Tuesday, April 18, 2000

Former homeless addict becomes chairman of lobby group

BY Lucy May
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Donald Whitehead
        Just five years ago, Donald Whitehead was spending his nights at the Drop-Inn Center, crying himself to sleep, wondering how his promising life had led him to homelessness.

        This month he was elected chairman of the board for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. — the first formerly homeless person and first African-American to hold the job.

        Mr. Whitehead, 37, said he is honored by being elected to the volunteer post but is more pleased by what his selection says about the organization itself.

        “The mission of the National Coalition for the Homeless is to involve homeless and formerly homeless individuals at all levels,” he said. “By electing me, it shows that the organization is sincere about fulfilling its mission.”

        Mr. Whitehead lives in Over-the-Rhine and works as program recruiter with Goodwill Industries. He's married and has six children.

        From 1997 until this past January, he was director for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, which coordinates efforts for homeless people locally.

        He helped start the Street Vibes homeless newspaper in Cincinnati, and was a founding member of the Street Newspaper Association, a national organization.

        He also has helped focus the national group on civil rights issues that affect homeless people, such as city ordinances that prohibit sleeping on benches.

        It's a long way from the night five years ago when, lying in the Drop-Inn Center homeless shelter, he decided to turn around his life.

        He had grown up a middle-class kid. Graduated from Hughes High School. Voted the class vice president and “Most Likely to Succeed.” He was the home coming king.

        He went to the University

        of Cincinnati and spent three and a half years in the Navy.

        “I came back to Cincinnati to live the American dream,” he said.

        But then he became homeless, he said, “because of substance abuse.”

        As an addict, Mr. Whitehead would take whatever was available. He lived on the streets three or four months. But for about four years, between the ages of 28 and 32, he moved from place to place, staying with different relatives.

        That one night, while he lay there crying, things changed.

        “I guess at that point I surrendered,” he said. “At that point, a lot of really good things happened to me.”

        Mr. Whitehead began working to overcome his addiction. He started traveling with the late Buddy Gray, founder of the Drop-Inn Center, learning about how homelessness touched people's lives all over the country.

        If he had it to do over again, Mr. Whitehead said he would avoid all the pain of substance abuse and homelessness.

        “But it made me a better person,” he said.

        It also made him decide he wanted to help others.

        During his term as chairman of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Mr. Whitehead must help hire a new executive director. He will appear before congressional committees and meet with Andrew Cuomo, federal Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

        He will fight for the reauthorization of the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Homelessness Assistance Act, which provides federal money to local programs to help homeless people. He wants more money to be appropriated for the growing task.

        “He's outspoken and uncompromising in terms of the issues, but he also has the personality where he can work with all kinds of people as well,” said Barbara Duffield, the national group's director of education programs.

        And, as a person who has been homeless, Mr. Whitehead never forgets who the national group is working to help, Ms. Duffield said.

        “If ever that perspective starts to slip away, Donald brings it back to people's lives on the street,” she said. “He has an uncompromising nature because he knows what it's like.”

        It's nearly impossible to track how many people are homeless at any one time because the situation is usually temporary, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

        The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated in 1999 that as many as 2 million people experience homelessness during one year.

        For more information, see the coalition's web page: http://nch.ari.net


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