by Scott Spreier

It was the Tuesday before Christmas, 2014.  James Mann was standing on his usual Houston street corner, sign in hand, panhandling. A motorist stopped. But this time, instead of a few coins or a flurry of angry profanities, the driver proffered a small envelope and, without a word, drove away. Inside were five, $100 bills. Merry Christmas.

Mann couldn’t believe his eyes. After two years on the streets, eating from dumpsters, sleeping under overpasses, sensing constant danger around every corner, came an unexpected gift of hope borne by a stranger – a gift, it turns out, that would keep on giving.

Mann, 54, a Prison Entrepreneurship Program graduate just five months out of prison, now sees that moment not as simply a generous donation, but as the seed money that launched him on a journey towards a productive, successful life.

I made a decision that was not how my story was going to end

Until that day, hope itself had been a stranger to Mann for many years. It began to fade when, as a teen, he became rebellious – smoking pot at 15 and arrested on five counts of burglary at 17.

Hope returned briefly a few years later, when he settled down to what appeared to be a typical life of marriage, parenthood and career.  There were the three children, all popular in school, a nice home with a pool, a good job in the air-conditioning industry. In their free time, both he and his wife were involved in community sports, with Mann coaching youth teams.

But appearances can be deceiving.

“While our family appeared perfect, there were a lot of issues,” he recalled.

Foremost was Mann’s continued use of marijuana, which soon morphed into a love of crack cocaine. Thinking he could manage his habit, he tried to keep it a secret. For a time, his life as a “functional drug addict” seemed to work. But, exacerbated by an undiagnosed bi-polar condition, it was not sustainable. Over the next few years he would be fired from numerous jobs, spend 18 months in prison for drug possession, go in and out of rehab facilities – once staying clean for seven years — and ultimately lose his family.

It was then, after yet another drug arrest and the impounding of his car containing all of his possessions, that he found himself on the streets of Houston. For the next two years he survived by panhandling, regularly working the same two corners. An entrepreneur of sorts, he developed a relationship with some of his regular customers, but also was arrested numerous times for soliciting funds without a permit.

Ironically, once on the street, he stopped using drugs, His reasoning: something in him knew that as far as he’d fallen, if he continued to use he would sink even deeper. Homelessness, it seems, had succeeded, where years of treatment had failed. He stayed clean, he said, with the help of his mother, who became his “accountability partner.” Using a phone she had given him, he would seek her counsel during times of despair.

Hope made another brief appearance when Mann’s estranged children asked if they could visit him at a shelter. He readily agreed, believing they were coming to take him home. Instead, they “laid into me, ripped me up, and left.” He was stunned, hurt. But they got his attention. “I made a decision that was not how my story was going to end,” he said.

He began by trying to save some of his meager income, using “envelope budgeting,” a simple but proven financial system he learned at one of the rehab centers. Using three envelopes – one marked Daily Necessities, one Food, and one Housing — he began slowly saving toward renting a boarding house room.

It was then that a fourth envelope – the one containing $500 – arrived via the silent motorist.

Mann immediately rented a room although he continued to panhandle. With a place – albeit small – of his own, he quickly started to reintegrate into the community he had been cast out of when he became homeless. He got on Facebook and connected with both old friends and some of his regular customers. The food, water, clothing and blankets he collected while panhandling he now turned into small “care packages,” which he distributed to those still on the street. He even started a Facebook group Feed it 4ward, to create awareness of and help for the homeless in the Houston area. The group is still active.

Despite Mann’s good works, his troubles were not over. An argument and fight with a landlord landed him back in prison in 2016. It was there that he heard about PEP. He applied – solely for the transitional housing it promised – and was accepted.

Soon, however, Mann discovered the program could give him far more than a roof over his head. “PEP was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d be without it. There are so many resources.”

Perhaps most meaningful for Mann was the initial, character development phase. “The Authentic Manhood class helped me tremendously,” he said. “There were lots of issues I had in my life that I blamed on other people. The program made me take a strong look at my life and realize I had created my own prison.”

Mann also embraced the business development aspect of the program finishing 12th in a class of 54 academically, and reaching the semi-finals of the business competition.

Although a generation older than most of the participants, Mann loved the camaraderie and brotherhood of PEP. With a year left in prison after graduation, he became a servant leader, mentoring and teaching new participants. The once solitary homeless man, who went days without speaking to another human and sometimes talked aloud to himself to make sure he still had a voice, now found himself speaking to groups of more than 200.

This holiday season finds Mann mentoring his fellow Columbia House residents, encouraging them to make use of the opportunities now available to them, including additional education. He speaks from experience: in addition to working nights at a restaurant he is enrolled full-time at El Centro Community College, pursuing an associates degree in business. After that, he would like to earn a bachelor’s degree. He hopes to go to work soon for a recruiting company, and ultimately start a direct-hire placement business.

Looking back on his long and harsh redemptive journey, Mann said that he has a lot to be thankful for, not the least of which is PEP. After graduating, he recalled, although again denied parole he refused to complain or ask God to get him out.

“I would always thank him for everything, because there was a time in my life when I didn’t have a roof over my head, that I didn’t have three meals a day, that I didn’t have people who loved me.”

Christmas is the season of generosity, a time of year where you can help PEP prepare for the next year. Our goal is to change 400 more lives in 2020 and the cost of total transformation is $8600 per graduate. That is $3.5 million to provide character development, entrepreneurship training, family support, and reentry services, which reduces recidivism by 98%.

This Christmas your gift will be doubled!  Through December 31st, 2019 our board will match your gift up to $200,000. Whether it is a $200,000 gift or a $250 gift it all makes a difference in the lives of our men.