Born in Indy, Bryant Smith says he won’t leave the Near East Side until he sees it change. He’s a natural born activist with magnetic charisma and a knack for telling stories.
Bryant grew up in what he describes as “the best house in the worst neighborhoods.” As far as he’s concerned, he lived a really normal childhood. He never went to bed hungry and did normal family things. It wasn’t until high school that homelessness entered his life. His dad had a stroke and a heart attack back to back. His dad had worked for over a decade at a local nursing home but after being in the hospital/rehab for three months, he was fired. His mother struggled to be the bread winner for their six children, and they lost their house. Four of the six kids went to stay with various family members, but Bryant and one of his sisters stayed with their mom. The three of them couch surfed from friend’s house to friend’s house.
During this time, Bryant’s mom went into the hospital for a routine surgery and had a stroke on the operating table. The doctors were instantly aware of it and were able to stop a lot of the damage, but his mom was confined to the hospital. Sometimes the nurses let Bryant and his sister stay overnight but not always. Those nights, the hospital staff would ask them where they were sleeping that night, and they’d always say that their aunt was coming to get them. In reality, they were sleeping outside or in different parts of the hospital. They would pan handle the money they needed to eat.
Eventually, Bryant and his sister both got jobs at 7-11. His sister bagged, and he did boxes. They started saving money. His mom got out of the hospital and got a job at Goodwill. They were able to get a house, but it didn’t have any electricity or running water. He says it was just a shell.
One day, through a referral, Johnny Teeter and Kristin Fuller came and met Bryant and his sister on their front porch. They did an intake and talked about who they were, what they wanted to do, and how Outreach could help them. It came up that Outreach was a Christian organization. Bryant says he’d always imagined Christians as a picturesque man in a suit and woman in a sundress. Johnny was anything but that in shorts and sandals, covered in tattoos. That moment changed him. It was the first time Bryant realized you don’t have to look a certain way to be a Christian, that a suit and tie is not what makes a Christian.
Bryant had been through enough organizations to know that it can take a really long time to get involved. He assumed Outreach would be the same way, but two days later Johnny drove up in his jeep and took him to get his ID. From then on, he says, he had total trust in Outreach. He was willing to take the advice of his mentors and case managers.
He spent the next few years dealing with depression and hanging out with the wrong crowd. He says he just did a lot of all the wrong stuff. A lot of the stress fell on him, and he admits he didn’t handle it well. He’d get jobs and then quit. He was more focused on drugs and friends. Bryant never stopped hanging out at Outreach though. He says he always took the opportunities offered to him, he just never put his whole self into them. Then, his case manager, Luke Mertes, hooked him up with Disposable Alternative Organization. He volunteered for three weeks and then they offered him a job. It was his first internship.
It was during this time that Outreach hired Justin Wedges. His relationship with Justin changed Bryant’s life. Justin dropped Bryant off at work when the bus wasn’t running, had Bryant live with him and his family for four months, and introduced him to New City Church (where Bryant attended for three years). “From the moment I moved in with Justin, I was on the straight forward. I spent my time volunteering or working just to stay busy and away from drugs. I’ve fallen off the wagon a couple time, but now it’s just not my thing…He cared about me so much. It made me feel like my life wasn’t just for me anymore. It was for him too.”
New City was a great landing spot for Bryant. He lived in their ministry house for two years. When he was struggling with depression and addiction, their pastor called him out for being distant. He was still just a few minutes’ walk from Justin and would go sit on his front porch whenever he needed to talk. They surrounded him as a community.
Bryant maintained close relationships with Outreach staff and volunteers; he kept showing up. One of the volunteers he was closest to helped him get his first car. Jim Bell, a faithful volunteer, and Justin taught Bryant how to drive and helped him get his 50 hours-–an hour or two here, a few hours on the weekends. Another volunteer helped him study math for his GED.
One volunteer connection got Bryant a maintenance job at Easter Seals. Soon, he started volunteering for their Parents Night Out Program, taking care of children with special needs while their parents go out. They quickly offered him a job within the program.
Later that year, at the feast of lanterns (a fun, annual celebration on the near east side), AmeriCorps approached him. Now he’s an AmeriCorps member here on the near east side, serving at the Boner Center and school 54. He still works for Easter Seals’ Parent’s Night Out program and contracts with the union to make ends meet.
Bryant says that before Outreach he didn’t trust men, especially black men, but the men at Outreach have brought him a long way. He says now he can trust and love. “Justin taught me how to have male friends.” Now he can talk to the elementary students he serves that it’s okay to for guys to hug each other and be really good friends.
These past few years have taught him a lot about how to interact in a world full of drug offers and drug users. He’s worked to have healthy boundaries so that he can have friends and acquaintances who use and still be clean himself. He’s using those boundaries with the Outreach youth he continues to befriend and help in any way he can.
This past year he went on his first paid vacation. Because of some of his own negative work experiences and his father being laid off after his stroke, Bryant has done work with the union. This year they paid him to lead a training (on telling your story!) in Colorado, and he was able to include a vacation with it. He stayed in a hotel and rented a car; was able to really just enjoy his time, knowing his hard work had paid off.
He says that the hardest thing for him to overcome is believing that he can accept his past and still have a different future. He doesn’t want to carry the shame anymore of drug use and having been homeless. He continuously works to accept it and choose a different future. Not only is he choosing it for himself, but he’s helping others make a similar choice. He mentors youth and volunteers at Outreach. Kindness radiates from him. I’m thankful to get to work alongside him, dreaming of peace for the near east side.