From homeless to advocate for the homeless
Last June, J.D. Glass was wasting away from drinking and living in a tent in the woods, but he managed to clean up and get a second chance. Now he's putting it to use.
By Theresa VargasWashington Post Staff Writer Monday, April 12, 2010
Like most of what J.D. Glass owns, the battered olive-colored briefcase he held had belonged to someone else first. The initials on it were not his.
But it added an aura of importance, and that was enough for Glass, who filled the case with mostly blank paper and clutched it as he walked into Prince William County's government headquarters the other night. He clutched it as he signed up to speak before the Board of Supervisors, clutched it until the moment his name was called and he delivered a speech that he says his entire life has been leading toward.
"My name is Danny Glass. Everyone knows me as J.D. Congratulations on becoming the 14th wealthiest county in the United States, by the way. Donny would have been proud. But Donny is not here right now, because Donny is dead. Donny froze to death in his sleep on Christmas Day 1999. . . . I know because he died right in front of me."
To most people in the McCoart building that night, it was just another board meeting, the first public hearing on this year's budget. But for Glass, it was a chance to speak about a subject that few, if any, understand better. A man who less than a year ago was dying alone in a filth-caked tent has become an advocate for those who are still living out in the woods.
"I got a second chance, and I know what I'm going to do with it," Glass said before the meeting.
"I knew Donny for years, and you don't know how shocking it is -- just he's there, and then he's not. Let me tell you about myself. I've been living outside since 1972. I've been drinking heavily since 1972. All the way up until June of last year."
In June, Glass was living in the woods in Woodbridge, wasting away from a drinking habit that could be measured by the mountain of empty Thunderbird bottles nearby. Washington Post Photographer Michael Williamson and I found him there, half naked, too weak to walk. It was clear he was dying.
When Glass called a Woodbridge shelter for help a few weeks after that encounter, doctors estimated that he had 36 hours to live. But the 54-year-old, who grew up in a Texas orphanage, held on for days, then weeks, then months. He sobered up, reunited with relatives he hadn't seen for decades and vowed he wouldn't touch alcohol again.
Last week, hours before the meeting, he went over his speech in a place no one would have imagined possible a few years ago: his own apartment. It's little more than a room in the basement of a Woodbridge house, but it is the first real roof Glass has had after living outside for 37 years.
"It ain't much, but it beats the hell out of a tent," he said. A twin bed takes up more than half the space. The rest is filled with a clutter of objects that were mostly given to him. "Don't look like much, but there's a story behind every one of them." The metal cane he keeps by his bed reminds him of when he was at his weakest, learning to walk again. A small toy car on a shelf represents the only thing he brought with him from the tent.
"It was the only thing I wanted," Glass said, looking at the gray-and-red roadster. "It represents the part of my life I always wanted to get back -- and that's freedom."
Life after near-death has not been entirely easy.