Resilient Youth Asserts “Homelessness is a verb, not an adjective”
Resilient youth asserts
“homelessness is a verb, not an adjective”
I’ve met and interviewed many who were homeless, but none have been quite like 22-year-old AJ Thomson. We spoke on the phone for about 12 minutes before I stopped and asked if he could come to my office. Thomson came to his current situation through a series of unfortunate events, and I wanted to record our conversation – his story was that fascinating.
He surprisingly agreed. Thirty minutes later, a slender, well-dressed man was at the door.
Thomson was born off Cleveland Avenue, southeast of Atlanta. His mother, an Upward Bound scholar, predominantly raised him in Clayton County so that he may pursue his interests in musical theater at the Fine Arts Magnet High School (now Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts). Education was always important to her, so the two didn’t get along when her health failures began and his grades started to slip.
He was eventually dismissed for his academic performance and sent to live with his father and stepmother. Thomson’s father is an Afro-Latino mortician, Army veteran and struggling pastor. After returning from deployment, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, splitting his marriage with AJ’s mother.
High school took its mental toll on Thomson, but he graduated from Langston Hughes in 2015. Thomson’s father then moved the family to Decatur, and upon accepting an international missionary trip, told his son to go somewhere else or school. At the time, Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) made the most financial and logistical sense.
Thomson, for the most part, enjoyed his first year at GGC. Before his third semester, however, fate took a turn when he was evicted from his dorm. His family forgot to renew the lease.
While he was alright with commuting from Decatur to Gwinnett, he was late for the first two days of class. Already behind in attendance, he received an access code that he didn’t have the money for.
Thomson’s teacher told him that he needed to get the “assignment done by Thursday. No exceptions.” Thomson didn’t have the $400 necessary to complete the assignment on time, and he had previously received an academic warning off of his last semester. He thought to himself, “I have to leave before I mess up my GPA so that school was an option regardless.”
He thus withdrew himself without asking his father, who was not pleased at all. An argument ensued. Thomson said he needed to catch a break.
The initial plan was to stay with his mother in Mobile for two weeks. In between leaving and dropping out of school, Thomson got his first job at a Smoothie King in Decatur. Plans changed when he reconnected with his mother, though. Consequent to seeing where she was with her health, her economic situation in conjunction with the responsibility of his grandmother, Thomson requested Smoothie King to transfer him.
“And that’s how I got to Mobile, Alabama.”
From spring 2017 to August 2018, Thomson lived in poverty in Mobile, Alabama, and took care of his sick mother and grandmother without health insurance. Both are diabetic and had renal failure, and needed dialysis in order to survive.
While AJ was down there, the family noticed a few black areas around his grandmother’s legs. A doctor told the family there was low circulation due to her diabetes. If the issue wasn’t addressed, it would spread. His mother opted for removal, and saw his grandmother through a double amputation procedure.
They moved her to a nursing home down the street, where she eventually passed in peace. Meanwhile, his mother had back to back peritoneal infections. It became necessary to move Thomson’s mother back to Atlanta. Miserable and homesick, Thomson said, “I feel like two-star Atlanta medical care is five-star Mobile, Alabama, care.”
The two abruptly moved to his sister’s one bedroom apartment. Living there with three other people and two dogs, Thomson’s life came to a head when he and his sister got into an argument.
He had just been laid off from his job at the airport the day before. His sister recently realized she was pregnant. At the height of their disagreement, she asked him to leave.
Since Jan. 9 of this year, Thomson has been homeless.
Thomson stays at the Covenant House on the westside of town, a youth shelter he relocated to after going to the Lost-n-Found Center, a nonprofit that exists to end homelessness for LGBTQ+ and all sexual minority youth. Within three weeks of being homeless, Thomson had to be subdued by the Georgia Crisis Line, where he was diagnosed and treated with clinical depression.
When I first met Thomson, what promptly struck me about him was his wisdom, optimism and ownership over his situation.
“I’m a black gay man in Atlanta in 2019. I’ve never excused myself from… I always just knew statistically that I could go homeless, and I never fooled myself that it wasn’t possible, almost like it’s a matter of time. So I’m just lucky that I knew that I had resources and people for outreach in that sense,” Thomson said. “It may be sad but, listen, my homelessness is a verb, not an adjective.”
Thomson turned a sharp right and disappeared into the forestry disguising the industrial chain-linked fences. Below the low-hanging branches there was a narrow, trodden path that lead upward. I quickened my pace to keep up. Someone had used a wire cutter to make a clean, human-sized hole in the fence, hidden by the green facade.
Thomson held down a stubborn plant to clear my walkway, scrunching his face from the dust, pollen and bugs flying about. We came upon a magnificent red brick structure overrun by the forest surrounding it. Where some kids have game rooms or basements to dally in, Thomson has an abandoned warehouse – his own sacred zone for child-like adventure and wonder.
He and his best friend, Tre, used to come here often, galloping to the rooftop. “When we first came down here, it was like the Goonies. It’s one of those things you do see in a movie,” Thomson said. They staked their territory, tagging their names in the building with a can of white spray paint they found. The pair would regularly lay out under the sky and watch the stars until it was time to head back for curfew.
They had built a profound kinship. Later, his best friend returned home to his family. “It’s my favorite memory from here,” Thomson quietly said.
Unfortunately, darker memories lurk in the shadows of abandonment, complicating Thomson’s sentiment about his cherished spot. Once Tre left, Thomson showed a potential love interest his secret hideaway, and things went awry.
“It was consensual until it wasn’t,” Thomson said, expanding his hands to show the violation to his cavity. “We were alone, no one else knew that we were here. Just… having to fake my way through the rest of it, faking enjoying it, so that I could feel safe [he wouldn’t hurt me].”
Thomson expressed anger at himself.
“It threw me. I went home and was nearly in tears… ‘What the heck just happened?’ It was mixed with the feelings of self-contempt that already [existed]. I’m throwing it back in a warehouse while I’m homeless, and then this happened,” he said. “I know the situation for… kids like me and the things with sex work and it isn’t a joke. And here I was… I felt stupid trying to find love and comfort. Stupid AJ! This is what happens.”
“Dumb ass,” he said with a laugh.
Images by Judith Y. Kim | Avant-Youth
Thomson didn’t confront his aggressor immediately, but Thomson did redress the matter by telling him of the wrongs he committed. Unaware of the consequences of his own actions, his offender urgently apologized and gave Thomson some space. Albeit, temporarily.
“This guy is a little narcissistic and a little selfish, but doesn’t want to be penned as a bad guy, and he isn’t necessarily a bad guy, but he is not greater than the sum of his parts either. And me? I’m just homeless and horny, so what do I do to navigate this?” Thomson said.
He grabbed two fistfuls of gravel, then let them go. We were sitting on the rooftop where he and his best friend used to lay.
“Sometimes people are loving you because they hate themselves. You can tell a lot by somebody when you’re being that vulnerable and intimate with them,” he said. “Sometimes they’re not loving you, because they love you… sometimes people F you because they hate themselves. It’s crazy.”
I looked up to see AJ looking down. “Like a literal ‘fuck you,’” I said. He perked up, chuckling.
The kinship Thomson shares with Tre is often what gets him through his life at the shelter. He wants more. He wants better. Simply, he wants his own place to hang with his friends.
Thomson is currently an arts administration intern at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Museum. For now, his dreams and aspirations of wanting to change the world are what moves him. “I know that’s very grand, and I’m learning that you don’t change the world, you change your part of it,” Thomson said.
“I’m a deeply didactic and moral person. Strength of character is a big thing for me,” he said, with youthful resilience, “and I like to treat the world as it should be rather than how it is, and I see my socioeconomic stance, position and identity in this world… but obviously I feel inspired to do something – motivated – just [to] do that innately.”
When asked what he’d want others to know about him from this story, he said, “The experience of homelessness has left me decorticated and feeling bare, fleshy, and vulnerable. I just want people to know… a fully dimensional depiction of who I am as a person. Like see me, I exist. I’m not – nor are people who are like me – a shadow or a victim to our circumstances…”
We were on our way back before I stopped and hugged him. “You are way more interesting than what happened to you,” I said.
“Hopefully… Hopefully,” he said. Thomson turned around, and resumed his way home.
“When we go out and engage with them, … we start with a conversation,” Hughes said. “One of the things that we’ve identified as the highest need for people experiencing homelessness is just somebody to listen to them.”
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