Not long ago, Streetvibes distributor Cleo Wombles could easily be spotted on the streets of Clifton in clown makeup and a red-button nose, waving Streetvibes and telling jokes to potential customers.
Although 58-year-old Cleo has, for the most part, ditched the face paint for more regular attire, his love for humor and desire to make people laugh is what keeps his customers coming back to purchase papers from him.
But Cleo’s carefree persona isn’t without a personal history of struggles.
Cleo grew up in Cincinnati in a poor family of six boys and six girls. He was working at the age of 12—if he didn’t plow, the family wouldn’t be able to eat, his dad often told him.
At age 16 he married, and on December 4, 1974, his wife at the time gave birth to Christina Parrot at Good Samaritan Hospital. Because of birth complications, Christina was never able to leave the hospital. Every day, Cleo said, after his job at a saw mill, he’d go home to shower then walk two to three miles to the hospital to visit her.
“She was in an incubator, I had to stick my hands in gloves and touch her that way,” Cleo said. “I’d tell her I loved her, cared about her, try to make her laugh. I kept telling her she was going to come home and that never happened.”
Nineteen months after her birth, Christina died.
“One day I came in there and she’s not in that bed,” Cleo remembers. “It warped me really bad.”
Exactly four years after Christina’s birth—December 4, 1978—Cleo’s second child was born. Cleo calls that day the best memory of his life.
“Because she was born the same day as my first daughter… God gave me another chance,” Cleo said.
After his first child’s death, Cleo was overcome with grief and guilt; a number of other traumatizing events in his life, which he chooses not to share publicly, led him to post-traumatic stress disorder, something he wasn’t diagnosed with until years later. Cleo struggled with other mental illnesses—he said he’d shake, have rapid thoughts and hear voices. This made it more difficult for him to find work, and he became so poor that he eventually became homeless.
Often, he’d “couch potato” at family’s houses, but sometimes he’d sleep seek accommodation in a shelter or in bushes.
Cleo had used just about every resource he could—he ate meals at City Gospel Mission, took advantage of Society of Saint Vincent de Paul’s programs and often stayed at the Drop Inn Center. Above all, though, he said the help he received from Tender Mercies, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and services to homeless persons with histories of mental illness, has had the biggest impact on improving his health and situation.
“If I wasn’t in Tender Mercies, I’d be dead right now,” Cleo said. “When you’re homeless and you’ve used up all your resources and don’t know where to go or turn or don’t know what to do, you cry a lot. I was sick being homeless, and I didn’t want to live that way anymore.”
Cleo doesn’t let his mental illness define him. Last year, he became a member of GCCH’s Voice of the Homeless Speakers’ Bureau to share his story and put a face to the issue of homelessness.
“Cleo has become one of our most popular speakers. Public speaking is not always easy, especially when you’re sharing very personal experiences,” said Michelle Dillingham, education coordinator of GCCH who oversees Speaker’s Bureau. “He sprinkles in life lessons and words of wisdom and at the end he always shares a few jokes with the audience.”
In addition to the time he spends with the Speaker’s Bureau, he sells Streetvibes every day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., takes a break and sells again from 3:30 to 5:30.
“Back when he was selling papers in front of Chipotle in Clifton, he was the most unique seller of newspapers I’ve ever seen,” said Rob Lewin, a long-time friend and customer. “He would wear clown outfits and he would make balloon animals. He’s putting out extra effort to make it interesting, he’s not just saying take this paper and give me money.”
After a day of work, Cleo usually spends his time reading the Bible or watching Red Skelton comedy, thinking of new ways he can make his next customer smile.
“I figure I got two and a half seconds to make you laugh. If I can do that, I did something good,” Cleo said. “I like using humor as one of the means for me to build a relationship with people and not just a customer. I want you to be happy when you come by me. That’s my whole goal.”