Editor’s note: This is the second segment of a mini-series profiling one of Akron’s homeless citizens. This series will follow one man’s day, from sun-up to sun-down, and will chronicle his journey around downtown Akron on a brisk November day, where his main goal was to find a warm place to stay. Read Part I of this series here. Visit Akronist next week to read more of Matthew Garner’s story.
Matthew Garner finishes his soup and returns to his friends – three middle-aged men sitting on the curb beside their backpacks and plastic bags of food. While volunteers load tables into cars and the crowd slinks back around weathered brick buildings behind trees, Garner stands over his friends and smokes a cigarette. They are the last to leave.
The state of dreams
Garner was born and raised in Mena, Ark., a rural city of roughly 5,600, known for its wilderness reserves. After spending some time living in the California Bay Area, Garner returned to Arkansas, where he met the woman who would become his wife.
Garner recalls a scene from the Stateline Tavern, a bar that sits on the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma.
“Her boyfriend was beating up on her, so I jumped in and pulled him off,” he says, reminiscing about their first encounter. “A few days later, we met at the bar again, and we started dating.”
After dating for two years, the two became pregnant with their first child, a son. They married shortly after, and then had a daughter. Garner also helped raise a stepdaughter, from his wife’s previous relationship. Garner held several jobs in Mena to support his family, and with occasional help from relatives, the family was never forced to resort to homelessness. But when they eventually moved to Akron, where many of his wife’s relatives lived, that changed.
“Her family made it sound like, you know, the state of dreams,” Garner recalls.
This wasn’t the case for him. With a criminal record, he found it difficult to hold a job. Problems with their family’s financial situation eventually caused Garner and his wife to divorce.
“She was beautiful,” he says with a spark of joy in his voice. “And she is a good mother. But the situation with me and her just wasn’t working out because of the job situation and the bills and all that. It was all bad once we got here.”
His ex-wife and children moved to Texas, and her relatives also soon left, spreading across the country. Garner was left alone in Akron.
“It’s not easy when you’ve been living with a woman for 20 years and then she goes, you know?” says Edwin, a 46-year-old Puerto Rican homeless man, and one of Garner’s close friends. “But he don’t show no angers or nothing. For a big fellow, he’s a good guy.”
Fighting multiple battles
Bill Young is a manager at the Peter Maurin Center. He has helped feed and clothe Akron’s homeless, like Garner, for seven years and has developed personal relationships with many of the people he helps.
“Many of [the homeless] have mental health issues,” he says. “A percentage of them, probably less than half, also have addiction issues.”
Garner falls into both of these categories.
He claims he has been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder, bipolar disorder and depression. He says he has been battling his mental illnesses for the past four years.
“One minute, I’m fine,” he says. “The next minute, you know, I’m either beating somebody up or kicking and screaming, throwing things.”
Garner picks up medication for his illnesses at the Portage Path Behavioral Clinic on South Broadway in downtown Akron.
“Being homeless in itself can be traumatic,” explains Karla Lang, the case manager coordinator at the Clinic. Karla spent years working with homeless clients and recently created the case management program at the Clinic. “I can’t imagine that anyone living on the streets or in a shelter at times doesn’t experience depression or anxiety.”
As for drugs, Garner says he became addicted at an early age. His addiction propelled him to steal in order to sustain his habit, which led to his visits to jail – four in California and four in Ohio. He now is battling his drug problem as well as alcoholism in order to get off probation.
However, the battle isn’t easy. By midday, after vowing just a few hours ago to stop drinking, Garner already wants another beer.
“I started yesterday, just so I could get in there to be warm,” he says. “But it started a chain reaction, and now I wanna drink today.”
Visit the site next week for the final segment in this series.
Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of this article, no photos were taken. The cover image for this story is not Matthew Garner.