Literacy Helped Jeffery McNeil Pull Himself Out of Homelessness

Best known for his scathing op-eds breaking down the Washington, D.C. political scene, Street Sense Vendor Jeffery McNeil has never been one to keep his opinions to himself. A self-reliant individual and regular writer for the paper, Jeff pours himself into his pieces, working tirelessly on each one and expounding his beliefs, even if they may be unpopular with his peers. But Jeff was not always so disciplined, and he was not always a writer.

At the age of 40, Jeff left New Jersey and came to D.C. with $30 in his pocket. Jobless, alone, barely literate, and plagued by addictions to drugs, alcohol, and gambling, Jeff found himself attracted to sheltered locations that gave him a place to go during the day; the district’s seemingly ubiquitous supply of libraries fit that description perfectly.

“When I was sleeping near Franklin Square, the MLK library was down the street, and the GW library is right by Miriam’s Kitchen,” Jeff explains. “I also went to the Library of Congress where you can get any book you want.”

Surrounding himself each day with more literature than he could ever hope to read, Jeff took advantage of this unlimited access to periodicals, reference texts, novels, and works of political theory to give himself the education he never got in high school. Ironically, although he had just moved to a city full of liberals, it was the conservative works that peaked his interest.

“When I first came down here, I was this bleeding heart, far left progressive, but then I started reading up on economics—Milton Friedman, the Wall Street Journal. I started reading a lot of the Black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams, but I think the book that really changed me the most was the biography of Malcolm X.

“I had always thought of Malcolm as a liberal, but he’s really a conservative. And it was the same type of philosophy about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—like not wanting to be on welfare or on food stamps—that had a great influence on me.”

This philosophy is one Jeff has been forced to practice for most of his life. Suffering from manic depression and alcohol abuse, Jeff found himself incapable of keeping a job. In his late thirties, he became homeless and his addictions more severe.

“I was self medicating and my behavior got worse and worse,” Jeff remembers.

While homeless, he split his time between a series of roach-infested shelters, highway tunnels, and casinos. He stayed at the now closed Franklin Shelter on 13th and K Street at Franklin Square but quickly realized he would rather sleep outside.

“To me, anybody who ever designed a shelter should rot in hell. They’re like prisons without walls. I’ve seen people get raped in them, and I saw this one guy in a wheelchair get beat up over the head for $100,” Jeff recalls.

After seeing what he has seen, clawing his way back from poverty, fighting addictions, battling depression, and single-handedly educating himself, Jeff has become a strong proponent of organizations like Street Sense that allow the homeless to help themselves.

“Either you give a man a fish, or you teach the man how to fish,” Jeff asserts. “I want to get people out of poverty instead of them being dependent on the government.”

This belief is one Jeff frequently incorporates into his biweekly column. Upon becoming a vendor in 2007, his newfound literacy granted him the opportunity to contribute to the paper, where his love for reading quickly transformed into a voracious appetite for writing. Building upon the theories of Freeman, Sowell, Williams, and X to tear fearlessly into various aspects of Washington politics, writing a regular column granted Jeff the discipline his life was missing; two years later, he was able to quit drinking for good.

During his 10-year tenure at Street Sense Jeff has become an important voice not only for our publication but also for other news outlets. He has been featured in The Washingtonian, and his work frequently appears in The Daily Independent Reader. Currently residing in his own apartment on Franklin Square, Jeff continues to write for and sell Street Sense, is promoting himself as a freelance author, and has just started working on his second book. He has been sober for eight years.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.