From Homeless to Working Writer
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — LESS than two years ago, Michael Brennan was spending most nights sleeping in the Old Burying Ground, a cemetery near Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
"It was the only green, quiet place around," says Mr. Brennan, who was homeless at the time.
He had a part-time job moving furniture. But during the evenings and days when he didn't have work, Brennan spent his time at the Boston Public Library reading books on how to become a freelance journalist.
He didn't want to make $5 an hour moving furniture for the rest of his life. "I've wanted to be a writer since I was a kid," he says. "It was something I was passionate about, and that's what I needed at that time and in those circumstances."
Despite his homelessness and lack of resources, Brennan found what he needed at the library. "I found the books there," he says, "basic books on freelance journalism. I didn't even know where to put the address on a cover letter. I had to start with that."
Brennan learned all he could from the how-to books in the library. Then, "I just started writing," he says. The $1,000 payment for his first major article in a local newspaper put a roof over Brennan's head.
Now he's making a living writing for local publications and national magazines. Newsweek ran one of his articles in its "My Turn" column earlier this year. And he's decided to write a book about his whole experience.
Brennan grew up in an upper-middle-class family in New London, Conn. "I had a good upbringing," he says.
But he started using drugs at the age of 13 and eventually became addicted to heroin. "Clearly, 99 percent of my problems would be attributed to substance abuse," he says.
For about 10 years, Brennan drove a taxi in Connecticut. "That was a very comfortable way to kind of spin my wheels," he says. All told, he spent about two years in jail for possession of narcotics and petty larceny. He ended up living in his car.
"I didn't really consider myself homeless back in New London," he says. "I just didn't have a place to live - that's what it was."
Ultimately, Brennan blames his situation on his own choices. Once he hit the streets of Boston, he realized that, in contrast to his own situation, many people are homeless because they don't have choices at all. But on Memorial Day in 1990, fresh from a two-week detoxification program, Brennan arrived in Boston determined to carve out a new life for himself. His motto became: "Don't do drugs and see what happens."
Brennan credits his successful turnaround to "the serendipity of the streets." When he started writing articles at the library and using tips from the library books on how to market his work, certain assumptions made by the authors of freelance journalism books didn't fit Brennan's situation: He didn't have a home telephone or permanent address, for example. "I had to use pay phones," Brennan explains.
One day he was wandering around the Harvard campus and came across a room full of computers. "I asked a student if he thought it would be OK, and then I just basically sat down," Brennan says.
HE borrowed software from a student and began using the Harvard computers for his writing. "That was really a godsend because without a computer it would have been very, very difficult to do what I did," he says.
"I figured if John Harvard didn't mind me sleeping on his grave, he wouldn't mind me educating myself at his school, even if I couldn't afford tuition," Brennan later wrote in an essay for a local publication. In addition, he ended up getting a job in the audio/visual department down the hall after reading an ad on the college bulletin board.
"Mike has come a tremendous way," says Macy DeLong, an advocate for the homeless and director of the Cambridge Furniture bank where Brennan worked for a year. "He was very creative about getting resources and stubborn about sticking to what he wanted to do."
One of the most crucial elements of his recovery, Brennan says, was being treated with respect and compassion. "I was very fortunate to connect with people from many different arenas in life who accorded me that basic respect, which is really grace " he says.
"I look at what's most responsible for the transformation in my life over the past two years ... while clearly it took effort and persistence on my part, that was simply a framework by which grace could come into my life."
"Grace," he explains, "wears a human face."
Almost a year ago, Brennan began writing full time. He still goes to the Boston Public Library regularly to do research.
"Libraries," Brennan says with authority, "are one of our finest resources in this country."