Former Olympian combats stereotypes of homelessness

By Marie Veillette

& Trent Zbichorski

Danny Harris, a former Olympian, cocaine addict and homeless man, in that order, traveled to MSUM from California to share his life story.

Harris was given a full ride scholarship to Iowa State University for his outstanding ability in football and running hurdles. By his freshman year, Harris had competed in the Olympic games and taken the silver medal in 400-meter hurdles. By his junior year, he had signed a contract with Nike.

Though the contract was an exciting and lucrative addition to his college experience, Harris said the added income, amounting to six figures, made it hard for him to keep hold of reality or attend classes on a regular basis.

Harris admitted to being a regular marijuana smoker from high school through college, but it didn’t take long for him to try stronger substances.

“Weed was my drug,” Harris said. “I started smoking weed ever since my mom died when I was 14. By the time I was 24 years old, I had tried cocaine for the first time.”

The addiction was solidified his first try, and became a problem that would eventually contribute to his disqualification from competitive track races and eventually, homelessness.

“Cocaine had an effect on me and made me want to do it more,” Harris said. “There was just something about it that caused me to want to get high all the time.”

As an active drug user, the International Amateur Athletic Federation suspended Harris after he tested positive for cocaine twice. Rather than feeling embarrassed or remorseful at his removal, the depth of his addition caused him to feel something much different.

“It let the pressure off me,” Harris said. “I didn’t have to hide anymore. I plunged deep, headlong into my addiction.”

At the urging of family, friends and his sponsor, Harris entered a rehab clinic program that lasted 28 days and cost $32,000, an expense Nike agreed to bear.

It didn’t work. Not too long after, Nike ended their contract with Harris. In the time between entering his first rehab program and overcoming his addiction, he would enter 10 more in an attempt to quit his cocaine addiction.

After what remained of his savings dwindled, Harris lost his house, car and nearly everything else he owned, and moved to making a way for himself on the streets. He talked of the “incomprehensible demoralization” of his sister and young nieces watching his struggle with cocaine, but even that feeling wasn’t enough to make him stop.

Harris elaborated on his  experience with homelessness, saying he used to sneak into hotels to steal food from their continental breakfasts, as well as being a regular plasma donator to earn money to pay for his addiction and small amounts of food.

He ended up at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles, a homeless shelter that only houses men, and stayed there for eight months. He overcame his cocaine addiction, met his wife and participated in filming a couple movies, earning $10,000 in six weeks.

Harris played a small role in the movie “The Soloist” featuring Robert Downey Jr. and recounting the true story of the life of former Julliard student, now homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers, played by Jamie Foxx.

Harris had a more prominent role in a Netflix documentary “Lost Angels” telling true stories of homeless individuals on Skid Row.

With his life moving back in a positive direction, Harris received a call from Iowa State University asking if he would come back and complete his degree on the full-ride scholarship he had been given. Harris went back to finish his final year of school and graduated nearly 20 years after he had first enrolled.

“It meant something to me to finish that and get a degree,” he said. “It was time for me to step up and be the person I really want to be.”

With a degree in hand, Harris went back to the Midnight Mission, but this time as an employee. He worked as the group manager, overseeing the service of one million meals and the residency of 253 men.

“The people that came in really got to me,” Harris said. “I felt a connection with them since I used to be homeless. These were real people, real families, real children and none of them deserved it.”

Harris recently left the mission to finish writing his autobiography and film the story of his life with a documentary filmmaker.

To wrap up his speech, Harris shared some of his knowledge about what is happening to the homeless in Los Angeles. Recently, laws have been put in place that hinder the assistive measures people can take to help, as well as increasing police presence and punishments for minor offenses.

“They’ve criminalized even the act of trying to help someone on the street,” Harris said.

One law in particular mandated the homeless remain within a six-block radius. This small area has a police force of 140 officers dedicated to it.

“When you contain something, you marginalize it,” Harris said. “It just hurts that … we’re just going to contain the issue, but only in this certain area.”

He also expressed his disgust at the law’s wording, never directly naming the homeless, but rather calling them “the problem.”

“Every human being has value,” Harris said. “Every soul has value. We just have to scratch some of the dust off to see we have some real gems.”

While he recognized the complete end of homelessness is not likely with one solution, he stressed the need to combat laws and rulings like the ones enacted on Skid Row.

“We’re not going to eradicate it,” he said. “But we can do better.”

Preceding Harris’s lecture, a panel of two employees and two current clients of The Dorothy Day House in Moorhead took questions from the audience, and shared ways people can help through volunteerism and donations.

Currently, the house is in need of winter gear, especially gloves and hats.  The recent onset of the below zero temperatures has led them to see an increase of frostbite in their clients.

Those interested in volunteering can contact the house about participating in game night or preparing a meal for the clients. All meals are volunteer-prepared and served to the current residents.

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