Justin Markel’s story is one of transformation, perseverance, grace, and one’s ability to turn tragedy into triumph.
Markel moved to Charlotte in 2007 following a difficult divorce. He came for a “’fresh start” and to continue his career in the corporate world as a commercial real estate appraiser. It was around that time the economy crashed and he quickly and unexpectedly found himself unemployed. He pursued jobs with temp agencies and whatever he could find but gradually he could no longer find work. Ultimately unable to pay his rent, he lost his housing. It’s not somewhere he ever saw himself.
“I never thought this would happen to me,” he says. “People often assume if you’re homeless, you must be on drugs or mentally ill. That’s not the case. It can happen to anyone. It was really, really scary. I felt like a fish out of water. I spent the whole night wandering downtown. I didn’t know how to keep myself safe.”
He eventually began to find and get connected with resources, staying at shelters and wherever else he could find.
“I’ve slept in some weird places!” he says.
Remarkably, he did not lose hope. He was determined to find his way out of his situation and began pursuing whatever connections and resources he could find that might put him back on the path to find housing. It wasn’t easy.
“People often say, ‘just get a job!’, but they don’t realize that often you’re just in survival mode,” he says. “It takes most of your energy and time trying to stay alive, moving from shelter to shelter or trying to find food. Sometimes that’s all you can do to stay alive and safe and you don’t have the energy or state of mind to put your best self forward to find a job.”
The stressful lifestyle also took a toll on his health and without access to healthcare, he eventually developed chronic health conditions and it was more and more difficult to take care of himself.
Despite his circumstances, Markel wanted to do what he could to not only help himself but help others in similar circumstances and serve his community as well. He began spending time and volunteering with a small group of homeless individuals called “Homeless Helping Homeless.” They served their community by helping other homeless individuals register to vote, connect them with resources, and even adopted local streets and organized monthly clean-ups. “It got people out and doing something,” he says. He also served on the peer advisory group at the local homeless shelter.
Eventually after four years of being homeless, Markel found his way out in 2012 through a Housing First program aimed at providing immediate housing to individuals so they can rebuild their lives. The re-adjustment to freedom and independence was both exciting and overwhelming at the same time.
“The thing I was most looking forward to was taking a shower without shoes!” he says, laughing. The small things meant the world to him, like being able to choose his own meals and plan is his own time and activities, as well as being able to sleep in safety. However, there were also unexpected challenges.
“I had to re-learn how to cook for myself and take care of other daily tasks,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep without background noise because I wasn’t used to the quiet.”
Since then, Markel has been able to rebuild his own life in many ways, with renewed sense of meaning and purpose aimed at helping the homeless population.
“I don’t worry as much about going to work everyday, but rather working for people everyday,” he says.
He works part time and is heavily involved in his community and advocacy work. He is on the housing advisory board for the state, is vice president of his neighborhood association, and engages in speaking engagements all over the country to promote awareness and advocacy for the homeless community.
One of his most recent engagements was with the Washington DC National Alliance to End Homelessness, where he met and spoke with former First Lady Michelle Obama. Markel continues to be involved with his former volunteer group, which has expanded and is now called “Helping Homeless to Housing.” Its goal is to assist people in finding housing and mentoring them through the readjustment process, which he sees as a huge need. Additionally, he has partnered with individuals at UNC Charlotte for various research and service projects related to homelessness.
Markel’s experience with homelessness has changed him, he believes for the better. He credits his experience with opening his eyes to the true experience of being homeless and bringing out leadership skills and passion he never knew he had before.
“I have a voice now,” he says. “I went through it and now I can talk about it. Maybe there is a reason we go through things. There are those of us who can make a difference, and that’s what I want to do. It gives me hope knowing I can speak about it and people will know more about these issues because of me.”
His goal and desire is to increase awareness of the “true face” of homelessness and the challenges and needs of the homeless community.
“Most people don’t fit the stereotype,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the person making your coffee at Starbucks or bagging your groceries that are homeless. You never know.”
He also has a desire to mentor and directly assist individuals currently struggling with homelessness and get them connected to resources. He sees a lack of affordable housing as one of the biggest challenges facing the homeless community today.
“Housing is a human right,” he says. “It’s the foundation you need to move on and rebuild.”
He is a big advocate of the Housing First program that helped him, and he is also working with local officials to create more affordable housing. He is a self-proclaimed optimist and hopes his story can inspire and motivate others to get involved and be a part of making a difference as well.
“I get so excited when I think about what can happen when you get people invested in what’s happening,” he says. “It’s priceless. The human spirit is an amazing thing. When people shine, anything is possible.”
Markel’s message for those who might be struggling with homelessness: “Don’t give up. There’s hope.”
To learn more about Helping Homeless to Housing, visit their Facebook page.