Finding his inspiration: Walter Dickerson back on the right path at Old City
June 01, 2017
Walter Dickerson knew his life was spiraling downward as he moved in and out of a homeless shelter. He knew change was needed and a chance to move into Old City helped guide his successful journey.
Walter Dickerson knew it didn’t have to be that way.
He knew he didn’t have to be in the homeless shelter in Northeast Philadelphia. He knew he didn’t have to give in to the things that played a large role in getting him there. He knew he could do more with his life, which spiraled downward after the passing of his longtime partner of 32 years, Shirley.
“Everything started going haywire,” Walter said. “I’ll tell you, even for a man of my age at that time, I was heading for trouble. Because I did not like the idea of myself being on the street. I know some things happen that are beyond your control or my control or anything else. But sometimes, a lot of those people that are on the street, they put themselves there by their own actions.
“My mind started drifting and I said ‘No. I need to do something to get my head back on straight.’”
Walter would see younger men walk into the shelter on a daily basis. And that eventually became his wake-up call to better himself. He wanted to show them that change was possible for anyone at any age.
After almost two years of wrong decisions, Walter knew it was time to make a right one.
He decided to link up with his case manager at the Veterans Administration and find a place that would help him keep the temptations away. It just so happened that when Walter would go to meet his case manager, he would walk past Old City Apartments. After walking by so many times, Walter decided to stop in and ask exactly what the community was all about.
“One day, I decided to stop in and ask. I filled out an application and I would stay in touch with them,” Walter explained.
Months later in April 2015, Walter received the call he’d been waiting for and became a resident of Old City.
Nestled within a few blocks of historic attractions such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, Old City Apartments offers 59 units of HUD-PRAC Affordable Housing sponsored by Presby’s Inspired Life.
“I just like everything about it here,” Walter said of his home for the last two years. “It’s peaceful. It’s quiet. I can think.
“And the people here are A-1, in my opinion. It’s a very nice place. This was the nicest place that happened to me for quite a stretch in my life. Of course, I a lot of that dumb stuff I did, I did to myself. You have to own up. If you continue to live in denial, you’re living a lie.”
Walter is a beneficiary of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) initiative to end homelessness. As part of a grant given to the city of Philadelphia, Affordable Housing communities around the city commit a certain number of units to the chronically homeless population.
HUD defines a chronically homeless person as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition or an adult member of a homeless family who has a disabling condition who has either been continually homeless for one or more year OR has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”
Walter, a relatively healthy man, falls into the second category.
Presby has participated in the program since it began in 2013. Currently, 15 of Presby’s Affordable Housing communities, whether managed or sponsored, take part in the program.
Walter is a lifelong Philadelphian and was “an adventurous kid who would run up and down South Street,” as he put it. A Vietnam War-era veteran, he served in Georgia, where he would work with high-frequency radio technology and could share his interest in music as a part of the division choir.
When his service was complete, Walter returned home to Philadelphia, where he worked in field abatement for the city’s Licenses and Inspections (L&I) department, a job that saw he and fellow crew members seal up abandoned lots and buildings.
“You talk about some adventures?” Walter said with a chuckle. “Boy, you had to be there!”
During a summer day in 2006, Walter ran to the market a few blocks away from his West Philadelphia home to grab some ice and soda for a cookout he and Shirley were hosting. On the way back from the market, Walter recalled hearing ambulance sirens coming from the direction of his home. He didn’t think much of them, but as he kept walking, the sirens kept getting closer and closer to home.
When he reached the corner of 40th and Chestnut Streets, his heart sank as he realized the ambulances were at his house. Shirley had suffered a stroke that left her blind in her left eye.
“I was the one who took care of her,” Walter said of the tough times he and Shirley went through after the stroke.
Shirley’s health slowly but surely improved following the stroke. But in 2013, her health failed again and she passed away, leaving Walter without his partner in life and someone to keep his head on straight, beginning his downward spiral.
It took time, but Walter found his wake-up call and found his home at Old City.
“Old City is great! At that time, it was a life-saver for me. The people here are good people, such good people. I’ve seen and experienced instances when they’ll go out of their way for the residents.”
When Walter was asked where he thinks he would be if he weren’t at Old City, he paused, took deep breath, turned and looked toward people walking by on 4th Street out of the large, wall-length window that encloses Old City’s community room.
“I’ll tell you what — knowing me, I would not be on the street,” Walter said. “I‘ve got a little bit too much drive for that. It’s not that I think less of the people who go through that. I got a taste of it. You have to convince yourself and look at your own self-worth. Only you can tell you what’s better for you and what’s not. It has to come from inside.
“It all comes from here and here,” Walter said, pointing to his heart and then slowly raising his arm upward and pointing to his head. “If you’ve got this and believe in these, you can do anything!”