Bernard’s Story: Waking Up is a Blessing

Bernard Johnson is a forty-six year old native Lexingtonian. He grew up in Fayette County, but his childhood quickly ended around the age of nine, when he first experienced homelessness. Bernard’s story is one of adaptation, and at the age of ten, he adapted to his family’s displacement by selling drugs and consuming alcohol. However, once Bernard found New Beginnings, a local nonprofit that provides recovery-based housing to those with serious mental illness, another metamorphosis occurred. This time, he’s adapted to counseling and treatment for mental illness, received stable housing, and provides for his wife as she recovers from addiction. 

Bernard wasn’t shy to describe his past experience with homelessness, precisely because he wishes to lift this invisible veil those with housing are stuck behind and challenge misconceptions about homelessness. To him, homelessness can bring the worst out of humans, a kind of insanity. “When I was homeless, I didn’t feel like a man anymore,” he says. Bernard recounted that he saw a fellow unhoused man die by suicide right in front of him, and that he was oftentimes afraid to fall asleep out of a fear of being raped. Even when he could fall asleep, he told me about how passersby would constantly and intentionally wake him up. At one point, he was consistently sleeping in a parking garage downtown, until he was attacked and subsequently arrested. His charges were later brought down to a misdemeanor in self-defense. So what was the first thing Bernard did when he received secure housing? He slept. For three days straight. 

If his upbringing taught him anything, it was that every time he did right, he got knocked back down again. Bernard navigated attending high school, selling drugs, becoming a father, and multiple arrests all at the same time, but his hardships and adaptability ultimately left him with grit, perseverance and hope. However, until he found New Beginnings, Bernard experienced life as isolated. Although he at one point had three parole officers, Bernard never felt supported by his community. It wasn’t until a few years after, when a therapist suggested he might have bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, that he was able to receive proper counseling and medication. Once he received reliable treatment for his mental illness, he immediately started seeing improvement. He wasn’t getting arrested anymore, he felt fully awake, and he no longer let the behavior of others predict his own actions. “We all have addictions, even going to sleep is an addiction, but waking up is a blessing,” Bernard shares.

If he had to choose his last words, they’d be spent praising New Beginnings.  Bernard was forty-three years old when he was unhoused. Now forty-six, he says New Beginnings is doing the real and honest work of not only providing housing, but making sure that folks remain housed; in Bernard’s case, this meant also treating his mental illness. Such a comprehensive approach that a Continuum of Care facilitates means that people like Bernard do not just receive shelter, but have access to the care they need to thrive in our community. As Bernard says, “You give me a baton, I’m gonna run with it. There’s nothing, nothing, like having a key and being on the other side of that door.” Although this philosophy has proved of great benefit at an individual level, Bernard still sees a lot of work our community needs to do in order to help those still enduring homelessness, especially those experiencing serious mental illness. He sees a lot of people receive housing, but they’re unable to be “brought back” due to their illness, and are often left to their own devices once they receive housing, when what they need is continued care and counseling in order to adjust from the trauma of homelessness to waking up in a home.

 In Bernard’s words, a lost house is a lost family. Bernard learned this as a child when his family was split apart due to loss of housing. When he endured homelessness again as an adult, he lost his car, his dogs, and oftentimes couldn’t locate his wife. For Bernard, a loss of housing is also a loss of self and manhood. Bernard’s perseverance and positive experience with local nonprofits is a testament to his commitment towards waking up; not only himself, but our community. Waking up is a blessing, and this is the work that Lex End Homelessness is committed to. You can get involved with Lex End Homelessness by joining the Continuum of Care, donating to the Lex End Homelessness campaign, or by following us on social media @lexendhomelessness.