Honors Student by Day, Homeless by Night

Among the 42 inductees to the Phi Theta Kappa honor society at Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale this semester, Duane Harris is the most unlikely.

He is 49.

He has no job.

He has no home.

But he has hope.

He decided to enroll in the private college in September, after watching Barack Obama give a speech.

"I figured if he can go for president, I can go for my college degree," said Harris.

By day, Harris has notched perfect attendance and a 4.0 grade point average in computer programming. By night, he sleeps in his 1995 Ford Thunderbird.

"It’s like a La-Z-Boy," Harris said, showing how the driver’s seat reclines.

His inspiration stares him in the face every morning. Taped to his steering wheel is a photo of his two daughters, Jada, 4, and Ashley, 3. They live in Boca Raton with their mother.

The picture comes in handy, especially with cops who give him grief for sleeping in parking lots. "They usually soften up after seeing that," Harris said.

How Harris got to this point is a long story. He served time for armed robbery in his native Detroit and moved to South Florida in 2002. He built a stable life, but it unraveled in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma damaged the Miami home he rented with his girlfriend. She returned to her family in Boca Raton with their two kids. He drifted toward homelessness and joblessness, laid off as a dishwasher at a Fort Lauderdale beach hotel in December.

Now he wants to prove it’s never too late to turn things around.

"All my life I’ve been sliding by," Harris said. "It’s time to step up."

On the night of the honor society ceremony, he wore a cranberry red shirt and pants, a black tie and a big smile. "This feels awesome," he said, clutching the honor society certificate.

As his classmates left with friends and relatives for dinner and celebrations, Harris returned alone to the Thunderbird in the school parking lot.

There were two Bibles along the rear windshield. There was a pillow and blanket in the back seat. He popped open the trunk and showed his daily provisions, a jar of Planters peanuts and a carton of Cup Noodles.

"No matter how bad you think you have it, no matter how tough the economy is, there’s no reason to ever give up," he said. "Those stories I see about fathers killing their families and committing suicide really get to me. Why would they do that? Over money? Nothing can ever be that bad."

This is what Gwendolyn Brown, Harris’ sister in Detroit, says about him: "I’m so proud of him. Just because you’re down doesn’t mean you have to be out."

This is what Danny Torres, his computer programming teacher, says about him: "At first he thought maybe this would be too difficult. I told him, ‘Don’t drown yourself before you get in. Take one step at a time and before you know it you may climb a big mountain.’ "

This is what Rhonda Fuller, president of Keiser’s Fort Lauderdale campus, says about him: "He’s very motivated."

Here’s how motivated. Harris wakes at 5:45 a.m. every day, drives from one of his overnight parking spots to the same gas station for coffee and the bathroom. He gets changed at a storage center in Fort Lauderdale where his clothes neatly hang in a 5-foot by 5-foot cubicle.

He has slacks, shirts and ties, along with an iron and ironing board.

He’s usually 15 minutes early to his 8 a.m. class, not a wrinkle in sight.

"Even if you’re homeless, you can keep yourself together," he said.

With his thick glasses and thin frame, he said he often gets mistaken for a teacher. He didn’t feel comfortable the first few months, but now he feels like he belongs.

He studies in the school library, the public library, and sometimes at the storage facility, which closes at 10 p.m. He showers at a friend’s apartment.

He sees his kids on weekends, dreams of the day when he has a decent job and a home for them to live in.

He’s taken out loans and applied for grants to attend Keiser, a private college chain with 14,000 students in Florida, 2,000 at the Fort Lauderdale campus. The average age is 30, mainly working people looking to change careers. The annual tuition for his two-year associate’s degree is nearly $13,000.

"I’m going to leave here with the price of a house on my back," Harris said.

When he started in September he still had the hotel job. Now he has to scrape out food, gas, insurance and child support payments off his $275 weekly unemployment checks.

He listens to a gospel CD in his car but says his situation makes it hard to relax. Every night there’s worry. He rotates among locations, finds new spots if he gets hassled or threatened.

He said he’s been living in the car since June, after he got tired of shuttling between shelters.

Besides his kids, here’s what pushes him. There’s his older sister, a Detroit school teacher, now working on a Masters degree after getting a bachelors in education two years ago.

"I worked myself through college as a teacher’s aide," said Gwendolyn Brown, 52. "It took me 10 years to get that degree, but I did it."

And then there’s his prison experience. He got five years after pretending to have a gun in a 1987 restaurant stickup that netted $75.

The vanity plate on his car, SOLO774, serves as a reminder of the time. Solo was his nickname because he always kept to himself; 774 was the ending of his inmate number.

Harris will never forget the speech the warden gave upon entering prison: "You’re here because you’re sour seeds of society that will never bear fruit."

Still beating a lonely path, Harris is working hard to prove him wrong.


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