07/24/2013 07:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Homeless to Entrepreneur -- My Friend Bobby Harris

Have you ever been homeless?

My friend, Bobby Harris, spent nine long years living underneath the Manhattan Bridge. Cold at night, freezing just before dawn, without a place to bathe -- he was totally at the mercy of nature despite living in one of the biggest and most developed cities in the world, New York City. Bobby dealt with chronic anxiety, colds, flu and worry, with no place to go.

Bobby Harris is a study in a person who, through no fault of his own, lost a home and fell all the way down to the street. Bobby was born in 1966, graduating from high school in 1987. He was a starter in St. Agnes's basketball team here in New York city before spending one year at Ottawa College. His mother got sick in his senior year at Long Island University so he had to leave school and begin working at a maintenance engineer. In 1991, he was diagnosed with bone cancer and became a doorman at 120 Wall Street, where I met him. Everyday I walked in and was greeted by Bobby, who was always so polite and on the ball. We began a friendship that lasted a full decade. Then, after 2001, and 9/11, the market collapsed and Bobby lost his job. I would see him every month or so, roaming the old neighborhood, and we would chat for a long time. I always gave him a $20 bill because I knew he could not find a job and was struggling, needing help. We would talk about Bobby starting a business but he had never had business training. He was completely ignorant of the wholesale market, sales, communications and marketing, record keeping, etc.

Eventually, I encouraged him to call the Social Security Office and giving him the number insisted he call but he never did. Knowing his 12 years of full- and part-time work would get him credit, I called the office and gave him some money to get him to the 14th Street office, and soon he started receiving $650 per month plus Medicaid. At that point, we found him a home on Third Street and Avenue A. He found companionship in a new dog. His health improved -- from being near death to thriving and feeling good.

The point of this story is that many people who are homeless and sick are entitled to their Social Security benefits, as they paid into it for years. For people like Bobby, who have put many hours of work in throughout their lives, they have accumulated benefits that they are unaware of.


My friend Bobby Harris

The most important point of this story, though, is that people like Bobby are never taught financial literacy. In Bobby's case, an ignorance of personal and business finance haunted him in so many ways. Bobby and I are now meeting regularly so that he can start a business. We are planning on going to the wholesale markets and the flea markets. Together, we are going to find ways to empower Bobby as a legal vendor or use his new business awareness to help him find a job.

Being homeless is horrible, psychologically damaging. The fear, the stress, the hunger, the insomnia, the isolation from other human beings -- these factors all paralyze a person. I've seen it many times. Teaching people about business and financial literacy is a way to help them, to empower them, when the inevitable job loss occurs. Now that Bobby is stabilized with his well-earned Social Security benefits, there is a very good chance that he can get another job or start a successful small business to provide income.