As a crack-cocaine addict and homeless person, Jessie James Pullins faced obstacles that some said he couldn’t overcome.
But with the help of St. Charles Borromeo’s Fountain of Youth Ministry and the Ozanam Inn shelter in New Orleans, he gave drugs the boot – and turned his life around.
Pullins, 49, is now employed as the executive manager of the steward department for the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans.
“I am so grateful for mission groups like this that work with the homeless,” he said.
“When I was living on the streets, sleeping in a cardboard box, they fed me, gave me clothes, and they helped me to survive.
“I am grateful for all the help and support they gave me.”
Pullins doesn’t mind sharing his story to help keep kids from veering off the straight and narrow.
Speaking before a group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, Pullins detailed the nightmarish series of events that plunged him into a life of despair.
“Homelessness is a series of events that happen in a short amount of time, like losing your job, then you have to spend all your savings to pay your bills, once you can’t find an income to match your level of living you lose everything you own and you’re homeless,” he said, running his sentence on to show how rapidly a person can get into trouble.
“I ‘m a Vietnam veteran who lived on the streets of New Orleans for five years because of a drug addiction.
“But homelessness can happen to anybody. My goal was to survive and return to a normal life. And I did.”
Pullins panhandled and hustled to get money.
“I pushed a basket around the city and collected and sold cans to recycling companies. I would ask strangers for change.”
Pullins averaged about $60 a day, but before nightfall he had already spent most of it on drugs.
“I would save a few coins for the Veterans Hospital’s cafeteria, where you can get a bowl of grits and one egg for 75 cents,” he said.
“Because I hustled all day, the soup kitchens where I could get a free meal were closed.”
Pullins told the kids at St. Borromeo about where he slept, what he ate and how he kept himself clean.
“I slept on the steps of city hall in a cardboard box, behind the public library, and on the steps of the mayor’s office,” he said.
“People passed me by every day like I didn’t exist. I ate my first bite of a rack of lamb out of dumpster behind the LePavillion Hotel in New Orleans.”
“The fountain in front of city hall is where I took my splash baths.”
Pullins eventually was arrested and jailed for 18 months on a parole violation.
“That’s when doctors discovered I had a hernia,” he recalls.
Pullins went to the VA Hospital for surgery. He was released to the homeless shelter – Ozanam Inn – to recover … and his life began to fall into place.
“I was determined after my surgery not to go back to living on the streets – I’d had enough of it,” he said.
“Ozanam Inn gave me my first job in three years.”
Pullins worked in the clothing room, giving out pants, shirts, coats and other donated items to people living on the streets.
“Every day I would give out these clothes to people, and it made me feel humble and helped me to remember where I came from and the lifestyle I didn’t want to go back to,” he continued.
Six months later he applied at the Marriott Hotel for a kitchen helpers position.
“I got hired in April of 1997, five months later I was nominated employee of the year, and I won,” Pullins said.
He was promoted to assistant supervisor over the steward’s department 18 months later.
“I was nominated for employee of the year again, and I won a second time,” he said.
After his second award,
Pullins got another promotion to executive manager. Pullins continues to volunteer at the shelter as an advocate for the homeless.
“I’ve traded my cardboard box for a home I own and my basket of cans for a job at the Marriott,” he said.
“I have a table reserved for me in restaurants where I used to eat out of the garbage cans.”