In from the cold - after a hard life

David Brown, who helps manage Project HOME's Home Spun Boutique, lived on the streets for 25 years before he agreed to come inside three years ago. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )

His first night outside was on a bench in Logan Square. He remembers the cold of that long-ago night. He remembers feeling scared.

For the next 25 years, David Brown stayed outside.

Many of his nights were spent huddled beneath blankets at a cardboard encampment next to the former Youth Study Center on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

There were 25 souls inside the boxes. They called themselves the Survivors. The police left them alone if they were gone by 8 a.m. and did not return until 8 p.m.

David Brown adapted. He survived. He didn't drink or do drugs.

He had grown up in a crowded house in Wynnefield with an abusive father and an overwhelmed mother. He never learned to read. By 16, he was sleeping at a Center City hospice. He found adult shelters dangerous - and felt mistreated.

"I thought I could do better on the streets," he said.

On the coldest days, he would sit inside the Central Branch of the Free Library on the Parkway, surrounded by books he could not decipher.

The Survivors disappeared one by one. About three years ago, only David and a man named Steve Green were left.

Ed Speedling was working as a community liaison worker for the nonprofit Project HOME around that time. One cold day, he found David camped under a bridge along the Schuylkill.

Speedling was a familiar face to David. He knew David to be gentle and genuine, if reluctant and untrusting about coming inside.

"He always had a desire to live - something at his core to keep him surviving," Speedling says.

But that day on the river, Speedling didn't see the light in David anymore. That day, David said he was ready to take his life.

David came inside. He adapted. He worked. He survived.

Soon, he earned the key to an apartment inside Project HOME's James Widener Ray Homes in North Philadelphia.

It's a studio with a kitchen and living room that fits a futon, a rocking chair, and a television. He resets his small dinette table after every meal. His refrigerator is filled. You could eat off the floors.

"It's my kingdom," he says.

He's worked for his kingdom.

He helps manage Project HOME's Home Spun Boutique, a secondhand clothing store where all profits go to help fight homelessness.

"He's found his voice," said Alexis Pough, a Project HOME program manager, while David tended to a steady stream of shoppers on a recent afternoon.

He's a natural with the customers, remembering that Ron doesn't buy anything but Polo, Miss Madeline likes big pocketbooks, and Nadine goes for pantsuits, the business look.

He struggles with the cash register - he's reading at a third-grade level now - but sometimes gets confused over the "S" buttons: sweaters, shirts, skirts.

"I never knew I could be a salesman," he said. "But it's all about my people skills. I tell a good story. I tell my own story."

He tells them he feels as if he means something now - and he hopes it helps others find hope.

"I made it," he said. "I survived."

David Brown turned 60 the other night. He celebrated alone, but happy, in his apartment.

He fried nine chicken pieces and baked a chocolate cake. He ate it all at his dinette. Then, he turned up his heat - his beautiful heat - and drifted to sleep, watching LeBron James drop 26 over the Bulls, and wearing the key to his kingdom on a chain, safely around his neck.

215-854-2759 @MikeNewall