This 23 year-old student, entrepreneur, and community organizer didn’t just overcome homelessness — he is on a mission to end it.
Byron Brooks was without family support when he chose higher education over factory work and became homeless for his first 1 ½ years of college. The difficulty of attending school and just surviving without food, shelter, or support weighed heavily on him, especially because he carried this burden hidden from plain view. He recalled some painful memories: “I had several instances where I had to defend myself and I have scars from a few of those instances that will forever be with me.” It wasn’t just the lack of security and resources for basic needs, but “dealing with the mental, physical, and emotional stress” that was the most difficult for him to endure.
Thankfully, Byron found allies at the college and was connected with food and resources for a car, and, once they became aware of his plight, his godparents and church helped him secure housing and continue his pursuit of education. One of his friends from school, Darius Jones, recognized the dire situation and began bringing Byron bagged lunches to school every day. Byron also gives thanks to Daniel Burgess, the Mobley Family, Deacon Josh, and Sis. “The day they found out about my situation, they immediately took me in, clothed, fed and cared for me,” he said.
Though Byron is blessed to have this community support, other students are not as fortunate. Too many college students across the nation are housing or food insecure, and there are not enough formal resources for students facing these life-threatening challenges. Byron was a student, and working part time, but it was not enough to get by. His attempts to get assistance were frustrating. “Because I was a student,” he said, “shelters would turn me away because I would still be in class at their cut-off time.” He was also denied food stamps because he was just five hours short of the work requirement, which of course was also because he was in class. “I feel it is not fair to those who are homeless and are trying to better themselves,” he said.
Byron is not alone in his experience. According to one of the largest recent national surveys conducted by Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36% of university students are food insecure, and for community-college students, that increases to 56%. The percentage of housing-insecure students is similar, at 36% for university and 51% for community college. The study also notes that despite receiving Pell Grants and public assistance, the unmet needs of these students are significant. During his time at Henry Ford College, especially as the student body president, Byron became increasingly aware of the magnitude of the problems of housing and food-insecure students. “It’s a bigger epidemic than people realize,” he said.
Despite the difficulty of those times, he thanks God for providing him direction. “I feel that God allowed me to go through what I went through to mold me into the person that I am today,” he said. Byron’s pursuits and achievements at only 23 years old are admirable, irrespective of his history. Now 23, a transfer student in Ferris State’s Music and Entertainment Business program, and founder of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit From the Hood for the Hood, he is giving back to greater Detroit communities in huge ways. Through From the Hood for the Hood, Byron has raised funds, organized donations of bottled water to Flint residents, fed the homeless across Michigan, organized adopt-a-child Christmas gift drives, and donated clothing and supplies (especially winter survival kits), and he plans many more outreach campaigns in the future. You can witness his frequent advocacy discussions and support From the Hood for the Hood on Facebook (@ForTheHood313). His next goals are establishing need-based scholarships for college students and creating a program to educate and assist felons and ex-offenders about voting rights and registration, and his big dream is to raise $100,000 to establish a “life readiness shelter” which would provide housing and training resources for employment.
Byron also hopes to spread awareness and empathy, noting that many people take things for granted. “Life can hit anybody,” he said. “As a society, we must be considerate of that … because in the blink of an eye, you can be in the same predicament.” The most notable obstacle is the stigmatization of people who are homeless or in poverty, and he is not shy about challenging common negative stereotypes that homeless people are “drug addicts” or “too lazy” to get out of their situations. Byron is fighting that narrative. “I can personally testify that it is not an easy task to seek out resources and, sadly, sometimes it can be discouraging,” he said. Michigan, and Detroit especially, is known for having large homeless populations, and he explains that those seeking help are often met with a “lack of empathy” from case workers, and these negative experiences can permanently deter someone from seeing help.
Through these challenges and successes, Byron has remained as humble as he is inspiring. He is undoubtedly a force for solidarity and change in the greater Detroit area, and attributes his passionate pursuit of the ministry of social justice/change to his faith: “As a man of God, it is my obligation to spread the love of Jesus Christ to my brothers and sisters within the world.” His many touching experiences with people grateful for his outreach push him to do more: “Sometimes, all people need is the satisfaction of knowing that someone cares about them … I feel that I not only owe it to the people that showed me love, to show that same love to society, but I also owe it to myself.” One such person, a fellow worshipper at Our Brother’s Keeper shelter, told Byron that he was “proof that there are people in the world that care” and gave him a winning lottery ticket in gratitude; Byron has kept the ticket in his memory book as a touching memory and reminder of the lesson within it. Byron has also been formally recognized for his activism; he was recently nominated for the 6th Annual African American Leadership Award. “I am truly grateful for the nomination,” he said. “I don’t do what I do to be recognized, I do it because it needs to be done and that’s my Christian duty.”
A final thought:
Coming from one who is a musical entrepreneur, community advocate, and so much more, Byron’s words are strikingly resolute. For anyone who feels discouraged in trying to make a difference in their community, Byron has this message:
“Walk by faith and put your trust in God rather than listening to the opinions of man. You can make a difference, you are the leader that you have been looking for. I will leave you with this creed that I live by and I hope in some way, whoever you are, you too adopt this creed: ‘As long as the blood is running warm in my veins, I will stand when others sit. I will speak when others are quiet. The places society calls unsafe, I call home. The people that society looks at and see nobodies, I look at them and see family. When life knocks me down, I’m going to get up and keep fighting. I am an Agent of Change.’ -Byron Brooks”