By Katelyn Skye Bennett
Photo by Giles Clasen
Born and raised in the Curtis Park neighborhood, then known as the “Brick City” projects, Thomas Jonathan Jackson had a rough life. The youngest of seven, he called himself spoiled but said he was raised up fast. He was allowed to do as he pleased.
At age ten he worked his first job as a dishwasher at D. Boones Hamburgers. He said the owners, whom he knew, spoiled him rotten.
TJ sold candy door to door as a teenager, developing his “gift of gab,” a career tool he uses to this day. Despite the naturally rough timbre of his voice, he was skilled enough in sales to teach others his pitch.
That gruff voice is a hallmark of TJ’s. When he was a child, he sounded like Froggy from Little Rascals, but he grew out of that into the voice he has now—a gravelly but effective tone for pitching his papers and sharing stories about the Denver of his youth.
Throughout his life, TJ worked hard to save money to buy cars. When he was just 12, he bought a 1973 Buick LeSabre with the help of an older cousin, and he drove without a license until he was old enough to qualify for one.
He was also athletic and into sports, including football, soccer, running, and swimming. TJ regrets not going further with his athletic talent, but a coach told him he was too short. (He rounds up his height to five foot six.) Without a good support system, he took the coach’s words to heart and let most of his athletic gifts slide.
Still, he stuck by the swimming pool. TJ worked for the city of Denver as a lifeguard on and off from age 14 through 43.
Starting at 22 he worked as a cook in restaurants, but TJ said those days are done now. “That’s something I never want to do again in my life.” He also sold drugs, receiving several felonies and spending some time in jail.
TJ experienced homelessness on and off as an adult. From 2012 to 2014 he lived at a motel, where he met Denver VOICE vendor David Gordon. It was David who first connected him with the VOICE.
TJ lost one of his brothers in 2015 and began to do drugs again. He cleaned up at Samaritan House, bought a car using the money he earned by selling the VOICE, lived between his sister’s place and the car, and then moved to the streets. A friend named Ron taught him how to live the homeless life. TJ bought a tent, but he said the cops would come and harass him at two in the morning.
Wringing a water bottle wrapper in his hands, TJ described the injustices he has faced—being denied Social Security more than a handful of times and being denied housing based on his felony history.
TJ is now 53 and feels the effects of an aging body. At age 14 he was hit by a car, injuring his lung, wrecking his shoulder blade and all but one rib, and requiring surgery to reconstruct the bones under his right eye. He also has hypothyroidism, which has contributed to recent weight gain, but he hopes to become healthier and shed a few pounds.
Today he lives with his family and works as a vendor for the VOICE. He is saving his money to buy a car and rent his own place—a place that he hopes will not judge him based on his history.
“From having a lot of things, from selling drugs, from living a fast life, having a lot of fancy cars and all that stuff, I came to find out the main thing is God letting you wake up the next day, so I’m happy [without] the material things in life now. I’m just happy I woke up today and take it one day at a time,” TJ said.
TJ prides himself on his work as a vendor for the VOICE—not a panhandler, he clarified. But some people make false assumptions about him.
“People, when they think you’re homeless, they think you’re no good, you ain’t trying to do nothing for yourself, you’re just no good. You’re just trying to play the system or you’re no good or you’re just lazy. Either you’re lazy or you’re on drugs. You just gave up on life and want other people to support you,” TJ said.
“I’m a good person. I got a good heart,” he said. ■