Last week, before his life story was broadcast across the country, before it elicited commentary from the likes of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, John Boyd sat on a bus, watched the road to Harrisburg roll beneath him and reflected on his past.
The South Philly native remembered that the first time he had passed through the capital city, it was on his way to the state prison at Camp Hill. The contrast sobered his thoughts.
“I wanted other people that are still a little confused, people in a treatment program or something like that, to know that if you just stay positive and trust the process, everything is possible,” Boyd said, explaining his reasons for boarding the bus to meet with legislators and speak at a news conference.
“I wanted these people to hear this story about a real human being who suffered and reversed it and started a new life."
Boyd, 61, has become something of a household name in Pennsylvania politics since June 26, when freshman State Sen. Katie Muth had to shout over one of her Republican colleagues to read his testimony on the Senate floor. Boyd had spoken those words days earlier in defense of a cash assistance program that he says has been invaluable to keeping him off the streets, where he lived for a quarter of a century.
The chaotic war of words between Muth and State Sen. Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County, quickly went viral and was viewed millions of times on social media. After 25 years of living on the fringes, ignored by most, Boyd was stunned by his brief moment in the spotlight.
Stunned, yes, but still resolute: In the end, after all the partisan rancor, the General Assistance program Boyd spoke out about was ended with a bill signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, who has proposed diverting the roughly $50 million it costs to an affordable-housing program.
As Boyd put it, “The first round was lost, but the fight is far from over.”
He knows a thing or two about fighting.
“It’s time for people to stop being scared and speak their opinion, because a closed mouth ain’t going to get heard,” Boyd said this week inside his Mantua apartment, the first permanent home he’s had in 25 years. “You just have to step out on faith.”
Faith has carried Boyd to his current position, where he’s able to cook his own meals and sweep a porch all his own. It picked him up out of the despair he felt 18 months ago when, hopelessly suicidal and tired of sleeping in shelters or on the street, he turned to God. And it was faith, he said, that persuaded him to walk to the nearest crisis center to begin treatment.
“I had a chance to look back, and I said, ‘This is no way to live,’ ” he said. "And I started allowing myself to trust people, because it’s not so much about going to meetings and stuff like that.
“Its about being real and living in reality."
Boyd is one of eight kids, born to “decent, Christian parents” who raised their family at the corner of 20th and Carpenter Streets in South Philadelphia. Somewhere along the way, through fault he completely owns, he fell into bad habits. Alcohol and cocaine. A criminal record that ranges from open-container citations to assault convictions.
“Being homeless, using drugs and doing wicked things was all by choice, but it was my choice,” he said. “I was raised better than that."
Boyd began treatment for depression and substance abuse, spending months at different facilities throughout the city. He enrolled in Hi Five, a new, city-run housing assistance program that targets “frequent fliers”: people who have struggled on and off with homelessness and have had multiple brushes with the law, according to Kate Downes, the manager of Project Home’s H4 Initiative.
Boyd, one of the first candidates for Hi Five, stood out for his willingness to stick with the program, to plant a foundation he could grow from. In late November, not long after Thanksgiving, he received the keys to an apartment at 41st and Parrish that is his for the next five years.
And he started receiving two checks a month from the state through General Assistance, a little over $200 a month. It was money for items that couldn’t be bought with food stamps. Bus fare to go to counseling and GED classes, deodorant, quarters for laundry.
Items that Boyd and his advocates say help him sustain the progress he’s been making.
“A lot of those basic things, we have found, are what it takes to maintain a steady, comfortable life,” Downes said. “And when you’re dealing with mental health and substance abuse disorders, that’s how you maintain recovery.”
Wolf’s rollback of the program set an immediate end to the funds Boyd and 11,000 others in the state relied on for those items. The program officially ends Aug. 1.
Corman, the senator who protested Muth’s reading of Boyd’s letter, said this week that the program was flawed, especially in terms of monitoring how the money given to participants was spent.
“I think people look at welfare programs as a way of helping people out, not simple handouts,” he said. “We try to attack a lot of these needs in other ways through the state budget that have much more accountability."
Meanwhile, Muth said this week that she’s already developing a replacement for the program, tentatively called the “Emergency Relief Plan.”
And it was inspired by a man from South Philly.