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Cambridge homeless man chronicles his life on Twitter

Posted by Your Town  December 20, 2011 09:40 AM

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Gary Johnston says he once worked as an executive sous chef creating dishes at a hip Manhattan bistro. He spent his time, he says, playing his acoustic Ibanez guitar, eating crab sushi and enjoying the colorful culture in his native Brooklyn.

Ten years later, Johnston now calls a homeless shelter in Cambridge home. His days are filled with therapy appointments. He eats at soup kitchens and bundles up in thrift store layers to face the brutal weather.

There’s one other big difference in Johnston’s life. He now chronicles every step of his homeless journey to over 1,800 Twitter followers at @bostonhomeless and to the world on his blog, Homeless in Boston.

April 24, 2011
“I’m not an addict, I’m educated, and there was a time I was great at what I do. Depression and stress has eaten me alive without my ever really being able to see it, and now I feel as if I’ve woken from a ten year long dream, and have no understanding of my reality.”

Johnston, 43, hasn’t always been struggling to put his life back together. He tells of an intense journey over the past ten years-- from living fast, to losing friends on 9/11 and dealing with the psychological effects of that loss, to now living on the streets.

Today, as he works to get back on his feet, he is using social media not only to chronicle his experiences but to stay connected every day after the shelter where he stays kicks him and his 20 housemates out at 8 a.m. each day. (He asked that the shelter not be named for confidentiality and safety reasons.)

His first stop is at what he calls his “office,” a table in a small concrete area on Massachusetts Avenue near Central Square.

There, Johnston fires up his black laptop, a gift from a friend, to use free Wi-Fi he can pick up there. On a recent morning, he waited for his friends to emerge from the streets leading to the Cambridge shelter, giving a nod as his housemate Stephen Drury approached.

“I found a friend in Gary,” Drury begins in answer to a visitor’s question, when a fellow shelter resident interrupts him, saying “What do ya mean? You’re always complaining about him!”

Johnston laughs, adjusting the gray beanie that covers his white hair as more of his housemates emerge through the thick morning fog.

“We love each other, we’ve become family, but God, sometimes we sure get sick of each other,” he says.

The group assembles and begins their usual morning walk down the street to McDonald’s. Johnston gives his order to the cashier. Large coffee, cream and five sugars.

He saunters over to his posse sitting at the high-top tan tables. Some will stay here all day comparing life stories. Not Johnston. Most of his days are spent meeting with his “team,” which is working with him as he attempts to regain control of his life -- three therapists, a psychiatrist, a case manager, a social worker, a housing manager, and a “personal guru,” he says. His doctors are covered under his MassHealth insurance. He pays only a $3 dollar co-pay for his prescriptions.

“I can’t hold a job," Johnston says. "I’m still too much of a mess. But I’m trying to get myself together and get a job helping people."


September 11, 2011
“Over the last decade I found myself slipping further away with each passing day, feeling helpless as each day was seeming moving towards an inevitable disastrous ending. Growing further from my former self, feeling more empty inside every day.”

Life wasn’t always a daily battle for Johnston.

Johnston says he was born and bred in Brooklyn, and followed his passion of cooking to become a sous chef at an exclusive Manhattan hotel. He was constantly surrounded by friends and enjoyed the perks of the good life, like a $200 per week sushi habit, he says.

One single day changed all of that for Johnston.

“9/11 screwed me pretty good," he says. "I lost people really close to me. After that, I had a hard time.”

Johnston felt his life spiraling out of control. He says he had post-traumatic stress disorder after that fateful day in the city. Looking to create an illusion of living, he started indulging in sexual compulsions, overeating and smoking marijuana, he says. He followed a friend to Providence and eventually Boston to live with her. Eventually, he saw the emotional toll it was taking on both of them. After an emotional conversation, he says she didn’t kick him out, but they both knew the current situation wasn’t working.

“I knew that I needed help and had to be forced out the door,” he says.

September 21, 2011
“Since day one of becoming homeless social media has helped me gain every possible advantage. My writing was simply for therapeutic reasons, yet somehow people found it and read it.”

Johnston says he started his blog a few weeks before arriving at his first shelter in Boston. Writing was a way for him to talk about the emotional journey he was beginning.

Life was tough as he scrounged by on $200 per month in food stamps and money made by freelancing for the Spare Change newspaper. He sold his acoustic guitar to buy the cheapest pay-as-you-go cell phone he could find with Internet access.

“It runs on a 1G network, or as I call it, the O-G network,” Johnston laughs.

Johnston typed his blog posts on his phone. He wrote about everything from soliciting donations for both himself and other homeless friends, to being frank about his current mental state, to sounding off about the friendly and not-so-friendly people he was encountering. No topic was off limits.

October 11, 2011
“All I can say, is I’m tired. Tired of having this “disabling condition” over my head and interrupting my most productive period in life. Tired of busting my ass for everyone and then when I need support I get 2 people show up. I’m tired of constantly being broke because all my time is spent in therapists and the only thing that I can actually make time to do for money is write and medical research. Which all totals to about $100 a month, so in my most stressful times I can’t even afford the $4 cheap tobacco to calm myself. I’m tired of trying to help people and then watch them spend their days swallowing pills like it’s a sport.”

Within days, comments started coming in. He was writing and people were reading.

One of those readers could empathize with Johnston’s situation. Mark Horvath is a former homeless man who now tries to help the country’s homeless population on his website. A social media expert, Horvath felt inspired after reading about a picnic Johnston organized for other homeless people. Horvath invited Johnston to speak at the Social Media Summit Conference in Boston in September.

“We need more Garys. We need more Garys to speak up and talk about what’s going on in the world,” Horvath says.

Johnston added dialogue about his journey to Horvath’s presentation, impressed that people looked at him with eyes free of pity.

“I came away from that with reassurance that I’m doing things right and to keep going,” Johnston says.

He also left the conference with new friends. Horvath introduced him to bestselling author Chris Brogan. Brogan took Horvath and Johnston out for a dinner filled with good food and conversation at Legal Seafood.

The next day Johnston’s phone rang. Brogan’s name flashed across the screen. He asked Johnston to meet him, where he bestowed a few big-ticket gifts on his new friend, including a guitar and laptop.

“What seems generous is more just the opportunity to equip Gary to be able to do more with what he intends to do,” Brogan says. “Without his hard work, the guitar, laptop and other stuff is just stuff. He makes it all sing.”

Johnston uses that netbook daily to continue to write about his journey. He admits it’s difficult to look into the future, but remains hopeful that he’ll be in housing within six months. Intense feelings of anxiety and depression frequently re-enter his life, resulting in bad days intermixed with a few good.

Throughout everything, Johnston keeps writing.

“If you can help one person, you’ve helped,” he says. “We’re all at the bottom. I’m just writing about my experience and helping who I can, when I can.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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