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Editor's note: KSL.com’s “Homeless” series is featuring four individuals experiencing homelessness in the Salt Lake Valley. The first can be found here, and the second can be found here. This is Terry's story.*
SALT LAKE CITY — Terry walks into the small office at The Road Home shelter and flashes a toothless grin. He extends his arm for a handshake, unfazed that all ten of his fingers are half gone.
As he walks to the plastic chair situated tightly between the copier and a bookshelf full of water bottles, Terry adjusts his suit coat with the air of a man still acclimating to nice clothing. He seems utterly delighted, nonetheless.
“Terry dressed up for the special occasion,” his caseworker says.
Underneath his coat, he’s donned a bright red sweater, and his wool fedora has a small feather sticking out of the brim. He's wearing large, black, round sunglasses but doesn't remove them — even inside.
He’s tall, with an unexpectedly soft voice and genuine laugh. Though Terry has lived in Salt Lake for decades, he was born halfway across the country in Batesville, Mississippi.
On childhood and family
Terry and his twin sister grew up in the cotton fields of the South, but when his father’s alcoholism and abuse grew intolerable, his mother packed up her children and fled to her mother’s, he says. Not long after, the family migrated along a rocky dirt road to Chicago, Illinois.
Terry spent the rest of his childhood “wandering around the ghetto” of Chicago, stealing candy “as kids do” and getting into trouble, he says. One day, Terry’s father showed up with a "white woman on his arm." Terry had never seen an interracial relationship before and couldn’t stop staring.
His father asked him if he would like to come live with him in Salt Lake City, so Terry, on the cusp of adolescence, packed his bags and moved to Utah.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago with the drugs and prostitution, then to a clean life in Salt Lake City. ... It's different.
His father was never abusive again, but his stepmother was, Terry says.
On addiction and homelessness
Terry began running away from home at 13 years old, smoking cigarettes at 15 and experimenting with drugs at 16. His friend’s father was a drug kingpin and was the first to introduce him to cocaine. He was addicted from that moment on, he says.
He was married three years later at 19 years old. The marriage lasted 2 years.
“I married a beautiful woman, but I ruined it. God says, ‘OK, I’ll teach you a lesson,' and I let her go. I just cried, cried, cried. I didn’t know what to do.”
Shelters and jails became Terry’s temporary homes for the three decades that followed. On his darkest days, he’ll call his mother, who still lives in Chicago:
It wasn’t until he found God, though, that Terry says he also found the will to change.
On wakeup calls
Terry woke up on the street one cold winter morning, as he had many times before. But this time he could feel something was off. He looked down at his hands: They were swollen beyond recognition.
He quickly made his way to a hospital, praying fervently. On the way, he had a revelation: Something was going to happen.
The next thing Terry remembers is waking up at the hospital, looking down at his hands and seeing “black poison.” The doctor told him it was frostbite — they’d have to operate. When he woke up again, his fingers were gone.
Now, he sees the loss of his fingers as a vital wakeup call. Something needed to convince him to change, he says.
I look at it as God saved me. … Finding Him within me, it’s brought a peace.
Terry’s wakeup call was last winter. Since then, he says he’s started going to church, joined The Road Home’s First Step program — which aids addicts in recovery — and has been clean and sober for three months.
He encourages others in similar situations to find that will to change and to trust those who are there to help them — even if those people haven’t personally experienced addiction. Their brain cells aren’t as dried up, he laughs.
Addicitions (are) wicked! Oh so wicked. I can never go back, never. And I’m not. That’s the decision I’ve made.
Terry’s immediate goal is to continue working with the First Step program so he can remain sober. He’s also begun talking to others in the program, convinced that it’s his purpose in life now to listen to what they have to say.
Eventually, Terry would like to work with the rising generation and those still entrenched in the throes of addiction and homelessness — maybe even save a life. Everyone's unique, and everyone's worth it, he says.
We're all special children of God.
If you'd like to help others like Terry who are experiencing homelessness in Utah, check out our donation page, or contact your local homeless shelter to find out how you can donate or volunteer.
*The Road Home has asked that Terry's last name and pictures of his face not be included with this story in order to protect his privacy.