Opinion: The Pursuit of Happiness and the reasons why two men will become homeless

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The homeless encampment along E. 11th Street on Monday, December 6, 2021.

Walking. Pedaling bikes. In sagging cars with backseats packed and stuffed with clothes, cans of food, anything, everything.

Leaning up next to buildings, pushing shopping carts, wrapped in tarps, heavy coats, many coats, no coats. Many are quiet. Others talk excitedly, sometimes to no one, sometimes to everyone. Others speak through cardboard signs: veteran, no family, hungry, please help.

Camped behind the dollar store, under bridges, in our booming tent cities.

I see more homeless people in this city than ever before.

What I don't see: numbers. How large is our local homeless population? How many died during COVID-19? How many more shelter beds are needed?

Will our county mayoral candidates talk about homelessness? Or a vision to address our mental illness crisis?

We need more awareness, attention.

On Feb. 18, two men will attempt to do just that.

That night, our city's homeless population will increase by two.

On Friday, Feb. 18, Mike Gordon, president and CEO of the Pursuit of Happiness, and Troy Rogers, our city's pubic safety coordinator, will spend the night at the tent city on East 11th Street.

"Troy and I are doing a Pursuit of Happiness first annual homeless clothing drive to bring attention to untreated mental illness that leads to homelessness," Gordon said.

That night, and during the days leading up to it, Rogers and Gordon will be accepting clothing donations - coats, blankets, gloves, socks, hats, sleeping bags - while also calling attention to many of the conditions often at the root of homelessness.

Poverty.

Mental illness.

The lack of affordable housing.

"Troy and I are staying the night at the tent city to bring awareness to the living conditions and accept items for the homeless all night," Gordon said.

Ten months ago, Gordon left an established career to start Pursuit of Happiness, a multi-faceted nonprofit designed around one goal:

"To restore hope by alleviating the drivers of poverty, one life at a time," he proclaims.

Using a four-fold vision - mentorship, internship, apprenticeship and in-home case management - Pursuit of Happiness partners with local families to meet whatever crisis is unfolding. When students suffer from undiagnosed mental illnesses, Pursuit of Happiness arranges - and funds - counseling. Students receive job skills, internships, tutoring or mentoring. Using case managers skilled in addressing adverse childhood experiences, Pursuit of Happiness brings specific care to families suffering from trauma that is often untreated and generational.

"Pursuit of Happiness provides case management in the home and school addressing adverse childhood experiences and trauma to our most vulnerable and underserved communities even when other agencies refuse the referrals," Gordon said.

Pursuit of Happiness resonated with many of you; after a column, Gordon says it raised $17,000 in one month.

"Our caseload is up to 28 families," Gordon said. "We are able to provide services for the female teen shot in the Westside."

According to Gordon, Pursuit of Happiness receives daily referrals from juvenile court and county schools. Many businesses are involved, from real estate, engineering, accounting and banking, thus pairing students with internships and apprenticeships and offering financial support.

Briana Lee, director of community outreach and women empowerment, is building relationships with local girls and young women, hosting women-centric leadership symposiums and leadership training.

"I plan to equip each girl with the resources, opportunities and exposure so that they can conquer the world," Lee said.

Pursuit of Happiness' vision manifests in day-to-day, practical, first-responder care. Its work, in turn, aims to reduce school suspensions, juvenile detentions, poverty, homelessness and helplessness. It is introducing hope and vision through hands-on opportunities, counseling and care.

Pursuit of Happiness' board is a who's who: Joli Anderson, Sharonda Brown, Kevin Conley, Lorri Cross, Dr. Luke Queen, Doug Stein, Lou Ziebold and Rogers who, on Friday, Feb, 18, will join Gordon by spending the night at Tent City on East 11th Street. You can meet them there from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. to drop off donations or during the week - 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. - at Pursuit of Happiness' offices at the Impact Hub at 4001 Rossville Blvd.

"The greatest form of service is being able to serve someone who can't pay you back. And serve them with excellence," Rogers, who led the monumental effort to serve more than 20,000 meals during the pandemic, likes to say. "Especially in the time we are now."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.