Editor’s Note: Today, the Daily premieres a new series, “After They Walk,” which profiles University alumni who are significantly changing the lives of others for the better. The series, which will run periodically throughout the year, starts with the incredible story of Wendy Rhein, who runs a program for the homeless in Atlanta.
Two years ago, Wilkes Bonhart was smoking a steady dose of about three grams of crack a day, scrounging for food out of dumpsters and sleeping in boarded up, dilapidated homes in inner-city Atlanta.
And although Bonhart now compares his former self to the homeless who wander the streets of Detroit, a brief look at his past would make that comparison quite hard to believe.
In 1988, he graduated from the University of Toledo with a bachelor’s degree in political science. And at age 27, he enrolled in graduate courses in economics at UT. But, because of his constant drug use, Bonhart was forced to drop out of school a few months later.
“That was a decision I regretted for the rest of my life,” Bonhart said in an August phone interview.
In a series of interviews throughout the last couple months, Bonhart was polite and friendly. Amid those conversations, he explained the story of how he ended up on the streets in Atlanta.
“OK, let me tell you a story,” he said when asked about the journey.
And in that moment, Wilkes was no longer the mannerly, courteous civilian who had been a part of the previous conversations. He transformed into his old self, talking slang like “balla” and “playin’ ” and cursing about all the shit he went through while addicted to crack.
He did not hold back.
After burning through his student loans and supporting himself on unemployment checks, Bonhart took his last check in March 1989 and fled south. The next 10 years of his life were spent on the streets. He earned about $500 a week detailing cars — but he quickly spent it all on drugs.
“That was my life,” he said. “Get some more money for some more dope.”
What little money he saved, Bonhart used for food — cheap convenience store products like Little Debbie pastries. He no longer cared about his personal hygiene, bathing once every two months, or when someone told him he smelled.
Bonhart would lie awake at night, he remembered, shivering under his only blanket. As he tried to fall asleep in freezing churches with leaky windows, he dreamed of going back to school to get an education.
“I prayed about it,” he said. “Please, God, if I could just stop smoking dope … if I could just get myself back together.
“But I didn’t know how.”
Wendy Rhein did.
Known as “Wen” to her friends and family, Wendy Rhein, a 1991 University alum, runs a program for homeless men and women in Lawrenceville, Ga., called NSPIRE. Founded in 2007, the nonprofit organization currently works with 30 former homeless people to teach them the necessary skills and give them the resources to lead a self-sufficient life.
Rhein and her coworkers at NSPIRE, simply put, work to change lives.
“It could be a wide range of issues, but we work with that individual specifically — on how they got there in the first place and then what do they need to do to empower themselves so that this won’t happen again in their lifetime,” Rhein said over the phone from her office in late July. She spoke with confidence, and a firm, yet friendly tone.
More than 100 people have sought help from the program in the last two years. Rhein said it’s “very intense” and that not everyone graduates.
To graduate, participants must pass drug and alcohol screenings, secure a job and a place to live, open and balance a checking account and more. NSPIRE also works with each individual to set personal goals.
Rhein cited Shirley, a 58-year-old woman who had been homeless on and off for the last 15 years. Shirley, whose last name cannot be published here because of privacy concerns, was an alcoholic who couldn’t keep a stable job. Since graduating from NSPIRE in July, Shirley now has her own apartment, recently bought herself a car and is starting her own cleaning company, where she is employing other NSPIRE clients to clean houses with her.
Last year, Lawanda — a 23-year-old woman six months pregnant — and her partner, Char, sought assistance through NSPIRE.
“They had literally been living in a hole in a ditch near a construction site downtown, and they needed a place to live,” Rhein said.
Both individuals had drug and criminal histories, but needed somewhere to raise their infant. After NSPIRE sorted out their legal situations, the woman gave birth to a healthy, 8-pound baby girl. Rhein attended the birth at the hospital, where she coached the woman during labor.
Nine months into the program, the couple reunited with their families. They are now working and living with Lawanda’s sister in Alabama.
Rhein primarily deals with NSPIRE finances and operations, but she said working with people who have lived on the streets gives her a different prospective on life.
“It can be very humbling,” she said. “You take nothing for granted after you work with this kind of a population.”
The true impact of Rhein’s work expands beyond the confines of her office. Besides meeting with clients and donors, she visits homeless outreach programs once a month where she serves meals and encourages the homeless to join her program.
Now 40, Rhein has worked in nonprofits her whole life. After graduating from the University with degrees in Women’s Studies and Communications Studies, she moved to Chicago and worked with the Chicago Christian Industrial League — the largest homeless outreach program in the Midwest at that time.
The CCIL provides short- and long-term shelter for the homeless men, women and children in the Chicago area. It was her first job out of college, and Rhein worked as a donor services person, writing thank you notes and tracking financial contributions. Although she was doing behind-the-scenes work, Rhein said the job gave her the opportunity to see how a nonprofit functions.
As it was her first experience working with the homeless, she said the job gave her a different perspective of people living on the streets.
“It was a great eye-opener because some people have this picture of what a homeless person is in their head, and as I’ve seen now as well, they’re people that have really fallen on hard times and for a variety of reasons just can’t keep an apartment or haven’t been able to secure a job,” she said.
Rhein explained that it’s almost impossible for homeless people to get jobs or apartments because they don’t have a permanent address.
Because of the bad economy, Rhein said she has seen more homeless individuals and families than ever before. She said many people — mostly the unemployed — who can’t provide for their families have had their homes foreclosed on or have been evicted from their apartments because they cannot afford the rent.
Rhein said she’s frustrated that there’s not more she can do, but said it’s more frustrating from a recipient’s perspective to know you cannot take care of yourself or your family.
“I can’t imagine how that must feel to know you’re educated, you’ve had a job, you’ve done everything right and you still can’t manage to find a way to feed yourself or feed your family,” she said.
After 10 years of life on the streets, in the winter of 2007, Bonhart said he decided to make a change in his life. He started attending church, where he could escape his life of drugs, thefts and shootings.
“Even when I was geekin’ — it might have been a good Friday night, I might have my two, three grams of crack in my pocket, $40 to $50 — I would go to church,” Bonhart said. “I’d sit there long enough until I just couldn’t stand it, and I’d have to go get me a hit, but I would sit there, and I wanted to hear something different.
“I was tired of living like that.”
Bonhart first went to SafeHouse Outreach, a homeless shelter in Atlanta where he met Gregg Kennard, NSPIRE founder and executive director. Kennard was interviewing the homeless to join his program, which was only a few months old at the time. He had no trouble convincing Bonhart to participate.
“Once I listened to what Gregg had to say — how they would move me to a nice suburban area, I’d be living in a house and then move to an apartment, it was just like an ‘ah ha’ moment.”
Bonhart spent the next seven and a half months in the program and was part of its first graduating class. Now a truck driver for the clothing company that partners with NSPIRE, the 47-year-old is starting to get his life back together. And he said he has Rhein, one of his favorite people, to thank for that.
“Wendy is my biggest cheerleader,” he said. “She is probably the reason I have my own apartment, a job and I’ve got money in the bank.”
Bonhart said Rhein was present when he signed the lease on his apartment, and she has helped him work through his self-esteem issues.
“I just listened to Wendy … telling me ‘yeah, you are worth it. You do deserve a good life,’ ” he said.
In August, he was accepted to Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, where he is working toward a Ph.D. in economics.
Bonhart said he would not be where he is today without NSPIRE — or without Rhein.
“When Wilkes first came into NSPIRE,” Rhein said, “I think he had about a week of clean time after decades of crack use.
“He was clearly smart and talented and shrewd and needed the opportunity to take some chances on himself and regain a sense of purpose that he had lost in his early twenties.”
Rhein admits they clashed a lot in the beginning as Bonhart tested the limits of the program. But she said “he stuck with it, humbled himself and has unveiled this incredibly driven, committed and thoughtful person.”
Rhein’s sister, Robin Hurwitz — a 1988 University graduate — said that although their parents had always taught them to do good deeds, it wasn’t until college that her sister found her passion for helping those less fortunate.
“Truthfully, I think when she got to Michigan, that is where a lot of this started,” Hurwitz said.
The two girls lived together during Hurwitz’s junior year at the University. Hurwitz recounted that her sister would wake up early on the weekends to work against people trying to block women from entering Planned Parenthood.
“She would come home and be so bruised from blocking people who were so much bigger, especially adult men who were trying to block these women from getting the education they wanted,” Hurwitz said. “But it was so important for her.”
Hurwitz added that the protests “started opening her (sister’s) eyes to other things” and may have led her to where she is today.
Hurwitz said she could never do the kind of work her sister does.
“I think emotionally it would be way too hard for me,” she said. “Especially having kids of my own, I think I would just fall apart, but she has an inner strength that not many other people have.”
NSPIRE would not run as smoothly or change so many lives if it were not for Rhein, Kennard said.
“She has a great big heart and passion to help people to make a difference,” he said.
Rhein said all the various experiences she has had working with disadvantaged populations during the last 18 years have culminated in her current job and said she is driven by knowing her small deeds can change a person’s fate.
“The ability to touch people’s lives, to help them get from one place to another, it’s kind of like watching a year of a miracle happen in somebody’s life,” she said.