To Hell and Back – Mike Kelly’s Story

Mike Kelly is a man who has worked hard most of his life, but, after a devastating personal setback, fell into a downward spiral of depression, alcoholism and finally homelessness.  It took a near death experience to motivate Mike to get help and turn his life around.  Though he was never a resident of IFC’s Community House, Mike now uses an office at IFC in his role as Housing Specialist with Housing for New Hope.  Having gone through homelessness, Mike is in a position to offer insights into that experience and help others turn their lives around.  This is his story – a story of desperation, determination and hope.

Life before Homelessness

Mike Kelly was born in 1955 and grew up in Covington, Virginia.  His father worked in a factory and was a hardworking man with strong family values.  His mother was a hairdresser, and young Mike used to entertain her customers’ children while their mothers were having their hair done.  His mother’s business grew into a larger enterprise where she sold cosmetics and lingerie.  His parents bought a building to house her business and were able to purchase rental properties with the profits.  By the standards of their home town, they were well off, but they didn’t live entirely that way, because his mother was a country girl, “off of Peter’s Mountain.”  When Mike came home for dinner, they might be having bear meat or squirrel!

Mike describes his family as being like the Cleavers on the old Leave it to Beaver TV show.  They were close knit and traditional.  Mike had an older brother and an older sister, who was his babysitter.  The family attended the Grace Brethren Church where they walked every Sunday.  Afterwards, Dad took them someplace for dinner.  The only serious discord in the family arose from his mother’s occasional drinking; she would down 2-3 Colt 45 beers and become morose.  They feared for her when she tried to drive, but she never hurt anyone.  She couldn’t get around a curve in the road with their big Cadillac and always ended up in a ditch.  Mike’s father did not approve of her behavior.  Mike credits his parents with teaching him good judgment and values.

He enjoyed going to school and playing as a child.  He loved to read, especially science fiction.  He played ball games with his friends as well as cowboys and Indians.  The most important events in his childhood were joining the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, earning merit badges, and attending summer scout camps 3 years in a row.

As a teenager, Mike’s social universe expanded.  He got a bicycle and was allowed to take the bus to town for movies.  At 15 years and 8 months, he got his driver’s license.  He had a motorcycle and enjoyed driving his father’s Datsun pickup.  His most traumatic experience came when he caused the truck to roll over.  He had been doing “Dukes of Hazard” stunts with the Datsun, like slamming on the brakes, skidding and shooting off in a different direction.  Then, his father installed radial tires on the front without telling Mike.  The next time he tried his Dukes of Hazard stunt, the tires grabbed the road and the truck rolled over.  The only trouble he ever got into as a teenager was over his reckless driving.

He was short and skinny and felt he had to prove himself; as a result, he became a leader among his “running buddies,” who called themselves Kelly’s Heroes.  Though a leader among his male friends, girls were another matter altogether.  He felt he was unattractive, and fear of dating was the most traumatic aspect of his teen social life.  Like his friends, he experimented with drugs – marijuana, mescaline and some acid, but gave all that up when he got married in 1989.

As a teenager, he continued to enjoy school.  He tried junior varsity football in 8th grade, but wasn’t big enough to make the first string.  He listened to music, went to dances and a local roller skating rink.  He was in the high school marching band and formed a top 40 band with friends at the age of 18.  When he got a full-time job on a factory, he dropped out of school in his senior year, because he always figured his future was working in one of the two factories in town. His parents were unhappy about his decision, so to prove to his parents that he could take care of himself, he completed his G.E.D. the following year. For a short time in 1973, Mike attended Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, where he studied computer programming.  He shared an apartment with a friend, but quit because “things weren’t working out.”

Mike had jobs from his early teen years.  He had newspaper route at the age of 13.  At 15, he worked as a “gas pump jockey” in a service station and later worked at Burger King.  He did various odd jobs, including loading and unloading UPS trucks.  His first full time employment was in a textile factory starting in 1973 at the age of 18.  When the factory workers went on strike, his father wanted Mike to work as paid management to help run the factory.  Mike didn’t want to cross the picket lines, so for a brief time, he moved out of his home into an apartment with friends. When the strike ended, he moved back to his parental home and got a job at the Westvaco paper mill, working on their labor gang.  He stayed there about a year and a half, but the shift hours and weekend work interfered with his other commitment – playing in the band.  That is when he resigned from the paper mill and took a job managing a grocery warehouse.  With daytime hours and no work on the weekends, Mike was free to travel with the band. He worked there for ten years while he was with the band.

The band he had joined at 18 was quite successful.  First they called themselves the El Dorados and later the Ffun Band.  It was a top 40 band and could play disco and country music.  They played as far away as Richmond and Morgantown at college dances, high school proms and Moose Lodges.  Mike played the trumpet, keyboard and percussion with 11 other band members, and they earned up to $3,000 a weekend.  Mike played with them for 10 years, but quit when some members demanded a larger share of the profits.  Mike was told he would get a smaller share than before, so he quit.  His resignation had a deleterious effect on the band, because he owned some of the acoustical equipment and took the microphones and PA speakers with him.

After he left the band, he hung out at the local night club so he could watch the band “self destruct.”  It was there that he met his wife.  He was attracted to her, because she seemed to really care about him and try to please him.  They were married in 1989 and moved to North Carolina shortly afterward, where Mike took a job with Estes Express Lines.  First, he loaded and unloaded trucks and later became a pickup and delivery driver.  Mike bragged that he had the best job an uneducated man could get and was making $60,000 a year.

Mike’s Homeless Experience

Mike had a wife, three children and a stepson and was working full-time as a truck driver when his wife suddenly announced she was seeing another man and wanted a divorce, which was finalized in 2000.  His life as he knew it came to an end “like a train wreck.”  His work had kept him away from home seven days a week.  He did local pickups and deliveries during the week and long distance hauls on the weekends to make extra money.  Even when he was working full time, he describes himself as a “functional alcoholic.”  When his wife asked for the divorce, Mike hired a private detective to find out about the man she was seeing and agreed to move out of their house.  He found a place across the street and within walking distance so his kids could visit him.

Unhappy about Mike’s detective and revelations about her boyfriend, his wife got a restraining order against Mike.  Her continued complaints to authorities resulted in preventing him from seeing his children or even using the front door of his townhouse.  He remained there for about 6 months, until it became unbearable.  From 2000 to 2003, he “couch surfed” and took long distance jobs that allowed him to live in the truck he was driving.  He lived in trucks for almost a year and worked for 6 different companies. He sent child support payments to his sister-in-law, who kept the money instead of giving it to Mike’s former wife.  When he received a summons to go to court for nonpayment, his sister-in-law did not inform him, and Mike ended up in jail.  The divorce process was marked by hostility and anger from his wife.  Mike felt betrayed and disappointed.

Mike was depressed and started drinking more - to the point where he confessed work was interfering with his drinking.  His last job was driving a trash truck where he earned $200 for a day’s work and then could take 2-3 days off...  He finally lost his truck driving license and his livelihood.  He had been staying with his stepson and later with his sister-in-law, the same one who had been stealing his child support money. He had to move out when her son got out of jail.  That was in 2003, when he became completely homeless and went to the Urban Ministries’ shelter in Durham.

Like many men, Mike did not like all the rules of the shelter, including checking in early to get a bed and being there at specific times for meals.  He felt he was being treated like a child.  It would take hours of panhandling to get enough money to buy a beer; then, he and his friends wanted to enjoy themselves until 10 or 11 PM, not stand in line for the shelter.  He only stayed there about a week.  A month and a half later, he checked into the Hope and Relief Program in Durham but was expelled from that for breaking the rules.  That was when Mike decided to build a camp in the woods using his Boy Scout skills.

Mike found a spot in the woods close to the shelter and the fire station.  From outside the local library, he got a heavy, double walled cardboard box which had a waterproof coating.  Then, he collected wood chips from around the library to make a soft base and found some plastic to put over the box.  He slept in that box for a year or more and continued improving and expanding his camp.  He also “ . . . kind of took in homeless people.”  He talked to workers at construction sites; they allowed him to take whatever he wanted from the dumpsters, which provided him with plastic, heavy twine and lumber.  He found cardboard at a nearby office supply store and got covered plastic containers from outside Whole Foods.

The two by fours were held up by trees to make roof rafters, and industrial plastic formed the roof and walls.  He had a camp large enough for 3 men.  They had a supply tent, and one man brought in a carpet.  The plastic containers stored food, and a steel fire bucket provided some heat without drawing attention to the camp.

Mike had entered a new life, with a network of homeless friends who panhandled and pooled their money for tobacco and alcohol.  He was still allowed to eat and shower at the shelter, and residents did his laundry for him.  However, this life was not without problems.

During this period, Mike was beaten severely in an abandoned house and spent two weeks in the hospital.  He had a titanium plate implanted in his face, resulting in one sunken eye socket and one puffy eye.  Another time he got food poisoning, and, after vomiting blood for a day and a half, he was again hospitalized.  This time he got 14 staples in his esophagus.  When released, he sold the prescribed drugs for money and took BC powders for his pain.  He continued drinking, and the staples never healed.  This time the police and ambulance refused to take him to the hospital, and Mike had to walk.  He collapsed from blood loss when he arrived.

Mike recalls feeling as if he was leaving his body and going downward.  Having been raised in a religious family, he thought he was going to Hell.  He heard growling and gnashing of teeth.  According to Mike: “ It was kind of peaceful.  It scared the Hell out of me.”  He prayed to God that he would not die like this without seeing his children.  When he regained consciousness, a man said they had almost lost him.  Mike says he died and was reborn.

This terrifying experience motivated Mike to phone Housing for New Hope, which had been talking to Mike through their outreach workers since 2004.  Until now, Mike had not wanted to leave his friends.  He had felt responsible for the camp he started and hadn’t liked shelter life.  He had to remain in hospital for 2 weeks where he was treated and detoxed.  Upon  release, the manager of the PATH program processed him at the Durham Center for Access and arranged for him to stay at Freedom House in Durham until a space opened up at Phoenix House, the residence for Project New Hope.

Rebuilding his Life

At Phoenix House, Mike entered a one year program.  Participants are encouraged to find a job with benefits and are required to attend daily 12 step meetings, share chores at Phoenix house and attend various life skills classes.  Successful graduates receive a bonus check for a deposit on an apartment.  Because of Mike’s motivation and success, he was asked if he would like to move into the yet unfinished Andover II apartments before his graduation; due to a recent break-in they needed someone to live there as a security guard.  Mike moved into the apartment early and continued the program at Phoenix House.  He graduated in 2007 and started work for PATH in June of that year doing outreach to homeless people.

PATH stands for the federally funded Projects for Assisting Transitions from Homelessness funded through SAMSHA.  After starting in Durham, PATH was extended to Orange County, and now Mike uses an office at IFC’s Carrboro building 3 days a week where he meets clients.  Mike finds the work rewarding, because he is helping people.  The easiest part is finding people, befriending them and gaining their trust.  The hardest part is convincing people to change their life styles.  Mike emphasizes that he had to die and be reborn in order to change, so he understands how hard it is to change.

Mike worked for PATH since 2007, until Housing for New Hope recently stopped administering that program.  He now works full time for Housing for New Hope in the same capacity.  He lives frugally, has bought a two bedroom house from Habitat for Humanity and now owns a car.  He has been reunited with his sons, who live with him.

In 2012, he completed an Associate of Arts degree and is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in Human Services Management through an online course offered by Phoenix College.  He chose that college, because of the symbolism of the Phoenix, which was reborn from the ashes of its own destruction.  He hopes to complete a master’s degree in the future with the help of Pell grants.

Mike Kelly calls himself a poster child for recovery.  While he was living in the woods, a journalism student from Duke University, Jeffrey E. Stern, wrote two articles about him for Indy Week (The Family, March 29, 2006; The gospel of ‘White Mike,’ May2, 2007), and they have remained in contact.  Since then, he has told his story at a homeless conference in Phoenix, Arizona and has spoken about homeless programs to new Congressmen and their staffers in Washington, DC.

Mike wants people to know that anyone can become homeless for many reasons – mental health issues, substance abuse, loss of income.   He also believes anyone can change, and his job is to plant a seed of hope.  Change comes from within not from outside. Most homeless people have some mental health issue, which is required to qualify for services.  This requirement also prevents many other people from accessing services.  That is why Mike advocates for a safe haven.  People who cannot qualify for other services at least deserve a safe place to stay. 

by Karen Merrey