There weren’t many silent nights. Noises would close in around him, stirring the darkness.
When you’re homeless, you sleep with one eye and both ears open. You hear thunderstorms rolling across the sky, the roar of trains on the tracks above your head and the screech of tires at the stoplight on the corner.
Tim Almond could hear music, too. It was as if he had tuned in 24/7 to the Otis Channel. He was, after all, on the King of Soul’s turf at the Gateway Park. A bridge bearing Otis Redding’s name crossed the Ocmulgee River. And a life-sized statue of Otis with his guitar kept vigil, his songs playing on a perpetual loop.
Tim could relate. Only he wasn’t “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” He was “Sleepin’ in the Shadows of the Trestle.”
“I slept up there, under the tracks, for five months,” he said. “I had boxes for a foundation and a blanket. I was right above the bathrooms because I wanted to be in the light. Everybody else wanted to be in the dark.”
Otis provided the soundtrack of his dreams, soulful lullabies floating up from the riverbank.
“If it was warm, and I wasn’t covered in dew, I would hang out on the bench,” he said. “They’ve got speakers there.”
Tim will be 60 years old in October. He has spent almost one-third of his life in prison, and the rest of it on the streets. Sometimes it was by choice. Sometimes it was by circumstance.
He was sent behind bars for 10 years for dealing drugs. After prison, he lived in a halfway house in Macon. He had a job, but the demons stalked him. He was locked away for another eight years, this time for possession.
He was released on Feb. 9, 2017. Last week marked the one-year anniversary. A sheriff’s deputy from Washington County drove him to Macon and checked him into the Salvation Army on Broadway.
“Neither of us knew you could only stay there 30 days,” he said. “So, after 30 days, they directed me to the Otis Redding park.”
During the day, he roamed the downtown streets, parks and alleys. There weren’t many welcome mats. At night, he returned to the non-stop Otis concerts by the river.
The trajectory of his life changed when he met Paula Loeffler and discovered Daybreak. Although they were not connected, they helped him connect the dots.
Paula was an angel. She showed up one day to hand out water and personal hygiene products. When she left Germany and arrived in America 15 years ago she, too, found herself without a home. Someone helped her, and now she helps others. It’s her way of paying it forward.
She is married with two children. Her family moved to Macon three years ago, so she is still learning the lay of the land.
“She was passing out water, and I asked if I could help her,” Tim said. “When we went to her vehicle, she asked, ‘Can I trust you?’ The only thing I could say was ‘I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.’ I helped her give out things. I pointed out people I wouldn’t trust, and I directed her to people I knew would appreciate what she was doing.”
He had heard of Daybreak, a resource center offering the homeless in the community a place to land during the day. Although it was only a block away, he had been circling and could not find it.
“Everybody would say it was across the street,” he said. “And I would say, ‘OK, which street?’ ”
The small building was on the lower part of Walnut, near the entrance to Central City Park.
How fitting an Almond found a home on Walnut.
Tim got almost everything else he needed there, including a hot breakfast and medical clinic. This was important, since he is diabetic. He also had access to telephones, computers, showers and laundry services. There were case managers to help him put his life back together and community volunteers to assist with employment opportunities and resolve legal issues.
The ministry opened its doors in 2012. There is a reason they call it Daybreak and not Nighttime. There are no sleeping facilities. Tim worked out an arrangement with Sister Theresa Sullivan, director of Daybreak.
“I slept on the porch for a while,” he said. “I don’t like the woods. I got permission if I would keep the yard clean and be up before everybody comes in.”
He now is a fixture. His story is among the many reasons Daybreak will hold its fifth annual Greater Macon Sleepout on Thursday. Community leaders will spend the night outdoors to raise money and awareness.
Sister Theresa calls him her protective “bodyguard” – a gentle giant. Robin Hughes, a volunteer at Daybreak, describes Tim as the “unofficial watchdog” – a bouncer with a “calming presence” in the back room.
“When you come down here, you know where to find him,” Hughes said. “He is in the big room, watching what is going on. If there ever was a problem, he would step in.”
Tim grew up one of 10 children in Jackson County, near Commerce. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year and ran with the wild crowd. He fathered seven children, but never married. He got involved with crack cocaine in the 1980s. It wrecked his life and broke his mother’s heart.
He held onto a few jobs – working at the poultry processing plants in Gainesville and getting hired for construction work. Although he still has family and friends in that area, he is reluctant to return to those roots.
“I don’t want to go back to my hometown because I would be in a time capsule,” he said. “The last time I was there, nothing had changed but the roads. People were still doing the same thing. I had been gone 10 years, and everybody was hanging out on the same corner.”
He now has a place to sleep at night. Paula and her family have taken him in – giving him a roof over his head instead of a bridge or porch.
Paula took him in the first time during Hurricane Irma in September. When the temperatures began dropping in early January, she invited him back.
“It was cold, and we had forgotten to turn up the heat,” she said. “It took a while to heat up the house. I was in my pajamas in bed and thought, ‘Oh, my God, Tim is out there!’ It was after midnight, and I drove down to Daybreak and found him on the porch.”
Tim wants a job and to own his own home. Sister Theresa has to remind him none of it will happen overnight. You can’t just snap your fingers. It’s a process.
“The one thing I’ve learned is you can’t be afraid to accept help,” he said. “At first, I wanted to do this by myself. It was a situation I thought I could handle alone. But so many other problems started coming up. I had to learn to humble myself. Like magic, people started stepping in.”
There always has been an Almond in his name, but never Joy, like the candy bar.
“People see him as a bouncer, but you should see him at home when my small children are there,” Paula said. “He’s not just a big, bulky protector. He’s also funny and interacts with them. They have a great time around Tim. He is thoughtful and caring. There are so many sides to him people don’t see.”
Somewhere, there’s a song. He’s got dreams to remember. Otis sang it.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.