Jeffery McNeil once lost his last dollar in a Trump casino, a loss that led him to Washington, D.C. and a life unlike the one he left behind. He became estranged from family and friends until a chance encounter near Dupont Circle became the catalyst for a rapprochement with a father he thought he would never want to see again.
Born in Ohio in 1967, McNeil lived in a two-parent household, a middle-class one in which both parents worked. “I never saw abject poverty,” he remembers. The family moved to New Jersey right after the Newark riots. They lived in the suburbs, one of the first Black families in the area.
All was not wonderful at home, however. He describes his father as being a mean drunk, a Vietnam vet who was sometimes abusive. At age 9 or 10, one incident resulted in McNeil requiring twenty stitches in his jaw. He confesses to once having thought about taking his father’s shotgun and killing him.
He left home after high school and joined the Navy, serving six years. “I got out and never had a problem getting a job. I was doing good.” He was a cook and then a manager at a TGI Fridays; he was a manager at a Denny’s.
“I was working at casinos. I was a gambler, I was making money, I always had money. I always had a job. I always had friends. I always had a girlfriend. I never saw poverty or homelessness ever coming to me. Then, somewhere around 2003, 2004, the bottom fell out for me.”
His mother died, and he says he became an isolationist. An old problem began to get out of hand.
“I used to drink. I could always manage it, but at that time I wasn’t managing my life. Eventually, I was diagnosed with having bipolar disorder.”
Jeff remained a gambler. A $7 on a horse race netted him enough money to go to a poker game. With the $4,000 he won at poker, he traveled to Atlantic City, where he spent five days losing. At a Trump casino, he met a group of folks from Washington, D.C., who suggested there was a lot of opportunity to be found in the nation’s capital. He told them that if he lost the next hand of poker, he would go to Washington. “I lost that next hand, got on the bus, and never looked back.”
He tried the shelters in D.C., but the bedbugs and what he describes as “other horrific sights” convinced him to sleep outside. His drinking got worse. One night, he passed out with a $100 in his pocket, only to find it stolen when he awoke.
Jeff noticed someone wearing a Street Sense Media vest and asked about it. With that introduction, he began selling the paper. He credits that decision with being the start of his dealing with another problem that had long plagued him: being barely able to read or write his own name. He eventually started writing for the paper after being told it was a way to earn more papers to sell. Through a Street Sense Media board member, he even found occasional work. His alcohol addiction continued, but he began to realize something: “I knew I didn’t want to drink anymore,” he says.
Jeff was in D.C. for roughly three years before he began moving toward sobriety. He met someone who was a recovering alcoholic and started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and reading their books. “I found a mentor and a sponsor, and that kind of changed my life.”
He began dealing with the abuse he had experienced early on. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in your childhood, and I found somebody I could actually go talk to about that,” he says. As he focused on his sobriety, Jeff also began reassessing the quality of the company he had been keeping, realizing his friends weren’t really friends. “I was dealing with people who had that drug-addict mentality. They weren’t happy to see me get out of my situation. They were trying to bring me back into that situation, and that was the wake-up moment for me.”
While selling the Street Sense Media newspaper at Dupont Circle one day in 2008, Jeff struck up a conversation with members of a visiting church. When he learned they were from Barnesville, Ohio, he mentioned his mother had been born there. Weeks later, during Christmas, he received a call from Barnesville. It was from an aunt he hadn’t spoken with in almost 20 years. It brought him to tears.
A few weeks later, that Christmas call led to reconnecting with his father, who was in a hospital at the time being treated for cancer. This began a renewed relationship between the two that lasted until his father’s death six years later.
[Read more: In memory of my father]
Like many who have suffered addiction, Jeff says his recovery is a one-day-at-a-time process. His sober days now number a decade. He kept going to meetings, kept sharing his story, and people who heard it kept helping him. “After a while, you just didn’t wake up wanting to drink anymore.”
He is no longer homeless. “I had a friend who offered me a place to stay, and I’ve been there ever since.”
Since he began writing, Jeffery McNeil has been published in the Washingtonian, The Washington Post, and has a monthly column in the Examiner. But it has been through Street Sense Media, Jeff says, that he’s met a lot of interesting people, from “people who got jobs to people that are on the bottom. I feel like I get a perspective that nobody else in the city gets, and have a platform where I can give a perspective nobody else gives.”