Dreamer 'n the 'hood

From a tiny food counter in South Dallas, Delvin Gray struggles to change the world

Every now and then, his mother would come home, full of fears, and give away everything in the house--the television, silverware, furniture. During these episodes, Gray was shipped back to Texas to live with his grandmother in a tiny house in Waco. He hadn't learned to read beyond a few words, and school became increasingly unimportant. He also began to act violently, fighting and bullying neighborhood kids.

By the time he reached junior high, Gray was breaking into homes and businesses. The first place he burglarized was a pool hall. He broke the glass window, climbed in, and robbed the candy machine. He returned a few nights later, but the owner was waiting for him. He landed in jail--and was in and out of there during the time he should have been in school. Finally, he robbed a store and went to prison for two years.

"I was real scared," he recalls. "I started reading as best I could, but I was illiterate."

For the first time, he says, he understood slavery. Guards dictated and monitored his every move. There was no freedom, none at all. He stayed out of trouble, and when he finally got out, he left Texas and headed for Los Angeles.

"I told myself I wanted to be a star," he says. But mostly he was ashamed of his prison stint and wanted to start over at a place where no one knew him. He had images of sandy beaches and glistening boulevards.

The minute he stepped off the Greyhound in L.A., though, he ran into the hustlers.

"Man, I got joints," one whispered.
Another had coke. There were hawkers selling gold chains, watches. One hustle after another.

Gray took his two pillowcases of possessions and sought out homeless shelters. He began living on the streets, eating at shelters, searching for work. He was 19.

Eventually, he landed a job at a fast-food restaurant in Huntington Beach. Most of the people he worked with were rich white kids who lived in apartments and drove fancy sports cars. He got a roommate and fell into that lifestyle, working and partying.

"I desired to be a part of that world. I wanted to be accepted. I was going to concerts--I was eating steaks rare! God, I can't believe I did that," he says now, shaking his head.

He looks back on those days with undeniable fondness. He lived a good life and made a lot of white friends. His time in Huntington Beach taught him "there are a lot better ways to live, that there is happiness and bliss and that all white folks are not fucked up. It saved me from the corruption of racism."

Yet he came to realize he was the only black person in the Huntington Beach area. The skinheads made sure of that, tormenting the restaurant manager and Gray. "Get that nigger out of town," they'd say, threatening to destroy the business and kill Gray if he didn't leave. Hungry for interaction with other black people, Gray obliged. He eventually found himself on a bus to Dallas, back in his home state.

When he got here, he didn't have any more to his name than when he'd first left Texas. He slipped into the system of shelters, free food, and agencies for the homeless. "I was very positive. I felt I could start fresh and use the shelters while I looked for a job," Gray says. But he grew quickly disillusioned by what he saw as a cycle designed to keep people homeless and remove opportunities for advancement. "Everybody had their cliques," he says. "[Shelter managers] hoarded stuff for them and their friends. I saw people taking food stamps for rents, I saw a lot of things."

Mostly, he hated the churches, which would make the homeless endure hours of sermons before they'd dole out sandwiches. He has particular antipathy for Dallas' First Baptist Church, which broadcasts its Sunday services on television. Gray recalls being invited along with other homeless people to share in Sunday services with the affluent congregation. Once there, he says, the homeless people were directed to a section of pews cordoned off by rope. He felt they weren't allowed to mix with the rest of the audience. (Gray may have misunderstood. Pat Stimson, a longtime First Baptist member and volunteer, says the church often ropes off sections for guests. They're allowed to mingle freely.)

During the broadcast, the cameras would alight on the group and the preacher would talk about the despair of homelessness. Then when the service was over, church officials gave them sandwiches and sent them on their way.

"They gave you no respect as a human being," Gray says. "I got tired of all that." He stopped going to churches and shelters. Instead he lived under bridges and in parks. People were drawn to him, because he was always writing (as best he could) in his journal and trying to help other homeless people. They were curious about this strange person with a strong desire to read and write.

Gray couldn't get a stable job because of his felony conviction. He worked in the city's labor pools, making $15 to $20 a day. He lived on the streets for many months. Then one day, he met Paul Rogers, a preacher and student at Bishop College. Rogers, impressed with Gray's intelligence and inquisitive mind, encouraged Gray to attend the predominantly black college.

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