As the parents of a homeless son struggling with a drug addiction, Frank and his wife Deloris have done everything they could think of to get their grown son into rehab. But it didn’t work.
So Frank took it a step further — he spent a week on the streets with his son, Tommy.
“You hear for years that with addictions there are three roads: rehab, jail, and death,” said Frank. “The jails won’t keep him. He doesn’t want to help himself. That doesn’t leave many roads…So what do I do?”
“I decided I’m just going to be with him and love him. I’m not going to try and talk him into rehab. I don’t even want to say that word. I’ve decided. I’m going to go be with my son.”
Frank recounted his story in an essay that was read by Jerry Herships, a pastor for the homeless ministry AfterHours, June 5 at Denver’s Civic Center Park. The park is a major setting for the story, and a hub for the city’s homeless population.
Tommy, 28, struggles with bipolar disorder, is addicted to heroin, and has frequently been in and out of jail. Frank requested their family’s last name not be used, but he wanted to share his encounter with homelessness and human dignity.
The story begins when Frank is tending to his garden in San Diego, California, when he gets the idea to spend time with his son, no matter the circumstances.
“One day, I’m outside doing yard work…I go inside, and I tell Deloris I have an idea. I’m going to Denver… and be homeless. She looks at me like I’m nuts. Maybe I am. But I love my son and to be honest, I think his days are numbered.”
Frank flew to Denver with only a 50-pound backpack, which included a water bottle, small tent, first-aid kit, flashlight, 4X6 sheet of plastic, and some clothes. Arriving to Denver late, he slept in the airport and took a train downtown early the next morning.
When he arrived at Civic Center Park, Frank inquired about Tommy and was directed by the some of his son’s acquaintances toward the needle exchange. Already high, his son was waiting in line to receive clean needles to shoot up drugs, but his father embraced him anyway.
“I can see he can't stand up without the support of the building. He would appear drunk to most people… I know from past experiences, sadly, he is on heroin,” said Frank.
“I get up to him and he starts to turn his back on me. I don't even care, I just grab him and squeeze him as hard as I can. I'm telling him over and over how much I love him. I tell him how much his family loves him.”
In the essay, Frank gives details about the processes of finding campsites and food, interactions with other people who are homeless, and the struggles with Tommy’s drug addiction.
The experience was extremely difficult, Frank said, recalling times when watching his son’s pain and crippling addiction brought him to tears. He could the see dominating force of addiction — the constant use of people and the single-minded focus on the drug.
Because of a previous charge for bike theft, Tommy had to appear in court that week, pass a drug test, and provide evidence of attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, or he would automatically get 30 days in jail.
But before the court case, he went into a grocery store, where he spent so long that Frank stated: “I'm sure it was to shoot up and fill his rear end with drugs. If they send him to jail he can be high and have a backup supply in jail. That’s what they do. This is all so sick. Most people couldn't even imagine this world. I lived it. It is real.”
In the end, Tommy was able to make a deal with the District Attorney’s office, delaying the court appearance and drug test for an additional week.
Frustrated and exhausted by the end of the trip, Frank complained about his son’s lack of appreciation and rude behavior. However, his wife reminded him that the mental illness and drug addictions were influencing Tommy’s behavior.
Frank’s week-long visit with his son did not solve the problems of Tommy’s addiction or homelessness. But it gave Frank a chance to connect with his son in his suffering and to express his love.
“This experience has changed me for life,” wrote Frank, noting the insight he has gained into the public’s reaction to homelessness and the hold of addictions.
While taking public transportation or waiting in line to make a purchase, he said he was treated like a second-class citizen, both ignored and harassed because he appeared to be homeless.
“What would God say? How many of these folks go to church every week?” he said. “Maybe they too, like myself, should change and respect our fellow man.”
While Frank said that he does not give money to homeless people, he now makes a greater effort to talk to them and show them love and respect.
“I treat them like I would treat somebody else. They deserve that. God made us all equal. We are still humans, show some respect.”