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A Father Feared For His Son's Life, So He Joined Him On The Street


Time now for a story about a San Diego father who thought his son, who was homeless and addicted to heroin, might die. So he did something extraordinary. He flew to Denver and lived with his son for a week on the streets. Together they foraged for food and slept in parks. The father wrote about his experience in a personal essay recently performed on stage in Denver. Colorado Public Radio's Andrea Dukakis has the story.

ANDREA DUKAKIS, BYLINE: The father's essay was never published, but he wanted people to understand the families behind the homeless. So he sent it directly to one of Denver's leading homeless advocates. Chris Conner had never seen anything like it. He says in the past, he's helped parents find children who are homeless, but this was different.

CHRIS CONNER: I've never had a parent who necessarily went this far to descend into homelessness themselves. And I thought that deserved to be heard.

DUKAKIS: Conner contacted the father. His first name is Frank, but he doesn't want his last name used to protect his family's privacy. And Conner contacted Pastor Jerry Herships, whose church serves lunch to homeless people in a Denver park across from the state capitol. Together they turn the essay into a live monologue.

CONNER: I want to really thank you for showing up and engaging with us tonight. I'm Chris Conner...

DUKAKIS: And Pastor Herships read the monologue.


DUKAKIS: It began with the moment Frank made his decision to go.

JERRY HERSHIPS: One day, I'm outside. I'm doing yard work. When I do yard work, I relax, and I think. I go inside, and I tell Dolores (ph), I got an idea. I'm going to Denver and be homeless. She looks at me like I'm nuts. Maybe I am, but I love my son. And to be honest, I think his days are numbered.

DUKAKIS: Frank's essay recounts arriving in Denver and finding his son.

HERSHIPS: He has no idea that I'm walking towards him. I can see that he can't stand up without the support of a building. He would appear drunk to most people. To his dad, though, I know from past experience, sadly he's on heroin - heavy. I go up to him, and he starts to turn his back on me. I don't even care. I just grab him and squeeze him as hard as I can.

DUKAKIS: Frank tells of being his son's shadow for a week, wandering the streets during the day and sleeping on the banks of a river at night. Frank grows a beard, and his clothes get stained. He eats sandwiches handed out by volunteers and swats away rats at night. Meanwhile, his son is sick, in and out of the hospital and stealing to buy more drugs. As the monologue ends, Frank talks directly to his son.

HERSHIPS: If you die, your mom and dad die with you. We might still be here breathing. But make no mistake, we'll be dead inside.


DUKAKIS: After the reading, there's a panel discussion with homeless advocates, including Andrew McClure, who used to be homeless. McClure said the reading brought him back a decade ago when he lived on the streets.

ANDREW MCCLURE: I was thinking of the times when my mother would come down with a bag of peanut butter sandwiches and a $20 bill with tears in her eyes.

DUKAKIS: And the real Frank is there, too.

FRANK: The only thing I could think of was just go there, be with him and love him. Show him how much his family loves him.

DUKAKIS: Frank says now he knows what it's like to have to figure out where to sleep each night, not to have a bed and to sleep with one eye open.

FRANK: The week that I spent there homeless, I averaged, like, two hours and 10 minutes a night of sleep. But when you see homeless people sleeping in parks in the day, that's because they were up all night.

DUKAKIS: Frank says he agreed to the reading because he wants others to know - really know what it's like to be homeless and hopeless. His story doesn't have a nice, neat ending. After a long and difficult week, Frank goes home to his wife. His son ends up in jail, not for the first time. But that's a relief, Frank thinks, because that means his child is still alive. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Dukakis in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIX PART SEVEN'S "THE QUICK FIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Dukakis