Photo by Caroline Howard.
Johnson sitting on the steps of his friend’s apartment in Orangeburg.

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, there were 3,933 homeless people in South Carolina as of January 2018. As of 2017, there were 778 homeless people in Richland County, the Free Times reported.

The path to homelessness changes from person-to-person. For some, drugs, neglect or abuse are involved, for others poor management of their money or jobs plays a role. Antonio Davon Johnson’s persevered to triumph over homelessness. His experience shows what it takes to survive.

Students and families walk through the streets of Columbia every day but tend to look past the homeless. Many will simply donate a dollar here or there, and maybe even a meal. But their involvement typically ends there, such donations help people like Johnson momentarily but don’t last.

Johnson, a 26-year-old who is no stranger to life’s ups and downs, continues to take life day-by-day. After going to prison as a young adult and being homeless in Orangeburg and Columbia, he says he looks to God for guidance.

The shift in Johnson’s life from prison to living by his faith in God didn’t happen overnight. From sleeping on benches and wearing the same clothes for three days, to finding unsuspected friends at a local fast food restaurant, Johnson is learning how to manage.

Johnson moved to Columbia in July 2018 and approached a local chicken stand looking for work. He soon worked his way up from cleaning the stand to cooking the chicken. After being homeless from 2012-2018, this job gave Johnson purpose.

When you come out of prison in Orangeburg, Johnson says it’s typical to end up homeless. He knows from experience. “I lost too many years behind bars. I have ADHD really bad so being stuck in a house all day got to me. I got bored and broke into my neighbor’s house,” Johnson says.

According to Johnson, the systems set in place to help people after prison in Orangeburg are far from adequate. To him, the homeless situation reminded him of prison because of the lack of resources.

“My biggest fear was dying on the streets,” Johnson says, “I was always thinking about what my next meal was and what the weather was going to be.”

Once Johnson moved to Columbia he found himself spending time at Chick-fil-A in Five Points. Chick-fil-A does not discriminate against the homeless, its only rule is that they cannot beg. If you look around in the Chick-fil-A in Five Points you will notice more people than just Johnson finding refuge there. Other people can be seen charging phones, receiving water from the employees and enjoying air conditioning on a hot day. Johnson makes a point to do more than that and to befriend the employees.

This daily routine and his approachable nature pique the employees’ interest. Many quickly noticed his potential and wanted to help. Johnson found friends who created a resume for him and eventually found him a temporary apartment. Chick-fil-A employees, Shakia Yung and Nicko Knapp, now mentor Johnson after talking to him frequently during his daily visits to the restaurant.

Yung noticed a light in Johnson and introduced him to her church in Columbia. “He’s a blessing in my life. Bringing him back to the church helped my own life. He’s just a great person,” Yung says.

Yung and Johnson’s bond runs deep because of Yung’s struggles herself. She recognized his ambition and took action. Johnson credits her for getting his life back on track.

Before Johnson befriended Yung and Knapp, he spent time at Transitions Homeless Shelter. Since opening in 2011, Transitions has moved more than 2,260 homeless people to permanent housing and served 1,646,359 meals. The facility has 260 beds and provides services for both men and women. Both residents and nonresidents have access to bathrooms, showers, computers, classes, and laundry. This is the only facility that offers these features in Columbia.

Cecilia Newman, the development administrator at Transitions, says, “Everyone comes here for different reasons and with different situations. We treat you with respect and don’t judge. We’re here to help.”

Newman says the average time someone spends at Transitions is 34 days. “Seeing somebody plugging into the services, becoming stable and finding permanent housing is my favorite part of the job,” Newman says, “People need to take advantage of what we have to offer.”

When asked about homelessness Knapp, the junior director at Chick-fil-A in Five Points, draws a diagram of what he says is the spectrum of homelessness: helpful, hopeful and hopeless.

Knapp says helpful homeless means taking care of yourself first and staying on track to finding permanent housing. Hopeful means you’re heading the wrong direction but haven’t lost hope. Hopeless means you’ve given up. This spectrum Knapp knows well, after being homeless himself for a few years in Atlanta as a young adult.

The scale of helpful to hopeless Knapp says is situational. He says that once someone reaches the level of hopeless something worse happened to the person, like abuse or involvement in illegal activity.

Knapp defines Johnson’s level as halfway in between helpful and hopeful. To Knapp, Johnson cares about others more than himself which leads him into trouble. For example, Knapp says, Johnson would give his last dollar away, even though he might need it more.

Johnson has integrity. He says the hardest thing he’s ever done was turning in a student’s lost wallet with all the money still in it.

“I took it to the security guard at the building. It was dropped outside. I told him nothing was missing,” Johnson says. Johnson could have bought a week’s worth of food with that money found.

Johnson is still transitioning between Columbia and Orangeburg. Recent events led him back to his hometown, but he keeps in touch with his mentors in Columbia. Johnson starts a new job soon with Husqvarna in Orangeburg where he will produce lawnmowers for the following eight months. He hopes to then transfer to the Columbia office.

His faith in God keeps him going and his path toward success is in sight. At the end of the day, Johnson is proud of how far he has come.

“You can’t just keep feeding the fish, all we do is feed the fish,” Knapp says, referring to the quick dollar or meal donations on the street to the homeless. Johnson recalls a similar belief, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”