know who had stayed there and who didn't. "When you're homeless, you learn how to survive."
He made a call from the hotel to the Alcoa Police Department - Jeff was out on a call, but just knowing he was working that day was enough for Wayne.
"(The person on the phone) said, 'Do you have a number (for Jeff to call him back at)?' ... I said, 'No, I'm at a phone booth.'
"And she said, 'Why don't you come in?'"
During that long walk from Rockford to the Alcoa Police Department, Wayne could not help but think about the past 10 days.
"I wanted to be helped right then," he said. "And I guess God wanted me to go back and just see (one more time what being a drug addict was like), so I wouldn't wonder."
Life as an addict
Wayne was born on April 18, 1949, in the outskirts of Chicago. He was adopted shortly after his first birthday and moved to Rockford. He never knew his birth parents.
He grew up the son of working-class parents in Rockford, and the strongest drug he ever used early in life was alcohol. But even that got him in trouble.
He got married at 17 and was divorced and remarried by 21. He moved to Dayton, Ohio, with his second wife in 1969. But after 12 years, that marriage fell apart as well.
"She said I was an alcoholic," he said. "And looking back, I guess I was - I drank every day."
While he was married, Wayne said he had a home - a nice three-bedroom house - cars, money, and anything else he might need.
But after the divorce, he fell apart. He took his $6,000 divorce settlement and, on the advice of some of his friends, decided to make a different kind of investment.
"So everybody told me, 'Man, you can really make money off of coke (cocaine),'" he said.
"So I came here, I came back to Tennessee ... to buy crack."
"First I bought a quarter ounce, then I bought an ounce."
It went downhill from there.
"I started using - I started experimenting with it," he said. "And that's when I really acquired an addiction to crack.
"I guess I used it, now looking back, you know, to fill the space," he said. "I lost my home, I lost my wife, lost my car."
Wayne got married again, quit his job of 18 years at Dayton Power and Light as a gas and electric serviceman and moved to Las Vegas.
Feeding the demon
Soon he was working only to feed his addiction. "I was like three hours away from being in the soup line in Las Vegas," he said. And after leaving his wife and moving back to Tennessee in 1987, it continually got worse.
"I was doing great until I met Mr. Crack and it just started taking all my money," he said. "By the way, I guess I'm still married to that woman, because we never got a divorce."
He got a trailer in Rockford and started working for the Tennessee Highway Department. That is, until he got a DUI. "And I just didn't go back to work on that job," he said.
New crack users - or rookies - are the ones who get hustled, and by this point Wayne was the hustler.
"When I lived in Rockford, I had a trailer and they (his customers) would come and I would take them to Alcoa to get drugs," he said. "I wasn't a drug dealer, I was a user. And I was doing this to support my habit."
The hustle was easy and Wayne always took his cut as the middle man.
"I would go to Alcoa, get out of the car - they were white, all my customers where white - they would go to Kroger, turn around and come back. And I would walk into the hood (to get the drugs)," he said. "Say they gave me $50, well, I could get a better quantity than they could. So out of $50, I would probably get maybe $20 worth of crack - they were satisfied, I was satisfied.
"A lot of times they would sit at my place and smoke it, we would smoke it."
"I was just off into the drug world," he said. "You know, drugs draw women, and women draw men and I had a little old business there I guess - had a little crack house, I guess.
"The police thought it was, too," he said laughing.
In 2003, Wayne was arrested, charged with and convicted for delivery of cocaine.
"Well, I got caught," he said. "A guy wore a wire on me four times - a guy I thought was a friend of mine. And I ended up doing 26 months in the state penitentiary."
It wasn't the first time Wayne had been arrested, but it was the first time for a drug charge. And it was by far the hardest time he ever served. Between 1996 and 2007, Wayne has been in and out of the Blount County Jail 17 times. He was in jail three times just this year.
But while at Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, it was the real deal.
Going even lower
After he got out and returned to his drug-addicted lifestyle, his adoptive mother - a retired school teacher, who taught him when he was younger in a two-room, segregated schoolhouse - died in June 2006. "And that's when I became homeless and didn't know it," he said.
"At the time, I wasn't working, there was a mortgage on the house and taxes were behind," he said. "We were almost ready to lose the house."
But before they did, someone bought it. And while they were remodeling, they let Wayne live in a tent on the yard to look after the place. He stayed warm by burning trash discarded during the remodeling job.
"I did roll over into the fire one night," he said somberly. "I slept by a fire, a trash fire."
"By then, I was selling drugs," he said. "I was hustling drugs to get high, to stay high.
"I got hungry, man. I got so hungry at times I would just get weak," he said. "The thing about the drug world - I call it the devil, because it is the devil - the devil will get you high, but he ain't going to get you a sandwich."
It was the same for other drug addicts. "You'll starve to death, but they'll get you a beer," he said. "But they won't give you a sandwich, man. I'm talking about people you know, friends, you know? "Because they ain't hungry, they're getting high."
That was a turning point for Wayne. "This is the point that I think God brought me to, to show me what not having is - not having water, not having food, not having clothing," he said. "When I hit the bottom, that taught me a lot that I didn't learn in 50-something years."
His guardian angel
Walking up to the window at the Alcoa Police Department, Wayne asked for Jeff. The woman behind the glass asked if Jeff would be expecting him. "I said, 'Oh yeah, he's expecting me,'" Wayne said.
Talking to Jeff, though, he would tell you that the man in the lobby was something he wasn't expecting at all. He had given his number to people like Wayne before, but no one ever called him back. And when he walked into the room and saw Wayne standing there, it was a bit of a revelation.
"(Wayne) goes, 'I'm here, I need some help,'" Jeff said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is for real now."
The first thing Jeff wanted to do was get Wayne something to eat. Unfortunately, they stopped at a gas station where Wayne had a history.
"I said, 'Man, I got caught stealing food out of there,'" Wayne said. And sure enough, when the two of them walked in the cashier remembered the man who tried to leave with a can of Spam under his shirt. Wayne doesn't blame them, how could you forget a guy who said that bulge was actually a pistol when they tried to stop him.
But Jeff doesn't hold that past against Wayne.
"At the time he did what he did (use drugs), he had nothing," Jeff said. "He was in survival mode."
Jeff got so upset about the way the workers at the station reacted, the two of them left. Food wasn't really the most important thing for Wayne right now anyway, Jeff said. It was finding him a place to stay that night.
My kingdom for a couch
Jeff didn't have much luck at first at a nearby homeless shelter - there weren't any rooms available. But there was a couch.
"I said, 'Can he please sleep on the couch tonight?'" Jeff said. And the person in charge agreed to let Wayne sleep there, but just for the night.
"The very same night - and this is how God works - a guy moved out," Wayne said. "The very same night. "I felt like I was in the Hilton Hotel."
At that time, Wayne only had his small suitcase and the few pieces of clothing it contained. And he almost didn't have that.
While Wayne was in the Blount County Jail, Jeff had gone back to his tree to get the bag. But the owners of the property were cleaning up the yard and had already thrown it in the trash pile. If it had been taken to the dump, Wayne would have lost the few possessions he still had. Jeff was able to pull it out of the pile before that happened, though.
"It was by pure luck," Jeff said. "In another hour it would have been gone." There were a few other things Wayne needed at the homeless shelter - basic toiletries mostly. He gave Jeff a "wish list" of items - but it contained things that most people didn't have to wish for. And it made Jeff, and later his wife, cry to read it.
"It was a long list - toothpaste, toothbrushes, just things like that," Jeff said.
He took the list and went to the store. "He said, 'Let me see your list,'" Wayne said. "He just took the list, man. He came back, not with two bars of soap (but with) a 12-pack of soap, toothpaste, deodorant - I mean two deodorants.
"Everything on that list, he brought me," he said. "Him and his wife got it for me."
On top of that, the manager of the Alcoa Wal-Mart, Boyce Smith, donated shoes and some clothes for Wayne.
Signs of life
Far from the sad man he picked up at the Exxon station that day in July, Jeff has seen the light re-enter Wayne's eyes in the past few months.
"The change that I've seen in Luther (Wayne) is his spirit," Jeff said. "He's just happier; he's bubblier."
A week-and-a-half after he moved into the homeless shelter, Wayne had gotten himself a job at Buddy's BBQ on Alcoa Highway. And with that, he finally felt at least a little self-sufficient.
"I got 10 hours the first paycheck," Wayne said. "Ten hours the first week. "I brought home my $57 and man, that felt like $570 in my pocket."
Jeff would take Wayne to the bank every week to cash his check, and just as things were really looking up, "Bam, child support hit," Wayne said.
Wayne has five children - four girls and a boy. The oldest was born in 1967 and the youngest is in his 20s. None of them kept in contact with their dad while he was on drugs - Wayne hasn't seen his son since 1988.
"I didn't want them to see me like that," he said. "They didn't want to see me like that."
Along with not seeing them, Wayne also did not pay to support them. And over the years he fell $27,000 behind in child support. And when he finally got a legal job, the government stepped in and started taking the money back, $50 at a time.
"You know, times in the past I would have used that as an excuse," he said of the garnishment. "I'd say the hell with it, I'm not going to work and pay child support - I'm going back to drugs."
But that's not what he did. He kept working, he kept paying child support and after a few weeks was able to get an even better-paying job detailing RVs at Chilhowee RV Center in Alcoa.
Even with all the strides Wayne was taking to set his life straight, his past keeps sneaking up on him. One day Jeff got wind that Wayne had a warrant issued for his arrest for not paying child support. Jeff thought that was odd, because he knew Wayne was paying the support - he took him to the bank every week and saw his check.
Jeff went to Blount County Circuit Judge W. Dale Young and convinced him to remove the attachments for contempt. He told the judge, "If you put him in jail now, he'll lose his job." And in that, he would lose everything he had worked so hard to gain. Wayne certainly knows what would have happened if Jeff hadn't stepped in to help him.
"If he hadn't been my friend, I would have been homeless again and I'd have been back on drugs again. I know I would," he said. "I'd have said, 'What's the use? I'm doing everything right and I still can't make it.'"
The only condition is that Jeff had to promise Wayne would be at his next court hearing. "And he was - I took him," Jeff said. It turned out to be a clerical error, Jeff said, "It wasn't even his fault."
A working, walking man
Wayne walks to work every day from his own apartment near Chilhowee RV Center. Danny Stahl, the shop foreman at Chilhowee RV, said he remembered the day Wayne came in looking for a job.
"He seemed really sincere about coming to work," he said, explaining how he went to his boss about Wayne after meeting him. "I told him that there was something about this guy that I had a good feeling about.
"I told him I would really like to put this guy on (to work)." When he offered Wayne the job, he started the next day.
"He was here early," Stahl said. "He's been here early ever since. "He's just a really, really dependable guy."
Stahl said he would never guess by looking at him that Wayne has gone through the things he has, but everyone deserves a chance regardless of their past.
"Everybody has to have a job," he said. "I personally don't care what his past is. "I'm just glad I found Luther (Wayne)," he said, quickly correcting himself. "Or that he found me."
Both Jeff and Wayne agree on one thing, if things had happened differently that day in July, Wayne would still be on the street or possibly dead.
If it hadn't been Jeff who arrested him that day, "I would still be over there in crack city," Wayne said. "I would probably be dead, more than likely."
"He'd still be in the street," Jeff reiterated. "There's no doubt in my mind.
"That's how wonderful God is: He did this, He planned this," he said. "Until the day I die, I'll believe this is God's work.
"We'll be friends for life, there's no doubt in my mind," he added. "He'll be someone I'll never forget."
Wayne is thankful for that friendship, and the fact that Jeff cared enough to try and help a down-and-out crack addict.
"What if Jeff had looked at me and said, 'Oh, look at him. He stinks, I don't want to bother with him, he ain't never going to straighten up," Wayne said. "But he didn't, he looked at me as a human being."
For the people struggling with the same demons Wayne was battling only months ago, he says you have to make that first step away from a life of drugs.
"I try to tell them, 'You can, you can, you can,'" he said. "But you've got to get out of there, you've got to get out from under that tree."
Still a long way to go
Wayne has only been clean for about three months - two months shy of his longest drug-free stretch, the 5½ months he was clean in the late 1980s. And he'll tell you he's not a saint.
"I'm still weak," he said. "I struggle every day."
But there are things, people and God in his life that help him stay clean. "I can look in the refrigerator and I've got me something to eat and I've got a clean bed to sleep on, and I know if I go over there and start smoking that (crack), I'll bypass the office (and not pay rent) and I'll be homeless, just like that," he said. "And I ain't going back, I'm not going back.
"I'm not going to say I'll never be homeless again," he said. "But it won't be because of crack. I promise you that."
* Post A Comment!
Nov. 23, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by SmallWorld (220.127.116.11)
That was a fabulous article, and I'm glad Wayne got to spend the day with you all!
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Nov. 26, 2007 - wow.
Posted by DrHibiscus (18.104.22.168)
I read that article when it came out in the paper, but didn't make the connection with you until Sarah mentioned it. What an amazing journey. And how cool that you got to spend Thanksgiving with him. Even if white people make him nervous I bet it was one of the best Thanksgivings he's had for a while!
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Nov. 27, 2007 - That was very good for me to read!
Posted by bestsister (22.214.171.124)
My husband is an officer and there have been kids he's tried to help in the past. So far none have been ready. It is frustrating to watch them continue the destructive cycle when they don't have to. But your family's experience has encouraged me that in the Lord's timing, the right opportunity to serve will come along. Blessings!
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Nov. 27, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by WaitingontheLord (126.96.36.199)
Wow! And your children get to see the adults in their family showing the love of God. Thank you for letting your light shine!