MAKING IT IN FITZGERALD Homeless Man Given a Chance

By Christenson, Sig | The Florida Times Union, August 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

MAKING IT IN FITZGERALD Homeless Man Given a Chance


Christenson, Sig, The Florida Times Union


FITZGERALD -- When asked to perform a simple subtraction

problem, a puzzled look briefly crosses Lorenza Johnson's

weathered face.

Though the mentally disabled 41-year-old janitor struggles to

do basic math, his face brightens as he tries to solve the

problem, igniting a trademark jack-o'-lantern smile that

radiates a childlike brilliance.

"Three!"

Those who know Johnson say his mental minuses are more than

compensated for by his dogged determination.

The son of a bootlegger who died in prison, Johnson seemed to

be headed nowhere 10 years ago, all but homeless, estranged from

his family and devoid of friends until he left a Tifton shelter

and was embraced by folks in Fitzgerald.

It was in this South-Central Georgia community of 8,868 that

Johnson was taken under the wing of a state Department of Human

Resources program and got what may have been his first real shot

at having a normal life after years of neglect.

And one shot was all he needed.

Today, Johnson's socked away $3,400 earned from washing dishes

and floors in a series of minimum-wage jobs, has a town full of

friends and is mapping plans to settle into a brand new, $51,400

three-bedroom, two-bath home by Christmas.

Nobody would have believed such a thing possible a decade ago.

Then he was a high-school dropout detailing cars in a Tifton

automobile dealership by day and staying in the homeless shelter

at night.

Johnson often was unkempt, sloppy and dirty. Even at the age of

30 he couldn't read a clock or a watch. Tests revealed an IQ

under 70.

Experts who examined him offered a dismal prognosis: Johnson

was irreversibly mentally disabled and most likely would live

out his days in "a supportive home for the mentally deficient."

Work would be in a "sheltered" setting.

Those in charge of Ben Hill County's mental health center,

known around town as The Jessamine Place, didn't buy that, but

they had a project on their hands.

Johnson was malnourished and had lumps on his face that were

thought to be cancerous. After a physical examination ruled out

any life-threatening illnesses, Johnson was taken to a dentist,

who pulled his one remaining tooth and made a set of dentures.

"It's just beyond me [how he ate], and I think that's part of

the reason for him being malnourished," mental health center

director Philip Jay said.

Health center staff introduced him to the library, where he

learned to check out books and videotapes. They took him to

movies, folk festivals and his first-ever Atlanta Braves game.

They placed Johnson at the home of a foster parent and put him

to work at the Department of Human Resources' Modern Industries,

a now-defunct business that recycled palates for private firms. …

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