Also known as “Twin” or “Big”, meet Harvey – a 61 year old man from West Philadelphia, whose positive attitude and larger than life personality are infectious. A self-proclaimed “hell of a walker”, Big enjoys strolling around the neighborhoods of Philly and even walking aimlessly for hours at a time. He reads nonfiction books and is especially knowledgeable about the Nazi-Germany period of history. What’s not apparent on the surface is that Harvey had spent half of his life in a state penitentiary before experiencing homelessness after his release from prison. He has been unemployed for 9 years now as his record of incarceration puts him at a disadvantage to be hired by employers.
Harvey resides at the St. Raymond’s House, a permanent housing facility for individuals who are experiencing homelessness and have a chronic health condition. He views the house as a blessing and feels he has been rescued by both St. Raymond’s and by God’s grace. He says this was a miracle because even though he didn’t fit all of the criteria necessary to qualify for housing at St. Raymond’s, DePaul USA still accepted his case and didn’t turn him away. He quotes the Bible to describe the significance of this act of compassion,
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverb 17:17
Once he realized that St. Raymond’s was located in the same neighborhood that he had lived in before being incarcerated, he knew that God had been present in every step of his journey; it seemed like a second chance. Throughout this process, he lost many family members and friends and became estranged with them to the point that he heard from people outside of his family that his young Hollywood actor son, Harvey Silver, had passed away. Along the way, however, he had mentors and community members that helped him reach each next step in his life. For instance, his landlord took a special interest in Harvey and didn’t evict him right away after he had missed several rent payments. She bought him 6 months extra time and still waves to him today when she sees him around town.
People also looked out for Harvey during Code Blue, a period of extreme winter weather conditions when individuals who are homeless are taken from outside and put into shelters. Neighbors would take Big from the porch he slept on and allow him to stay inside their homes until Code Blue passed just so he could avoid the shelter systems. These people who took him in treated him as if they had known Harvey for years and would light up whenever he walked by so much so that some people said he was the mayor of the neighborhood.
When asked what he was most proud of, Harvey said that it was his ability,
“To be able to love life enough to struggle for a better life.”
He fervidly admitted that he could have been alcohol dependent or dead at this point but the fact that he is still alive and still functioning with great health is a testament to his strength and perseverance. Big calls his journey a “growing experience” that has molded and shaped him in a positive rather than a negative way. He says that his worth outweighs the bitterness so that he is able to adapt and move on.
Harvey is currently writing a book. He feels that he has a calling in life to write and receives signs of this calling by finding pens on the sidewalks outside. He collects these pens as well as little pieces of paper where he writes his thoughts down in the form of inspirational words of wisdom and sayings about life. He says that his son clearly takes after him with the talent of writing and shared a quote his son once said,
“Life is like a thin line; What’s important is how well you stay balanced.”
A main theme of The Faces of Germantown blog is to break down the stigma surrounding people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Therefore, I asked Harvey what were some common misconceptions that people, who have never encountered homelessness or poverty, might have about these two experiences. He said that the two main assumptions are that the person is either addicted to drugs or a “nut”. However, after my interview with Harvey, I am starting to realize that the truth is not so black and white; there are dozens of reasons why people end up on the streets or in a shelter system. Life is complicated and people are complicated and as Harvey says,
“Nobody under the sun knows when they’re going to face hard times. Like a fish in a net, you never know when you might face adversity.”
Excerpts from Harvey’s Writings…
“The need of one may be more important than the need of many.”
“Don’t give in to adversity, find and gather strength and persevere through it.”
“Sometimes it seems we have done the wrong thing. However, sometimes it is done for the right reason.”
“Death is certain. Life is not.”
“Growing plants are a good example. Nothing will stop them from growing out of the ground which it came.”
“Been down many times, but not out.”
“If ‘love’ is a feeling, then there should be no declaration to love one another forever. Because feelings come and go.”