Our vendors: Edward Johnson (One Step Away, Philadelphia, USA)

According to Edward Johnson, he has never been convicted of a crime. Yet, from hearing his story, you might believe he has.

Edward has spent months and years couch surfing and then living on the street. He has been shuffling between, and losing, jobs at the same time as negotiating the maze of a confusing and contradictory legal system that has robbed him of his relationships with his children and then, ultimately, of stable and consistent housing.

While Edward’s story may sound tragic, it is not unique. On any given night, over 5,000 of our fellow citizens in the City of Philadelphia find themselves without stable housing. It could literally happen to anybody, and while many stories may not be as complex as Edward’s, the outcomes are just as painful.

Yet, despite the tragedy and pain, there can be a silver lining—a reason for, and a first step in the direction of, hope. Thankfully for Edward, this is also part of his story.

As Edward tells it, in May of 2017, during a hospital stay, hospital staff noticed what appeared to be cigarette burns on the arms of Edward’s son. Children and Youth Services (CYS) was notified; however, they could not prove who caused the burns.

A prolonged custody battle followed within CYS between Edward and his son’s mother. During this period, as a result of constant trips to and from court with his son, Edward lost his job and source of income before the court ultimately sided with Edward’s son’s mother. According to Edward, this was decided despite the fact that CYS also determined that the markings weren’t cigarette burns after all, but the result of an infection.

Still unemployed, Edward, who maintains that the markings were cigarette burns and believes he knows who is responsible, was evicted from his apartment in February of 2018.

At first, after being evicted, Edward lived with his cousin in Norristown, PA. In October of 2018 he found work again, at a graphics company, and then subsequently with an online retailer and a brewing company. His cousin, however, was no longer able to provide him housing so he began staying at a shelter in Philadelphia. Given the change in his commute he found he was no longer able to work at the brewery and so found employment at a furniture store in Northeast Philadelphia. It was there that Edward encountered the man who he believes caused the burns on his son’s arms.

Edward and the man fought, and Edward broke his shoulder. For this reason, Edward says he lost his job moving furniture for the store.

Edward shuffled through the city’s shelter system, at one point being denied access to a bathroom for disabled individuals despite the shoulder injury he had sustained and that had caused his unemployment. He soon found himself sleeping at the Jefferson SEPTA station in Center City Philadelphia. When he witnessed a fight that he believes may have been a murder that was reported in the location, he again returned to the shelter system.

Unemployed and without stable housing, Edward felt hopeless with, as he says, “no one to turn to.”

He felt this way until he found One Step Away and met Emily Taylor, the program’s director.

According to Edward, “words can’t even express” his gratitude toward the magazine and Emily. “She gave me information,” he says, “and shared my story. She told me it was going to be okay and listened to me.”

Vendor Edward just after helping record an episode of One Step away's podcast. [Courtesy of One Step Away]

Edward began working as a vendor with the magazine. Initially, he was opposed to the proposed price increase from $1 to $5, but soon he became grateful for this, too.

Now, after working with One Step Away for more than a year, Edward is also grateful for new opportunities to share his story.

How has this new development in his life made him feel?

“I have money in my pocket,” he says. “[Emily] did it.”

There is no one single cause of homelessness, just as there is no one single “type” of person who experiences homelessness. For some of us who experience homelessness, it might be illness, mental or physical, that causes us to have no recourse but to take to the city’s streets or to otherwise find ourselves in an unstable living situation. For others, it might be the loss of a job due to recession, downsizing, or some other reason. For those like Edward, the reasons can be complex.

Furthermore, the causes of homelessness lay beyond the scope of any one person’s life circumstances. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a lack of affordable housing and low incomes that make it difficult to afford food and clothing, let alone stable and consistent housing, are leading systemic reasons for the homelessness crisis. In a 2011 report from the Alliance, the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness increased by three percent and four percent, respectively, due to the Great Recession that lasted from 2007 to 2009. With concerns growing about the potential for another impending economic downturn, it should also be clearer than ever that anyone is vulnerable to finding themselves in unstable living circumstances.

The very words used to describe those experiencing homelessness or other similar ordeals can also be damaging and reinforce the stigma associated with such experiences. Edward himself knows this firsthand. Years ago, he was alleged to have kidnapped his child and was labeled a “fugitive,” including by a local media outlet, despite that, according to Edward, he was never convicted of a crime and the legal system was working with him up until the markings on his son’s arms were discovered. The fact that he had been labeled in this way and that his son’s injuries were ultimately determined to have resulted from infection, rather than the deliberate harm that he believes to have occurred, continues to upset him deeply. “The system messed up,” he says.

For his part, although Edward still feels the need for justice for the hardships he has experienced, he feels immense gratitude toward One Step Away and is now himself finally one step closer to putting his own life back together.

He moved into his new residence on 19 August.