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Faces of Homelessness: The Resourceful John Galvin

Galvin, 48, makes the best of a bad situation.

This is the second in a four-part series on homelessness in Fairfax County. The first part, , ran Monday, March 12. Watch a .

Links to additional parts of this series are at the bottom of this article.

John Galvin has his morning routine down pat. First he hits the 7-Eleven, where he buys coffee. He smokes a few cigarettes.

Then he goes to McDonald’s, where he shaves and brushes his teeth in the bathroom. Next, it’s breakfast time. He retrieves eggs and cheese from his van, then goes back to the 7-Eleven, where he adds milk from the containers the store leaves out for coffee to his egg and cheese mixture.

“I’ll mix it up and make what I call ‘the 7-Eleven breakfast kit,’ ” Galvin said. “I’ve got a little plastic container, and I cook it in their microwave. And they’re looking at me like, ‘What the hell is this?’ And I’m like, ‘What is this? It’s breakfast at 7-Eleven! Better than McDonald’s.’”

Like many homeless individuals, Galvin, 48, is resourceful. He has to be. Home for him is a 1999 Dodge van with 230,000 miles on it that needs a new transmission. For now, at night he parks his van behind on Russell Road, where he attends worship services and partakes of the free noonday meal.

Galvin tries to buy as much as possible from the 7-Eleven, so they’ll see him as a steady customer, with the money he makes from odd jobs in painting, construction and plumbing. But his passion is his guitar, a Fender telecaster with beefed-up pick-ups he bought from a pawn shop.

He practices for an hour each morning, prepping for local church service performances, which earn him $100 per week, and the occasional evening on King Street, where he plays the blues. And no morning is complete until he locks himself in a bathroom stall at McDonald’s or a gas station, kneels and recites the Lord’s Prayer.

“I’ve read the whole Bible, and I think I know what kind of man Jesus is,” Galvin said. “He’s a defender of the weak, he’s hero to the lost, he’s salvation to those held in chains and freedom fighter for those held in darkness. Amen! He’s my kind of guy.

“ ...He’s all for the little guys, the ones that no one else wants. Amen. Those are the ones Jesus goes to bat for the hardest and the most intensive — the ones that no one else wants to help.”

Journey into Homelessness

Galvin, a native of upstate New York, moved to Alexandria at age 13. He attended T.C. Williams High School but dropped out in 11th grade. He later earned his GED and attended Northern Virginia Community College for a year. While working for a stint in Louisiana, he briefly attended trade school for heating and air conditioning repair through a partial government grant but was unable to continue his studies when he ran out of money.

Galvin once ran his own painting business but fell on tough times when the economy went south. He’d been homeless in the past, when he was younger and would travel up and down the East Coast building houses. But that was by choice, and he always had family to stay with during the rough times.

His father died about 20 years ago, his mother 12 years ago. Staying with his brother is no longer an option.

“It just happens when you get older,” he said. “There’s less and less people who feel sorry for you.”

Galvin traces his journey into homelessness to December 2010, when he was laid off two weeks before Christmas. With $25 left for food, he was hired to paint the basement at Rising Hope.

“I was smoking a cigarette out back, and I seen a big, fat, furry squirrel, and in the morning time I’d see big, fat birdies back there,” Galvin said. “And then it dawned on me, and I said, ‘Boy, no one goes hungry hanging around this place. Even the animals stay well-fed.’ So I said, ‘Maybe I should stick around here. Worst-case scenario, at least I know I’ll get fed this morning.’”

He began staying at the Ventures in Community Hypothermia Outreach Program, or VIC-HOP, and eating from the church food pantry.

Galvin later found work in Winchester, but then came a legal matter. He had received a ticket for a traffic infraction in 2010, and, because he paid the fine late, his license was suspended. He saved some money coming in from his new job, and he planned to clear up the license matter with his next paycheck.

It never happened. “They got me,” he said. When police stopped his van in May 2011, he was also using a license plate he had found on the side of the road. He was charged with driving under suspension and using a fictitious tag, court records show.

The matter ended up costing him $1,400 in fines, court costs and attorney’s fees, he said. He also spent 10 days in jail, serving on weekends so he could work during the week. Galvin tried to get his business back together but had little luck, and the legal fees took every extra penny.

He returned to Rising Hope in November 2011, this time sleeping in his van.

Homelessness in South County

Galvin was one of 1,549 homeless people living in the county as of late January 2011, according to the most recently available numbers from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness.

Since 2007, when the office was created, the number of homeless people in Fairfax County has decreased about 14 percent. Of the people included in the 2011 snapshot, 883 were in families and 666 were single adults.

The ultimate goal of Fairfax County’s 10-year plan, which promotes a concept of “housing first,” is to make affordable housing accessible to everyone who is homeless or at risk of being homeless by the end of 2018.

That’s a tall order. The fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Fairfax County-Falls Church area is $1,328 per month, and a two-bedroom apartment is about $1,500 per month.

According to the partnership, 60 percent of single homeless individuals suffer from disabilities, including mental illness, substance abuse and chronic health problems.

The Office to Prevent and End Homelessness coordinates with and helps support nonprofits and other community service groups, and awards contracts for services such as shelters. The office’s annual budget from county is $12 million — mostly for contracts for homeless shelters and services. South County, including the Route 1 corridor, has some of the highest numbers of homeless people in the county, said Dean Klein, office director.

“Clearly, we see a greater need in South County than many other areas of the county, and so what we’ve tried to do is apply additional resources and support to try to make sure that the needs of those who are living in South County are being met,” he said.

One Day at a Time

Galvin makes frequent mention of his “partying” days. He began to quit drinking and using drugs about six years ago, and he isn’t ashamed to mention his past.

“I’m not a saint,” he said. “I’m not proud of it, but it’s like AA says, l don’t wish to close the door on it. I’m not going to deny it.”

It took him several years before he went a full year without alcohol or drugs, mostly powder cocaine and crack. He estimates he falls off the wagon about twice a year, when something upsetting occurs. But prior to six years ago, he couldn’t stay clean and sober for more than two weeks. Now, he comes to Rising Hope’s Celebrate Recovery program on Thursdays, where he plays guitar.

Galvin manages to keep his days filled. He spends many a day at the library, where he uses a computer to look for jobs. He begs for gas at gas stations, so he can travel to jobs.

“I’ll come up and tell people, ‘Look, would you like to donate one gallon of gas to a guy who sleeps in his van at night?’” he said. “And most people say, ‘Oh, sure.’ Once you bring that word ‘homeless’ into the equation... people’s generosity seems to change a little bit.”

There’s running water behind the church, and in the summertime Galvin fills a little bowl with water to shave using his rearview mirror. In the winter, he washes up in the bathroom at the 7-Eleven.

“I go in the bathroom and lock the door, and I probably look like a giant birdie -- I splash the water all over me,” he said, laughing and flailing his arms. “And then, hopefully, they’ve got a mop handy in the hallway, and I’ll mop up real quick so no one notices.

“A lot of times they don’t have no mop, and I just leave it like it is. I make sure there’s no paper or anything on the floor, so that it doesn’t look as messy.”

Galvin also has diabetes, and he takes lots of naps. He visits various local church soup kitchens for evening meals, and sometimes he visits the Route One Community Kitchen (or ROCK) for lunch.

He has a simple wish for the future: He wants everyone to buy his CD when it comes out one day, he says. He has 10 original songs written already. Galvin has a name in mind -- “Brother Johnny and the Holy Remnant Band.”

He also believes in miraculous signs. That’s what keeps him going, he said.

“I figure whatever God’s got planned for me, it must be pretty big and special, because why else?” he said, his voice trailing off. “I take it as God’s way of saying, ‘You’re special.’ ”

The Rev. Keary Kincannon, pastor at Rising Hope, has seen Galvin go through ups and downs. But Galvin always manages to pick himself up and put himself back on track, Kincannon said.

“From where he was when I first met him to where he is now, he is light years away from where he was then,” Kincannon said. “He’s got tenacity to move forward, he’s got faith that says that God wants what is best for him, and he keeps moving forward to make that happen.

“And we’ve got a saying around here at Rising Hope, that ‘a saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.’ So, Johnny is one of our saints who knows he’s a sinner and just continues to try to move himself forward.”

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About This Series

Homelessness is a serious problem for many in Fairfax County, especially because housing is so expensive here. This series will introduce you to some of the more than 1,500 people in Fairfax County who have experienced homelessness recently as well as the people trying to help them.

Part 1: (Monday, March 12)

Part 2: (Tuesday, March 13) and related video:

Part 3: (Wednesday, March 14) and related video:

Part 4: 'I'm not Called to Pastor a Middle-Class Church' (Thursday, March 15) and related video: Meet the Rev. Keary Kincannon

Keary Kincannon March 13, 2012 at 03:32 PM
Great article about "Guitar Johnny" as we call him at Rising Hope. Thank you. The video also captures his humor & good nature well. John just told be he landed a job that he expects to have for the next year. He says it is exhausting work, six days a week 8-10 hours a day. But he is grateful to have a job. He is looking now for an inexpensive place to live. He can be reached at 571-215-0129.
Rachel Leonard (Editor) March 13, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Thanks for the update!

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