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I was a CEO, here's what I learned about compassion from my homeless brother
December 26 2022, 08:00

My two brothers and I were raised in a severely abusive home. They were both homeless by the time I was 18 years old – and I nearly joined them. One of my brothers eventually escaped the streets but the other struggled. He ultimately left North Carolina – and vanished from my life for 27 years.

In 2018, I found him a year after I retired from a lengthy career that culminated in several years as the CEO of Performance Bike, for a time the largest specialty cycling retailer in the United States. For years, I’d contemplated the mysteriously thin line that marked the distinct trajectories of our lives and, in our heartfelt conversations, I would learn that my brother had been homeless for many years during our time apart. 

How had he survived years of hitching rides, jumping trains, sleeping under overpasses, and, as he later told me, more than once, running for his life? How did he view our time growing up together? Why had our lives gone in such different directions? Was it genetic? Simple human desire? Had fickle fate intervened? In my quest to find my brother, I’d come looking for answers, not just about him but about myself. 


But in our long-awaited reunion, I also learned a different perspective as to how I should treat the homeless.

My brother was treated in turns viciously and compassionately by the people he met in his homeless travels across America. He had rocks thrown at him and knives drawn on him, but there were also rides offered, food shared and shelter provided.

As he told his stories, I saw his face light up when he recounted a special kindness he received while on the road. He talked of how he internalized those moments as a form of hope in his journey to a better life. I also saw his eyes darken when he related the indignities he’d suffered when he was treated badly by his fellow man.

His deeply felt narrative made me consider my distant, perhaps cynical attitude and behavior toward the homeless population in general. 

In a recent conversation, I related to him my ambivalence about the legitimacy of the homeless plight.

His response was quick and direct: 

"First of all, the homeless you encounter are rarely taking advantage of you, most of them are in real need (research indicates that’s true). Anyway, it’s not about them and what they do. It’s about what’s in your heart and your willingness to go out of your way to do a good thing. I think God sees our kindness and smiles down on it."

His actions support his words. We talk often these days and with passion and humility, he tells me about his latest encounter with the local homeless. His initiated conversations, the water he brings, the burger he hands over. 

Our society has an emerging crisis with the growing homeless population that it can begin to address with more available and affordable housing. The politicians in Washington also need to work to get inflation down.

The numbers are daunting.

As to available housing, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 8 million extremely low-income households in America spend at least half of their income on housing, edging slowly toward housing instability and homelessness. But in places like California, where in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay area they allow only a small percentage of residential land for the building of duplexes and apartments, less affordable options may not be available.

Concerning inflation, America’s long-term average inflation rate is 3.3%. But current inflation is running at 7.1%. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in November, food prices were up 10.6%, and energy prices were up 13.1%. According to CNBC, "rents are up 23.5%" from October 2019, "before the Covid-19 pandemic hit."


The reasons that have always existed for homelessness such as mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment, family dysfunction, etc. still exist today. But, with insufficient affordable and available housing becoming more of an issue, with shelters reporting a dramatic increase in people seeking services (per the Washington Post, waitlists have doubled and tripled in recent months!), and with prices rising for food, energy, and other commodities that allow us to maintain health and employment, I’m concerned that more and more Americans may be threatened with the prospect of being homeless. 

National and local governments need to get to work. 

I’m very proud to say my brother is doing well today. He’s a good man, who works hard, lives independently, and is married to a wonderful woman. His strength and resilience are an inspiration to me. 

Society would look at my life and my brother’s life and generally consider me to be the more accomplished and productive human being – but I’m not so sure. My brother’s compassionate heart toward the homeless makes me think I’ve got some work to do to catch up.

What about you?