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Homeless by Choice, James Wagnorne Blogs About Life on the Streets of Dallas

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Yesterday I met James Waghorne outside his home: a blue Aerostar van parked at the Travel Centers of America truck stop off I-20 and Bonnie View Road. This isn't the first time he's been homeless, just the first time since 2002. But this time is different, he says. For one thing, he hopes his time on the street will be short, as he expects disability checks to begin arriving in late January, at which time he'll be able to afford an apartment again. And, this go-round, being homeless was his choice: Having worked in the homeless-advocacy field for the last seven years, he says every shelter in town comes with freedom-curtailing strings attached. And so he chooses instead to live in his van.

Waghorne continues to advocate on behalf of the homeless. He launched a blog in October that he updates from libraries. Its moniker reflects his mission: "To live with dignity and suffer with grace." He offers tips on how to stay warm on cold days like today, and only a few moments ago he posted about the "blessings" provided by fast-food eateries' dollar menus.

He grew up in an upper-middle class family in North Dallas. His downhill slide began, he says, shortly after he graduated from W.T. White High School. He suffered the first of many bouts of depression and tried to end his life; he says his college experience was a series of false starts. Over the next seven years, he partied his way in and out of five different colleges.

He suffered his worst bout of depression in 1999. Unable to work and unwilling to ask for help, he ended up homeless. He lived in the woods near White Rock Lake. It was the first time he met other homeless individuals. "It was a life-changing experience," he says. He and 10 others formed a tight-knit group united by the common goal to survive. With such names as "Little Billy," "Cornbread" and "Barbecue Bob," they referred to their group as "the tribe."

"I earned a respect from the tribe because I did not drink and I started advocating for them," says Waghorne.

He wrote for a publication that eventually became the Stewpot's Street Zine. In April 2002, he says, he joined Americorps and helped create the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. Most recently, he says he worked at Safe Haven.

Waghorne says he wants to get the truth about the homeless experience out there, but he's careful not to glorify it. "It sucks," says Waghorne when asked how it feels to be back on the streets. But he insists it beats moving into a shelter.

"I'd rather be out here waiting for disability to kick in then to get in some kind of program," he says. "There's a viewpoint in services that we are individuals that need to be more controlled, as opposed to a person who just needs a hand up and then letting us go on our way."

Waghorne says he was offered housing, but he would have had to sign a one-year lease and agree to give one-third of his disability to the service organization, which would invest it and give it back to him at the end of the year. While about 10 percent of the homeless population would benefit from such control, Waghorne says, the majority don't need it. "Giving assistance to someone should not include mandating their life."

Waghorne says he plans to get more involved in the advocacy community again by documenting the homeless experience in a series of online videos. His biggest priority is getting politicians to help the advocacy community by expanding permanent housing options for the homeless. Put simply, he says, "The only way to end homelessness is to put people in homes."

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