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'Joe Homeless' leaves a legacy of courage, determination

August 16, 2000
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About nine years ago, companies that manufacture mechanics’ tools began receiving letters from the Doe Fund and other friends of “Joe Homeless.” The letters requested donations of tools so that this former refrigeration mechanic, whose tools had been lost during 11 terrible years of homelessness on the streets of New York, could attempt to resume his beloved trade.

Many responded generously, and with their help, Joe succeeded in becoming a refrigeration mechanic once again. He acquired and repaired a battered Chevy van, studied hard for and passed the then newly instituted refrigerant certification exams, and went to work as a certified universal technician, putting all the money he made back into his business.

Gradually he built his customer base and acquired the tools, refrigerants, and parts he would have needed to begin turning a real profit.

Unfortunately, the man known to his customers only as “Joe the refrigeration mechanic” died May 18 of heart failure, after six months of disabling cardiac illness.

Joe leaves behind loving friends, many of whom were his customers. He was a man of extraordinary determination and courage who managed to maintain his integrity, humanity, humor, and a capacity to care for others despite overwhelming adversity.

Life story

He also was an author. His book, My Life on the Streets: Memoirs of a Faceless Man, was dictated into a tape recorder that he found and repaired while living on the streets.

The book describes his struggles to survive physically, mentally, and spiritually while living under one of the most hard-to-endure conditions human beings can suffer — homelessness.

Excerpts of the resulting manuscript were first published in Newsday Magazine in 1990. The companies that helped him get back on his feet received copies of this article. One still-extant letter from Black & Decker responding to his pleas for help reads, “His story and struggle to start over makes a compelling case for support,” and records a donation of a 14890 Bullet Drill Bit Set.

Joe’s book was published in 1994 by New Horizon Press. It movingly recounts the story of his life and his travails during the 11 years he was homeless. Much of that time was spent running from violent vigilantes (he called them “the block associations”) who chase homeless people out of middle-class neighborhoods so as not to mar the view with an image of poverty and suffering.

Joe compared the plight of the homeless — “forced and herded, constantly on their feet, with no food or water” — to that of the prisoners who suffered death marches during World War II.

Another journey

But the marching days of Joe Homeless did not end with his acquisition of tools, a van, and a place to stay. Joe walked the same streets yet again in order to recreate himself as a refrigeration mechanic.

This time, the 100-mile march was voluntary.

Every day that he had no calls, while his health held out, he would walk the streets handing out business cards to proprietors of bars, restaurants, delicatessens, flower shops, supermarkets, and groceries all over the Bronx, Manhattan, lower Westchester, and parts of Queens.

He would purchase 3,000 cards at a time and went through many sets and many pairs of shoes before laying his burdens down. Even now, his pager beeps almost daily.

Many people in the refrigeration business had contact with Joe without realizing who he was. Joe attended local conferences sponsored by manufacturers, and spent many hours on the telephone picking the brains of technical support people.

If you found yourself peppered with questions by someone named Joe whose last name you never quite caught, who grilled you for every nuance of the workings of the tools, parts, or refrigerators you represent, you were probably among those who helped Joe Homeless reinvent himself as Joe the Mechanic.

A substantial portion of the proceeds of future sales of Joe’s book will go to the Doe Fund, which gives homeless men jobs and clothing, helps them find housing, and is now itself building an apartment for the homeless.

Tax-deductible contributions in Joe’s name would be gratefully accepted by the Doe Fund, 232 E. 84th St., New York, N.Y. 10028.

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