Readers Pitch in to Help Homeless Honors Student

Duane Harris, 49, an honors student at Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale, snapped his perfect attendance streak on Tuesday.

He skipped his computer programming class to visit another school, Winston Park Elementary in Coconut Creek.

Cecilia Trotter’s second-grade class sat at their desks, looking at the impeccably dressed man by the blackboard.

"Do I look like a homeless person?" Harris asked.

"No," the kids said.

"Homeless people don’t always have a bottle in their hands; they’re not always dirty and wearing baggy clothes," Harris said. "You can still look nice."

When Trotter’s class read about Harris’ situation, they wanted to do something to help. So I arranged for a visit. When I profiled him earlier this month, he was making straight A’s by day, sleeping in his car by night.

But now, thanks to caring readers, much has changed.

Harris moved into a free apartment last week.

He has some job interviews lined up.

He’s gotten a new laptop computer from a credit restoration firm that’s also cleaned up his credit score.

"I’m amazed by his drive and determination," said Andre Browning, of Allstate Business Consultants.

Harris’ story inspired many readers. One elderly woman sent a $25 Publix gift card. A man sent him a $1,000 check. Another has been in touch with the school about paying part of his tuition.

Eventually, Harris wants to earn his degree, have a steady career and afford a place to live with his daughters, who live with their maternal grandparents in Boca Raton.

Harris is happy to be off the streets, settling into an apartment in Principles East in Oakland Park. It’s a transitional housing facility for sober men. Owner Tim O’Brien said Harris can stay as long as he wants.

"At first he was reluctant, but I told him to try it for one night, just so that he could get out of his car," O’Brien said. "I wish we could solve homelessness 100 percent, but helping just one person is a start."

Said Harris: "It’s nice to get a solid sleep without worrying about that knock on the window … I’m actually dreaming again."

Harris became homeless after Hurricane Wilma, shuttling between shelters and then living since June in the Ford Thunderbird he bought. He lost his job as a dishwasher at a Fort Lauderdale hotel in December, after he enrolled at Keiser, a private university that caters to older students changing careers.

At the elementary school, the kids asked him how he showered and went to the bathroom when he lived in his car. One girl asked, "What’s it like going to school in old age?"

Harris told how he made hot dogs and beans for his daughters in his new apartment last weekend. He told the kids to take their education seriously, something he didn’t do early in life.

"Can we help you with anything?" asked Jordan Cutherell, 7.

"You already have, just by inviting me out here," Harris said. "I want to share my story with the world."

When his talk was over, the class presented him with a good-luck card, a loaf of homemade strawberry bread, and an envelope with $100 cash, money the kids raised from their piggy banks, family and friends.

Harris said he’ll use the money to take his daughters to a restaurant this weekend, and for Jada’s birthday next month.

"From the kids, for the kids," he said, a big smile on his face. (Sun Sentinel)

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