Johnathan Evans, 64, outreach worker who gave hope to the homeless

BY JOHN F. MORRISON, Daily News Staff Writer, 215-854-5573, POSTED: July 24, 2013

Johnathan EvansWE SEE A BUNDLE of dirty rags on the street with a face barely discernible in the pile.  Another hopeless case, right? And we pass on.

Not Johnathan Evans. He never passed on. Even on frigid days with Code Blue alerts sounding, even in the suffocating heat of summer, Johnathan was out there gathering up the lost and lonely, bringing with him the hope, however slim, of salvation.

His dedication was born of his own history, when he was just a bundle of dirty rags hiding behind a trash bin. He was among the lost and lonely. And someone came to help him.

He paid back that gift of life over more than 25 years as an outreach worker and trainer for organizations devoted to helping the homeless, including OATS - Outreach Advocacy and Training Services - the agency that saved him.

Johnathan Evans, whose life and work were featured in newspapers and magazines and who was often called on to speak with advocacy organizations, died of a stroke Friday. He was 64 and was living in Lansdowne.

"Somehow, Johnathan maintained a loving spirit and an imposing sense of care for others, although he never truly felt loved or cared for himself," said longtime friend Denise Pinder.

"Johnathan was always on duty no matter where he was or what he was doing. Always acutely vigilant of the needs of the homeless, he never really took a vacation."

He was raised in what he described as a dysfunctional family in North Philadelphia, and early on took to the streets to escape physical and mental abuse. Living on the streets was painful, but he saw it as a respite from an ugly home life.

"Johnathan never felt safe at home and would often run away to the streets because there were no other family members who could help him," Pinder said. "He was more secure there than in his own bed."

One day in the late '80s, he was behind a trash bin in Center City when he was approached by an outreach worker from OATS. Something inside him knew he was ready. He accepted the hand that reached out to him.

He began psychotherapy, during which he learned about his reactions to his dysfunctional family and how he could cope with them, as well as the other issues that plagued him.

"He began to feel safe, and he wanted to help others on the streets to have the opportunity to feel safe as well," said Pinder, who was a nurse for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania when she met Johnathan.

Johnathan began to work as an outreach worker for OATS, and later became an outreach coordinator for the ACCESS West Philadelphia program of the mental-health organization.

Inquirer writer Maida Odom described in 1995 how Johnathan would approach a homeless person. It would be a bitterly cold winter day, and Johnathan would squat down next to a man huddled under a pile of dirty clothes.

"Evans sees a face and he talks to the man," Odom wrote. " 'Where you been stranger? How're you doing?' It's part of Evans' technique, to approach Philadelphia's homeless people as if he knows them."

And, of course, he did. He knew them from his own experience.

"I don't want to do anything else," he told Daily News writer Derrick Moore in January. "I like to be a foot soldier, to give people encouragement and some hope that their life can change, 'cause my life has changed."

Johnathan also became a trainer, showing fellow outreach workers, as well as case managers, social workers, nurses and others, how to be effective.

He always shied away from any personal accolades because of his humble and unassuming nature, said Pinder, now a nurse for the Mercy Hospital Philadelphia Crisis Center.

"Johnathan became a legend in the city of Philadelphia among those who work with the homeless and mentally ill - even though you would never be able to convince him of that," she said.

Services: 11 a.m. Monday at the Wood Funeral Home, 5537 W. Girard Ave. Friends may call at 10 a.m. Burial will be in Fernwood Cemetery.

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