Homelessness cannot hinder the pursuit of happiness: Christopher Gardner
An estimated 12% of all homeless people have a job and go to work everyday, according to REO Expo's keynote speaker Christopher Gardner, who spoke Monday morning. "I'm not talking about the (panhandlers) with cups," Gardner said. "I'm talking about the people who went to school, worked hard, played by the rules and then life happened." Gardner would know, he admitted. He was one of them for more than a year. Gardner said he was part of a new class that's forming and is becoming especially prominent in light of the financial crisis — the white-collar homeless population. Gardner, whose personal story was the inspiration for the book and movie "Pursuit of Happyness," grew up believing one day he would be Miles Davis. His mother told him he could be or do anything and anyone he wanted to be or do. That would be the underlying theme throughout Gardner's entire life. After nine years of playing trumpet, reality set in, and Gardner eventually started his career in San Francisco as an apprentice of clinical scientific research. As fairytale would have it, Gardner fell in love, got married and had a baby boy. Gardner grew up without a father, and was often reminded of that when his stepfather would hold a shotgun to his shoulder and tell him so. "Becoming a parent was one of the most precious instances of my life," Gardner reflected. After Christopher Jr. came into the picture, Gardner jumped career paths into sales, as his wife was a dentist who couldn't practice because she did not pass her boards. Making $25,000 a year as a sales rep was fine, but Gardner wanted to be a big dog and provide for his family. One day he ran into a "sharp" man in a brilliantly red Ferrari. "I asked him two questions: What do you do? And how do you do it?" Gardener said. The man was a stock broker, and so life happened — Gardner changed his plan to work on Wall Street. Everywhere he went Gardner said he heard the same word over and over: no. By this time most firms were requiring a degree in business to even be considered for hire. Gardner never went to college, but he pressed on. Gardner's search for a financial job earned him a hefty amount of parking tickets, which cost him 10 days in jail and almost the chance of a lifetime. Gardner's big-break interview was scheduled for the day before he was set to leave prison. He got that changed and still managed to nail the interview wearing bell-bottom jeans and a red Members Only jacket. After Gardner got out of prison, however, his wife was gone with the child, and Gardner carried on everyday on the trading floor in San Francisco, cold calling up to 200 people a day. And then life happened. A few months into the job, Gardner's now ex-wife showed up to his boarding room complex with Chris Jr. The complex did not allow children and so the father and son duo became homeless. Gardner showed actor Will Smith around the places he and his son dwelled for the year-plus they were homeless — down in the subway system, a series of hotels and the first hotel for the homeless in America in the Tenderloin ghetto of San Francisco. "Will said to me in the subway station that a lot of the people looked dressed like they were headed somewhere," Gardner recounted. "I told him they were all dressed for work in the morning." One year, a few train station bathrooms, hundreds of missed meals and several thousand cold calls later, Gardner was approached by a man. Gardner had seen this man coming to visit the pretty blonde broker stationed next to him everyday since he began work on the trading floor. This man happened to be a general partner with Bear Stearns and eventually hired Gardner as a broker. And so life happened. "I had never been asked my salary requirement before," Gardner said. He was now making $5,000 a month and 50% commission on every deal. Gardner remembers his first home, a little house in the shanty streets of San Francisco with a rosebush out front — the first and only rosebush he had ever seen in the ghetto. Gardner and his son slept on the floor that night, but it was sweeter than any floor in the past. The next morning the two skipped to the train station void of the bags and suitcases they carried for more than a year. From rags to riches, Chris Gardner is the poster child of the American Dream. He founded and now owns a broker-dealer firm in his hometown of Chicago called Gardner Rich. He made a multimillion-dollar movie deal and his story was published in a book that was translated into 37 languages. But those accomplishments are hardly his greatest prides. "The most important thing I've done in my life is broken the cycle of men who have never been there for their kids," Gardner attested, as he thought back on a conversation he had with author Maya Angelou. "She said, this story isn't about you. It's for all the fathers who had to be mothers, all the mothers who had to be fathers and anyone who has ever had a dream." Write to Christine Ricciardi. Follow her on Twitter @HWnewbieCR.