The Story of Jake

Could a chance meeting with a homeless man on the streets of Philadelphia turn into a lifelong friendship?

Blame Tony Robbins

While driving to our window manufacturer in Bristol, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia, I brought along acclaimed motivational speaker Mr. Tony Robbins to entertain me during the 5 hour car ride.  Tony had not written a book in 20 years and I was looking forward to hearing him read his latest book “Money, Master the Game”. The audiobook is read by the author himself and did not disappoint. Tony lists 7 simple steps to financial freedom with #7 having quite the impact on me.  (Spoiler alert), #7 is The secret to living is giving. Tony passionately tells the story of the day that changed his life, when he didn’t have a dime to his name but after an encounter with a young boy and his mother at a restaurant he instantly became a wealthy man.

Excuse me, do you know where the Liberty Bell is?

Ger RonanCEO at Yankee Home Improvement

On Sunday June 7, 2015 I found myself walking around downtown Philadelphia in anticipation of my Monday morning meeting. I have many good memories in Philly. Back in my illegal alien days working in Wildwood, NJ, Philly was the closest city where we would go to see major live bands perform like Simple Minds or the Pretenders. I don’t recall noticing back in the early eighties, but on that day there were homeless people on almost every street corner. With Tony’s voice still ringing in my ears I stepped outside my comfort zone.

Sunday Love - Ger's Philadelphia Experiment

I decided to approach someone who was not panhandling, no cardboard sign, just sitting by himself on a metal picnic table at a Federal Building at the corner of Market and 7th. What do you say to a homeless person you have never met? Yep, I played it safe. Directions.

Pretending to be the confused tourist I asked, “excuse me, do you know where the Liberty Bell is?” The gentleman immediately stood up and pointed at the huge line across the street. I thanked him and asked him how he was doing? “Not so good”. How long was he on the streets? “Since 2001”. What’s your name, “Jake”. How old are you Jake? “I’m not sure”. Not the response I was expecting. He went on to explain that he had not celebrated his birthday for the last two years and didn’t know if that counted. He wasn’t smiling, so I wasn’t smiling. At that exact moment as I slowly sat down at his table, I felt something I had never felt before, a connection to a complete stranger who happened to not have a home.

Jake - Ger's Philadelphia Experiment - Yankee Home Improvement
Ger Ronan with Jake - Ger's Philly Experiment - Yankee Home Improvement

Chance Meeting To Weekly Lunch Date

An hour and a half later I had learnt a lot about Jake. About the fire that made him homeless, the shelters he slept in, his family and his attempts to find work. In the process of giving him some advice on what employers look for when hiring I had a thought. I asked Jake if I was to make a small investment in him would he meet me in the same spot next week. We could discuss his week and his progress in finding work. He agreed, and even said he would look presentable, which prompted me to take his picture. I never realized that this chance meeting would turn into a yearlong friendship and weekly lunch appointment. But it did.

Ger Ronan and Jake in Philadelphia
Jake next to Brickstone in Philadelphia
Jake eating lunch sitting on a bench in philadelphia
Jake and Ger Ronan Eating Lunch in Philadelphia
Jake and Ger Ronan on a Philadelphia Outing

Same Time Same Channel

I had no way to confirm our next meeting of course. No email, no texting, no friendly reminders. Just Jakes word. However, true to his word as I rounded Market street there he was sitting at the same circular metal table. He said he didn’t think I would show. I was thinking the same about him. He shaved, dressed a little better and definitely made an effort to look hirable. This time we walked up Market street, found a Subway and ordered a couple of sandwiches. Ordering a Subway sandwich with Jake was different. He was determined that his Italian cold cut would have every possible option/vegetable.  He asked for biblical amounts of mayonnaise and so much olive oil the owner looked to me to check if it was ok.  From the soda machine he would fill up his jumbo cup with every single flavor. Said he liked variety. Then to top it all off he would tell me how Subway was not a real hoagie and that their bread was horrible.

Strange Glances

As weeks turned into months I would get used to the strange looks we would get when walking together.  We graduated from Subway to having a hot meal at Midtown Diner II. Regina, our waitress would save us a space in the back of the restaurant.  After copiously perusing the menu, asking her all kinds of questions, he would order the exact same dish every week, meatloaf. No matter how many times he asked her if he could get a side of corn nibblets she never lost her patience when telling him no. Regina would sit with us between her other clients, posing for several pictures intrigued by the odd couple who would come in every Sunday and sit in the rear. Jake would become known to all the staff there and some of the regulars. He loved the attention.

Secret Therapist

Being in the company of someone who only owns the clothes on his back is incredibly grounding. You get a totally different perspective and an appreciation of life. Jake became my therapist. I would feel guilty driving home knowing that I got more out of our Sunday lunches than he did. I would keep our meetings to myself until early 2016 and only then being selective in who I informed. As the summer drew to a close we become friends. He would tell me that he lived at the Sunday Breakfast Mission on 13Th street and would always refuse a lift back when offered. I would later find out why. He always walked with me the 8 blocks back to my car after we ate. Right up until the last minute pontificating on life or some of the strange things he noticed that no one else did. Jake alluded to his mental illness once, telling me how he would look at the doctor’s notes when the doctor left the room to take a call. He was able to recall verbatim the medical terms of the doctor’s diagnosis but didn’t really understand their meaning.

As the summer drew to a close we stumbled upon a cornball game that a downtown bar had left out from the night before. After some persuading he gave it a try only to become hooked. He was determined not to stop until he got at least one bag in the hole. Chuffed with his success he beamed all the way back to my car. Over the following weeks he would tell me how he never gives up trying, always alluding to the time he never gave up until he got a beanbag in the hole. Jake would retell some of the same stories over and over again. Never growing tired of his company, I dutifully listened.

Why?

As summer turned to fall we still maintained our weekly appointment to discuss Jakes week and life in general. He never did get a job but would tell me about all his attempts. I would scour Craigslist, offer suggestions but Jake always had a great story of why he didn’t follow through. On the drive home I would always call my mother. Trying to explain why I would meet a homeless man every Sunday for lunch in Philadelphia was not the easiest to explain. America has been good to me and the more it offered me the more I felt the need to give back.

Jake with Ger Ronan in Philadelphia
Jake Story Cornhole in Philadelphia
Jake Playing Cornhole with Ger Ronan in Philadelphia
Jake Playing Cornhole Philadelphia

A Plan to End Homelessness

The solitary drive home gave me plenty of time to think. It was on one of these drives home in August that I formulated a plan to end homelessness. Around this time the “Ice bucket challenge” was in full swing. The idea of individual altruism was taking hold via YouTube. Plus, on a daily basis I was reminded of how something small could grow into an international phenomenon by looking at a framed vinyl record on my bedroom wall every morning. U2 were my local band growing up. There was only 1,000 (I still have #910 of their first single “Out of Control”) ever issued on 12inch vinyl with each one numbered. When I bought that record I had no idea how successful they would become.

Ger Ronan with Jake in Philadelphia

So here was my idea to solve homelessness based on the ice bucket challenge and U2.

  1. Start a charity/foundation that involved no solicitation of funds. I even gave it a name, the “Where’s the Liberty Bell?” foundation.
  2. Jake on his feetContinue to see Jake on a weekly basis, help him find work, get an apartment and get back on his feet to see if it could be replicated.
  3. Find out how many people are living with a roof over their heads compared to on the streets. Let’s says its 1,000 to every person living without a home. (just picking a round number). So I would have to convince one out of a thousand to replicate what I was doing. Piece of cake.
  4. Just as the Ice Bucket Challenge” was based on an individual’s efforts, stories of people doing what I was doing would be posted to a website. Here’s where Paul Hewson comes in, or as you know him, Bono. Musicians/celebrities would pick their favorite story and allow the homeless person along with their “mentor”, access to them, maybe VIP tickets to a show or something. Different competitions with different celebrities picking the homeless big brother story they liked the best.
  5. Organizations could do the same. If it took off companies would put their own “Jake” story on their home page. Can you imagine IBM or Apple with a picture on one homeless person along with the story on their homepage?
  6. Governors of each state would challenge each other to see who was solving their homeless problem the quickest.
  7. If people felt uncomfortable approaching a homeless person, each area could have a designated person, perhaps at a shelter to set up the first meeting and offer assistance.
  8. Find one person in 1,000 to help someone, homeless problem solved!.

The idea was relatively simple, put a human face on the problem. Solve the problem one person at a time. Then add in a little competition to see who gets to hob nob with the celeb of their choice who participated. Ice Bucket meets Big Brother Big Sister meets Make a “homeless” Wish Foundation. Call it whatever, but…….after several months of my weekly lunches with Jake I had an unpleasant epiphany.

My plan won’t work.  No matter how well intentioned I was I could never cure mental illness. I did, however make a friend. So undeterred I resolved to finish out the year and see if I could make some small impact.

Fall to Christmas

Throughout 2015 we would not connect on only 3 weekends. One was a trip back to visit my mother who was hospitalized in Dublin, another when the Pope visited Philly and only once when he overslept (majorly). He got mad at me when I brought down some guests. “why didn’t you tell me they were coming?, I look like a homeless person today.” Those were his exact words. After we stopped into Ross’s department store for a new shirt he settled down and enjoyed the attention of Sabrina and Raymond. and didn’t seem to mind that we gave the diner a break and ate outside.

Jake, Sabrina and Raymond
Jake With Ger Ronan
Jake With Waitress
Midtown II Restaurant

When the six month mark came and went he was now comfortable to tell me about his past. He was the middle child of 9, born into a religious family in North Philadelphia. I was sure that his mental illness played a role in his current situation. However, he was never angry and never expressed a scintilla of bitterness towards anyone, just always appreciative of the time I gave him.  Certain things were still off limits, his hair for one. I was not permitted to see his dreads, he told me no one should have to see his grey hair. I would learn 5 months later that his grey hair issue would be the reason he was afraid to interview for jobs.

When it got colder we moved our meeting place indoors at Market Place East outside the Ross department store. I made sure to introduce him to all the security guards as I knew they would ask him to move on when he would wait for me.  Thanksgiving dinner at the Midtown Diner was no different than any other week, meatloaf smothered in ketchup.  Ross’s would be where he would try on every winter coat for his Christmas present in the store before settling on a dark one he thought he could keep clean.

Ger Ronan Bundled Up With Jake
Jake Picking Jacket
Jake Putting on Jacket
Jake Posing For Holiday

Project Home

Winter 2015/16 was so unbelievably mild that our weekly meetings continued. Gainful employment still proved elusive. Aside from sending his first text and figuring out (sort of) how to take pictures with my phone, no other skills were mastered. I knew a year would be up shortly and aside from treating him to lunch every Sunday I had done nothing to really help Jake. All the jobs and people I had set him up to meet with had not happened. So I reached out to Sister Mary Scullion, an Irish nun who is famous for her work with the homeless in Philly. She put me in touch with her organization called Project Home in an effort to at least put a roof over Jake’s head.

Project Home - Put A roof over Jake's Head - Yankee Home Improvement

Jake With Mural

On a brisk Monday morning in March Jake and I walked up to their offices on 1515 Fairmount. I was not going to set up yet another meeting and hear the following Sunday why he was not able to make it. Pauleen and Carmen greeted us and set Jake up to sleep at a shelter that night. I had nothing but admiration for both. They took their time with Jake, answering all his questions and concerns. Reassuring him that grey hair was not an impediment to finding work. They consented to letting me take their picture and over the following week would give me updates on trying to place Jake. Sitting watching them interact with my friend was mind blowing.

The care, the patience, and sincere interest in doing good for a complete stranger they just met was inspiring. We went back to have lunch at the diner to discuss Carmen’s instruction on where to go and who to see. Driving home I felt that finally there might be some good to come out of my weekly trips to PA.

Sad to say my hope was short lived. I excused myself from a Yankee Home managers meeting 2 days later to take a call from Carmen to inform me he didn’t show at “My Brothers Place” shelter that night or the following one. She asked if I had a way of getting a hold of him, I didn’t. “So let me get this straight you just drive down here every weekend, and he just shows up at the same place every Sunday?” Yep. I told her I see other people when I’m in Philly too, but Sunday afternoons are spent with Jake. Several weeks later she would say something to me that hurt. She said that because of me Jake might never want to better himself. That feeding him and giving him money (it wasn’t much) was enabling him. Man, I definitely didn’t want to hear that. Here I am trying to help and a professional is telling me I might be the problem.

Jake and Ger Ronan on the Street in Philadelphia

Tough Love

So over the next few weeks I tried some tough love. Carmen had laid out a plan to have him report in at a certain shelter, get a psychological assessment and be put on a waiting list for housing and SSI. Seemed logical to me, however you can only help people who want to be helped. It slowly started to dawn on me that what Jake said he wanted and what he actually wanted were two different things. So through April I would still have lunch at Midtown but limit my financial assistance. Telling him as an employer I had no problem rewarding performance if he followed through. Probably the complete wrong approach, but I was starting to lose hope that anything that I did would help. So I set up another meeting with Project Home but he would always get confused with the times and dates.

Tough Love With Jake and Ger Ronan From Yankee Home Improvement

Last Meeting

Philadelphia is an especially beautiful city in spring, steeped in history with modern art around every corner. Strolling around the city we would always bump into a fair or festival. The Chinese Lantern Festival at Franklin Square where an entire park was taken over was a site to behold. Still meeting weekly, still enjoying each other’s company, things came to an abrupt halt May 1.  This would be our last meeting as I got the sad and unexpected news of my mother’s passing. Returning back from Ireland to attend my eldest daughter’s graduation at Babson (5/14) I would go down to Philly the next day to see “himself”. No Jake.

The Search Is On

From Jake’s perspective I figured me pushing him to get help combined with me not showing up was my way of telling him I was sick of him. This is where the story would probably end, except it didn’t. I was determined to find him one more time and explain what happened.  So I decided to visit all the homeless shelters, St.Johns, My Brothers Place and Sunday Breakfast Mission to find him. After all, he had told me and the staff at Project Home that he would stay for 30 days at one before moving on to another.  Here’s where I found that Jake wasn’t exactly honest with me. He had only stayed at Sunday Breakfast one day all year and the other two had no record of him being there. All this time he had been living rough and didn’t want to tell me.

Last Meeting With Jake

Did Ya Lose Him?

I would visit the Midtown Diner 5/29 and learn that it was about to close shortly. When I walked in solo a waitress yelled, “did ya lose him?”. Yep, actually I did! Sat in our usual booth in the rear and looked across at an empty seat. Regina had worked there 18 years and was upset at losing her job. She told me they would be open for only one more week. I had one more Sunday left to find Jake if he was to enjoy his beloved meatloaf. My final push to find him involved creating laminated headshots to show street folks and anyone that would give me the time of day. I called the police and local hospitals asking for him. Revisited all the shelters just in case. Sunday Breakfast Mission is down a small alleyway with people sitting and laying either side.

I had the entrance in my sights when the tallest of the group yelled out, “you need help?”. Yes. Pulling out a picture and asking him if he knew this guy was greeted with suspicious looks from him and his friends. “Who wants to know?” His friend. I then fumbled with my phone until I showed him an album with hundreds of pictures of the pair of us. Only then did he relax. He said his name was “69”, (he was 6ft 9in tall) which didn’t faze me as most people on the street have interesting monikers. When he found out I was Irish he told me his last name was Collins and he was related to the revolutionary Michael Collins. Who knew the “big fellow” of Irish history had a 6 ft 9 inch African American descendant in Philly. 69 said he knew Jake. So did most of the homeless people I approached. But no one offered much in the way of help finding him. Everyone wanted to chat. One person sang me a song, then pointed at my t-shirt. I was wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt, he was singing one of their songs and I was slow on the uptake.

Sunday Love Project

On the one-year anniversary (6/5) of meeting Jake I sat at the same round metal table where we had first met and pondered throwing in the towel. What if he doesn’t want to be found? Since I had already made the drive down I decided to walk the 7 blocks north to meet with Regina at Midtown one last time. She sat with me in-between clients holding back tears. Today was her last day. I knew I probably would never see her again and we mugged for one last selfie. She asked me if I was going to keep looking for him and I said I wasn’t sure. We said our last goodbyes and I wished her the best. Slowly walking back to my car I spotted a line of homeless people waiting to be fed at Love Park (yes it’s where the original love sculpture is). With nothing to lose I approached a gentleman in charge who was organizing the crowd into an orderly line. I showed him a picture of Jake. “Sure I know him and I know where he sleeps.” Finally, after one month a solid lead. Melvin was a volunteer for the Sunday Love Project that gave out food every Sunday to the homeless. This organization was the brainchild of Margaux Murphy, an incredibly dedicated and selfless person who saw a problem and decided to do something about it.

Melvin and Me

Melvin, a Vietnam veteran, with a colorful resume and tons of stories to share would become my “Columbo” (his words) in my quest to find “himself.” I returned the following week to see Melvin and scour the line for a familiar face. After Mel was finished we walked up to 1800 Parkway where Mel told me some of the homeless congregate, washing their clothes in the gigantic fountain. No Jake. The following week Margaux was kind enough to let me help out at the food bank.

It was fun meeting and interacting with all the colorful characters.  Mel showed me the place where he thought Jake was sleeping. We would walk the city for hours all the while listening to Mels stories from Vietnam and his past. Mel was the perfect wingman. No one was suspicious of me when I pulled out Jake’s picture with Mel by my side.

Melvin and Me Yankee Home Ger Ronan
Melvin and Me Ger Ronan Yankee Home
Melvin and Me Ger Ronan Yankee Home Improvement

Big Bernie Puppet

Throughout July the lines waiting for food would increase at Love Park.  Mel would introduce me to some of his friends and I would bring him to meet the finest hotelier in the entire city, the wonderful Katie McLaughlin and her welcoming staff at LeMeriden Hotel.  I have to admit I enjoyed helping out on the line and loved exploring the city with Mel. The drive there and back went quick. I was able to plan my week, listen to some audio books and learn a language. By the end of the summer some Mandarin actually began to stick.

Philadelphia was mobbed with Bernie Sanders supporters on 7/24 when I got to see the famous Big Bernie Puppet. Mel and I didn’t spend too much time searching that weekend as most of the homeless had been moved on out of view. We noticed only one Hillary Clinton supporter and thousands upon thousands of Bernie fans that Sunday walking around in the bright sunshine.  The following week it was just Margaux, Mel and me handling things. The summer flew by with no new leads or sightings of Jake. I was not discouraged; Mel would never allow that. The guy was always up and great to be around. I was determined to keep up the search and had no desire to call it quits.

Yankee Home Improvement Ger Ronan
Big Bernie Puppet Yankee Home Improvement
Big Bernie Puppet Yankee Home Improvement helps the Sunday Love Project
Yankee Home Improvement helps the Sunday Love Project in Philadelphia

September 11,2016

Because of the construction at Love Park we had to relocate across the street. As I waited for the rest of the team of volunteers to arrive I noticed a Ronald Reagan quote on the scaffolding around the park. “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone”. I took hundreds of pictures over the year and a half travelling to Philly but none more prolific than this one. Minutes later, Margaux pulled her car up to the curb to unload the large bags full with dinners she had painstakingly prepared. No Mel today. Another long term volunteer Virginia helped as the line started to build. It was a slow week for some reason with not that many hungry people around. After we were done, we mugged for a selfie in front of an ATM, 2:44 pm to be exact. They asked if I was still going to look for Jake without Mel. I told them I was going to walk down to where we first met next to the Liberty Bell. I would be back in front of that ATM at 3:06 pm taking another selfie.

The Reunion

It had been 4 1/2 months since I had lost track of Jake. I was told by Adam Bruckner, a locally renowned homeless outreach worker that there was 6,000 homeless people in Philly. I knew my chances were slim. Emigrating here from Ireland with $80 in my pocket I can say unequivocally that this country has been extremely good to me even though there was a point in my life that I too was homeless. Along the way, I was lucky to have people come into my life that not only mentored me but unselfishly helped me find my way. I considered Jake a mentor too. He taught me the value of friendship and to be grateful for even the smallest things. Five minutes after I said goodbye to Margaux and Virginia I reached the top of Market street after walking through City Hall. Bus shelters lined the left hand side so I made a decision to walk down that side. There had be countless near sightings until I would get up close and realize it was not him. As I crossed the street I looked over at the very first shelter. There was a homeless gentleman sitting there. Son of a ……..  He stood up and recognized me right at the same time. I outstretched my arms and yelled “Jake, is that yourself?” He would call me Gerry. “Gerry where you been?”.

I recognized that voice instantly. At 2:52pm the search was over. I had planned to video the reunion if ever there was one, but that plan went out the window when I ran over and hugged him. I simply could not believe it. It felt so good to find him and know he was alive. I wanted to capture and preserve the moment so I took a not so professional video minutes after we met just sitting at the shelter. We walked back to Sunday Love just in case anyone was still there and tell them the good news. Yes, he was hungry, so we went to Subway, no complaints this time and ate outside and caught up as two friends would. Tony Robbins teaches that you cannot be angry and grateful at the same time. It is either or. I wasn’t angry that I could not find him, just grateful, very grateful he was alive, well and back.

The Jake and Ger Ronan Reunion
The Reunion with Jake and Ger Ronan
The Reunion with Ger Ronan and Jake

I encourage everyone if you enjoyed this story to help Margaux Murphy and the team at The Sunday Love Project. This is a an extremely deserving organization run by a dedicated individual who not only makes the meals every week but delivers them too.

Sunday Love Project in Philadelphia

Donate to The Sunday LOVE project at their GoFundMe page.

The Sunday Love Project Posts From Philadelphia