Anthony Washington, 18 months homeless

Anthony Washington, a member of Repairers of the Breach, adjusts his tan fedora as he sits down at a table on the second floor of Repairers’ center. He takes off his thick glasses and places them in the breast pocket of his overcoat, which matches his hat.

Anthony, 48, ended an 18-month period of homelessness in March 2013 and continues to struggle with his addiction to smoking cocaine.

Underneath his coat hangs a necklace, flashing bright red, yellow and green. The continent of Africa and a black fist are displayed on a pendant. When asked about the necklace, he smiled.

“It’s anti-colonialism,” he says.

For the next 20 minutes, Anthony effortlessly and passionately dove into the deep history of colonialism, slavery, emancipation and labor laws — all of which he explains shaped the economic climate for the black population of the United States.

Anthony says today’s economy is an extension of colonialism.

“Believe it or not,” Anthony says, his hands pressed firmly against the table, “Even average white Americans are no more than colonial slaves. I call them economic slaves because they live everyday just to fulfill their basic needs. They live just to maintain their livelihood, and their lives are controlled by the dollar.”

Anthony explains that this is the conclusion he made while educating himself during his time in prison and throughout his experience with homelessness, which spanned most of his life.

“Homelessness begins with a sense of inner-homelessness,” Anthony says. “As a child, I considered myself to be homeless because I had no mother. I had no father. I had no place to call my home.”

Anthony’s mother passed away when he was 13. He was brought to Milwaukee with his five siblings shortly thereafter to stay with his grandmother and uncle, both of whom he said were abusive alcoholics.

He did whatever he could to stay out of his home.

Anthony began to get involved in gangs early in his teenage years, controlling the illegal market for drugs and alcohol in his community. It did not take very long before he collected guns and began to burglarize and rob.

“I was trying to escape my reality,” Anthony explains. “I started to become angry and I wanted to fight for power. I was struggling to get wealth because with wealth comes influence and with influence becomes power. And I understood that power was the main objective.”

Eventually, Anthony amassed enough wealth and power to be seen as a “successful and persuasive” member of the community. By the time Anthony was 16, he developed a pimping business, convincing many women to prostitute themselves in exchange for drugs and alcohol.

Anthony, however, says he did not use alcohol and drugs until he was about 19. At this age he was introduced to marijuana, prescription pills and snorting cocaine.

It took little time for Anthony to become addicted to the drugs and began to search for a stronger high. Anthony found this high in smoking cocaine.

“Once you hit cocaine, you will never be the same,” he says, taking a moment to pause. “Never.”

Anthony explains that smoking cocaine is a lot more demanding than snorting cocaine, as it is used much quicker and provides a much more substantial high. As Anthony became more addicted to cocaine, he began using his prostitution business as a means to find the addresses and work schedules of wealthy men, who he would later burglarize.

“I was basically hustling to supply for my addiction,” he says.

The path was not sustainable. In 1984, Anthony was arrested for burglary and was incarcerated for two years.

This was the beginning of a long trek for Anthony, bouncing in and out of jail. His starving addiction to cocaine brought him back into prison four more times, amounting to a combined total of 25 years in prison.

Anthony explains every time he left prison he was driven by his addiction to feed his cocaine addiction through burglary. At the same time, he was never concerned with finding a place to stay.

“My passion to feed my addiction superseded my desire to have decent housing or clothing or food,” he says. “Those were secondary concerns if you can believe it.”

His time in prison, however, did give Anthony a chance to educate himself. Anthony was able to teach himself to read and write in the prison libraries. He says he was particularly diligent in the last eight years spent in prison, when he studied law, politics, philosophy, theology and religion.

This allowed him to have a better understanding of the world and of his own personal life.

“It stabilized me,” he says. “I feel more secure as an individual. What I’ve come to realize is poverty breeds ignorance, and ignorance breeds crime. The only way out of poverty is education.”

On top of this education, Anthony received help through the Mental Illness-Chemical Abuse Program at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution. In late 2011, he was released from prison for the final time.

He applied for Supplemental Security Income and found temporary shelter at House of Vision, a nonprofit located on Capitol Drive in Milwaukee that aims to help people become independent during transitional living situations.

Anthony’s struggle was far from over, however. He says he fell into a deep depression with feelings of “seclusion and loneliness” after his release. He relapsed into cocaine once again, left the House of Vision and became homeless.

It was not until January 2013 that Anthony found his way to Repairers of the Breach, which he says was a turning point.

“I began to meet people who were dealing with the same stuff I was,” Anthony explains, “Depression, loneliness and powerlessness.”

Anthony explains that he was able to reflect on his life while sitting in the front lobby of Repairers. It was during this reflection he resolved never to take another hit of cocaine again.

“You can sit through any AA meeting you want,” Anthony says. “But really, you got to make a decision for yourself.”

In March of 2013, he secured a room with some friends, who help monitor his money in order to prevent him from buying more drugs. As part of his efforts to keep from indulging his cocaine addiction, Anthony spends a lot of time at the library, which he says is his favorite place in Milwaukee.

Anthony explains he rekindled his love for education, focusing a lot on the spiritual texts from around the world. He says he loves sharing what he learns with other people, especially those at Repairers.

“I think God has a purpose for all of us,” Anthony says. “And I think my purpose is lecturing — you know, speaking to people.”

He laughs and adds, “I’ll speak wherever people will listen. Any time I’m around people, I want to give them something positive.”

Anthony takes a moment to describe one of his more recent revelations.

“You know, it’s the strangest thing,” he says. “When Jewish people meet, they say, ‘shalom.’ And when Muslims meet they say ‘salaam.’ When Christians meet, they say ‘peace.’ All these words mean the same thing.”

He pauses and chuckles, displaying a big toothy grin.

“Peace is not just a word of the mouth,” he continues. “It is a word of state, or presence. I hope that when I enter into other people’s lives, I come in peace. When I leave, they should be in that same state — in peace.”

 

Written by: Rob Gebelhoff

Photograph by: Valeria Cardenas / valeria.cardenas@mu.edu

Published on December 2, 2013

This is one of four profiles on former homeless people who found sanctuary at Repairers of the Breach, the only daytime homeless shelter in Milwaukee.