From Surviving the Streets to Thriving In San Francisco
BY Jase Peeples
August 09 2013 6:00 AM ET
LGBT people know rejection — from family, or misguided friends, or our government. The It Gets Better campaign, for example, is about relating via our survival stories. But one man is sharing what happened to him because it shows the sometimes surprisingly boundless nature of perseverance.
It was 1990 when Neil told his mother he was gay. But rather than accept him, she kicked her 16-year-old son out of the only home he’d ever known in Chicopee, Mass.
“She was going through a divorce from my stepfather at the time and she wasn’t in a good place,” Neil says. “My father left our family when I was very young, and with her second marriage failing at the time, I don’t think she could handle having a gay son too.”
Finding himself cut off from his family, Neil turned to the only person he could for help, a man named Dean he’d been dating for only a few short months. Dean was also 11 years his senior. “There wasn’t a lot of support for gay teens back then,” Neil says. “I didn’t have any idea where else to turn, so I moved in with my boyfriend.”
As difficult as it was to be kicked out of his home and shunned by his family, Neil’s life was about to take a turn for the worse. Almost immediately after Neil moved in, Dean became both physically and emotionally abusive.
“I was young and naïve,” he recalls. “I didn’t know people could be like that. He would put me down, make me feel worthless, and beat me up quite a bit. I was pretty isolated from gay culture back then too, and he made sure it stayed that way.” Feeling like he had no other option, Neil stayed with Dean and tried his best to make their relationship work.
As months became years, the two began building a life together, and eventually started a successful business selling antiques. “I was very proud of the life I had built because I was a high school dropout,” he says. “But although I felt like it was successful, I was also very unhappy because my relationship was unhealthy.”
By the time Neil turned 26, he knew he had to escape his abusive relationship, but was unsure how to untangle himself from the man with whom his life was intertwined.
“One day, in November of 2000, I came in the house after work and he started reeling into me, calling me names and putting me down. He was drinking heavily by that point,” Neil recalls. “I don’t know what came over me, but I snapped and said ‘I’m done. I want out. You can have everything. I just want to walk away and start a new life’.”
Dean attacked Neil, beating him so severely that he ended up in the hospital with a cracked skull, broken ribs, and a broken arm. “When I told the doctor I was going to go back home he grabbed a mirror, held it up to my face and told me to look at myself. When I saw what my boyfriend had done to me I just started crying because I didn’t even recognize myself. That’s when the doctor told me to leave and get out of that place. He gave me $500 and told me to disappear. So I got on a bus, went to Boston, found a park bench, and that’s where I lived.”
Over the following months, Neal struggled to survive on the streets as he used public restrooms to escape the bitter Boston winter, and dug through garbage cans for food. His 5’10" frame quickly withered to 120 pounds and he spent his 27th birthday alone and scared on the park bench he found the day he fled from his abusive boyfriend.
“It got to a point I thought I was going to die,” remembers Neil. “After a few months on the street, I began to notice other homeless people, and how being homeless can literally drive you crazy. I was afraid I was beginning to go down that path, and I realized I had to get off the streets.”
Desperate to survive, Neil called his mother from a payphone, hoping the woman who kicked him out of his home more than a decade earlier would have a change of heart. To his surprise, she welcomed him home. “I learned she was living in North Shore [Mass.,] with a new husband I hadn’t even met,” he says. “Thankfully they took me in and I stayed with them while I got healthy and got myself together.”
Neil slowly began to improve, and soon landed a job working as a caterer at an advertising agency. “It was amazing because it was in one of the buildings I used to look at when I was homeless and I'd daydream about what it would be like to work there,” he says.
Then something even more wonderful happened. A woman named Mary Ellen, who was the head of the company’s project management department, was so impressed with Neil’s upbeat attitude and friendly demeanor that she offered him the chance to work for her as a junior project manager.
“I didn’t know what to say, so I was just honest,” he recalls. “I told her I don’t know anything about advertising. I’m a high school dropout, but I’m a hard worker, and she said, ‘That sounds perfect.'”
As he accepted the position, Neil made a promise to himself that he would use the horrible experiences of his past to drive him forward rather than hold him down. He excelled at his new position, and was promoted shortly thereafter. His newfound sense of self and confidence translated to his personal life as well.