Public AffairsBiography & Profiles / November 27, 2013

Paving A New Path: Gregory Whitfield's Story

Sam Klemet
Paving A New Path: Gregory Whitfield's Story

For the first time in three years, Gregory Whitfield and his wife, Renarda, will celebrate Thanksgiving inside a place they can call home.

"I'm going to cook my own turkey, tonight," said Gregory.  "I ain't in jail eating their food. I'm eating my food.  I am going to be with my wife.  That is a blessing."

The couple will be able to enjoy the holiday together despite some trying times.

Gregory Whitfield has gone in and out of homelessness and jail for the past 11 years.  Most recently, the Whitfield's lived in a camp under Indianapolis' Davidson Street Bridge, which became known as "Tent City."

The city tore down the camp in August which at times had as many as 70 residents.

"Down there it was trashy.  Guys were partying.  It seemed like they didn't want anything in life," he said.  "I want something.  I don't want to be outside.  I want a door key."

And Gregory went for it.

He slept in Tent City, but under the bridge was anything but home. Gregory would wake up at 4 a.m. every day and "start ripping and running" to doctors’ appointments and looking for housing and work.   He had to walk everywhere because he had no money for transportation.

"Walking everywhere I had to go is a struggle," he said.  "But, it's successful because I am not going to let anything stop me."

Gregory was determined to create a better life for himself and his wife of 12 years who he calls "my backbone."

And his new life started the day "Tent City" was torn down. 

As the Whitfield's were picking up their few possessions to leave, a police lieutenant stopped them and told them about InterFaith Hospitality Network - an Indianapolis organization that helps people find permanent housing.

"I'm in their corner," said Emma Douglas, case manager with the network. "That's the first thing I tell my clients.  My main job is to be a person in your corner fighting for what you are fighting for."

The Whitfield's followed the lieutenant’s advice, connected with InterFaith, and worked closely with Douglas.

"I didn't look back.  I haven't slept outside since," said Whitfield. 

InterFaith provided temporary shelter for the couple, but also gave them access to tools needed to find permanent, stable housing.

"We talked about the different options that were available to him," said Douglas.  "There is an array of options.  So, we looked at all of the different options, talked about what might work best for them and then he pounded the pavement."

InterFaith provided the tools, but Whitfield did the work.

"It made it better because the hotel we were in had a computer. While I was out working, my wife was on the computer working," said Whitfield.  "Next thing you know, we got a door key."

After months of not knowing where they would to sleep, the Whitfield's found an apartment of their own.

"Me and my wife sat on our couch and cried," he said.  "We are no longer homeless"

The network helped with some of the move in expenses, but the Whitfields pay for the apartment using money from disability checks - Gregory is a veteran.

After rent, the couple has about $100 for the rest of the month. 

"As long as I can open the door and go in and come and go as I please and be at home with my wife, that is very successful," he said. 

And they will continue to have the support of the Hospitality Network.  Douglas will stay on as their case worker for up to two years.

"The goal of the aftercare program really is to provide that follow up, to make sure that once the really difficult work of finding people housing and getting people into housing is done, then there is not a relapse into homelessness," said Douglas.

For a man who has taken it upon himself to set a new path for his family, Gregory Whitfield has vowed not to go back to the streets.

The next step in the Whitfield's journey is to reconnect with their children.  Between the two of them, they have eight - some of whom are in foster care.

"I've got to take one step at a time," said Gregory.  "You can't jump from the bottom step to the top step.  You have to take one step at a time.  I'm not going backwards.  I am going forward."