Johnathan Evans; once homeless, he became a light for others

By: Bonnie L. Cook, Inquirer Staff Writer POSTED: Sunday, July 28, 2013, 1:09 AM

Johnathan Evans, 64, of Lansdowne, a formerly homeless Philadelphian who dedicated his life to bringing others in from the cold, died Friday, July 19, of a stroke at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital.  

Mr. Evans was hired as an outreach worker by the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (MHASP) in 1990. He was one of the first to provide kindly peer support as a means of appealing to the homeless. The method caught on and is in use nationwide.

"His calm, determined, and loving approach helped inform what has become a national movement, and his work and life have touched thousands," said Susan Rogers, director of special projects for MHASP. "He exemplified extraordinary patience and compassion, and never gave up on anyone," Rogers said.

For his contributions, Mr. Evans received MHASP's first Outstanding Service Award in 2001 and the Philadelphia Alliance's RHD Team Spirit Award in 2010. RHD stands for Resources for Human Development, a nonprofit offering an array of human services.

Born in North Philadelphia, Mr. Evans grew up in a family where physical and mental abuse were the norm. He never felt safe at home, so ran away to the streets. By the time he became an adult, he was among the city's mentally ill homeless, he told coworkers who became his friends and surrogate family.

One day in 1987, while crouching behind a trash bin in Center City, he was approached by an outreach worker for OATS, or Outreach Advocacy and Training Services for the homeless and mentally ill.

He agreed to accept help, including psychotherapy, and once he understood his family's dynamics and learned to cope, he began to feel safe. He then set out to help others on the street find safe haven. Mr. Evans started out as an outreach worker for OATS and later became an outreach coordinator for the ACCESS-West Philly Program of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania MHASP.

"I don't want to do anything else," he told the Philadelphia Daily News 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.

"I see myself as candlelight for people down the tunnel to let them know things can happen," he added.

In a 1991 MHASP publication, Mr. Evans described the moment he knew his life had meaning.

He was walking through Logan Square in the fall of 1990 when he saw a homeless woman with an open leg wound sitting on the steps near the fountain. He told the woman that he, too, had been homeless and in need of mental-health care. He asked her to go with him to his office for a cup of coffee.

She agreed, he wrote, and later underwent medical and mental-health treatment. She also was placed in a residential program in West Philadelphia. "This was a very rewarding experience for me because I had helped this woman in exactly the same way I had been helped by an OATS outreach advocate, James Hughes, three years before," Mr. Evans wrote.

In documentation supporting the 2010 award, Mr. Evans' supervisor wrote that he knew most of the homeless by name. He once ignored a man's strong smell of incontinence and lifted him into a van, rolling up the windows to warm him.

On another occasion, Mr. Evans befriended a man who lived on a grate near Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Delusional, the man had to be involuntarily committed one cold night.

At the hospital, doctors discovered the man had pica, an ailment in which patients eat nonfood items.

After surgeons removed pens and markers from the man's stomach, he was placed in housing and found work. "He is a cheerful person," wrote supervisor Brooke Crowley of the patient.

Mr. Evans lectured at national conferences on homelessness and mental health, and taught MHASP staff, budding social workers, and outreach advocates, as well as area schoolchildren, about the issues facing the homeless.

He stressed the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect, and helping workers recognize the strengths in others, no matter their position in society.

Mr. Evans also did volunteer work for the United Way and Mental Health America.

He is survived by many friends he considered family.

A viewing will be at 10 a.m. Monday, July 29, at Wood Funeral Home Inc., 5537-39 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia. A service will follow at 11. Interment will be in Fernwood Cemetery.

Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8102 or
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