“I want to start back as far as I can remember,” said Lee McCoy as he leans back in his chair and scratches his gray facial hair. “I remember crawling under my mother and father’s bed and seeing a mason jar under the bed. I started drinking some of that moonshine. It tasted good; it was smooth. That was my earliest recollection of having a drink of anything. I was seven years old.”
Streetvibes distributor Lee McCoy added that he was expelled from catholic school a couple years later for drinking the holy wine. His father died after he turned 11, and when he was 15, he got “into a big fight with some white people.” That fight, which left him and his brother sentenced to a juvenile detention center in Columbus for 18 months, marked his first incident with the police.
On a frigid February day six months into the sentence, he and his brother had had enough. The two escaped and traveled back to Cincinnati mostly by foot, catching a short ride as hitchhikers along the way. It wasn’t long, however, before the police caught him. He was sent him back to a juvenile center in Zanesville. At one point, Lee said he witnessed one friend—whom he was even closer to than his brother—get crushed by an 18-wheeler when the two were riding their bicycles. The trauma of this incident led Lee back to what comforted him most—drugs and alcohol.
“When he hit that corner, it was too late. His blood and his guts splattered on me,” Lee said. “I was that close.”
While in Zanesville, Lee said he had an accident of his own—he said his arm was pulled into a laundry extractor, he was thrown across the room and broke his elbow, forearm and wrist.
“They had to send me home after that,” Lee remembers. “I guess they was worried about a lawsuit. It never happened, though—being young and dumb and knowing nothing about how the law works, I didn’t pursue the matter. I was just so glad to be home.”
Home, or Cincinnati, was where Lee could continue to feed his alcohol addiction. He worked job to job but nothing was as comfortable to him as selling drugs. He opened an apartment to people to buy and have a place to use drugs, and said he was sent to prison five different times in a matter of six years.
Prison wasn’t necessarily a bad place for Lee. He had always loved cooking, so he worked his way up to lead cook in the prison kitchen. He got his GED. He kept busy, but when he got out and saw his friend die in his arms because of heroin overdose, he made the decision to cut use of the drug then and there.
That was 37 years ago. Lee has been in housing off and on, but after being displaced two and a half years ago, he said he struggles to find housing due to his trafficking charges, and is currently homeless.
“Any time I saw a potential landlord and they looked at my police record, (they say) ‘oh you have a trafficking charge,’” Lee said. “Yeah, but that was 37 years ago, and still today, I might as well still be in a penitentiary. I paid that debt and I’m still in prison. I’m still paying my debt to society.”
Lee pays his debt to society when he sleeps on front steps of music hall and in garages. He pays his debt to society when he experiences pain from an open wound on his ankle and isn’t allowed pain medication because of his past as an addict.
But as Director of Development for Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH) Leslie Moorhead can attest to, Lee is turning his life around. In 2012, Lee was awarded Streetvibes Distributor of the Year at their annual banquet.
“If there’s ever anything we need any kind of help with, Lee is kind of the go-to person for us. He genuinely cares about us and the staff,” Moorhead said. “He sees the paper in a different way than other people do; he takes such pride in it. It’s not just an income for him, it’s an education piece as well.”
This way of looking at the paper is why Lee is often chosen by GCCH for a monthly program GCCH holds with schools. At the program, students meet with Lee and learn his story and then try to sell papers on the street.
“He doesn’t always have the highest numbers, but his approach (for selling) I think is really good,” Moorhead said.
One of Lee’s regular customers, Valarie Dowell—who sometimes buys two or three copies of the same issue—said everybody in Lee’s regular selling area on Court Street see Lee as a “good individual.”
“Everybody up here knows Lee. Everybody somewhat feels like this is his area,” said Dowell, who works with reentry in social service outreach at the county administration building on E Court Street. “He knows how to hold a conversation and he knows how to approach people.”
Having known Lee for 30 years and having experienced homelessness herself, Dowell said Lee constantly inspires her.
“I always tell him what I’m doing and he always says ‘Have you done that? Have you graduated yet?’ Just those little things,” Dowell said. “When I told him I got my bachelor’s degree, he gave me a hug. It’s people like him that keep me doing what I’m doing. I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it to help the next individual.”
Dowell said her biggest worry for Lee is getting him into housing before October, when the temperature drops. Lee worries about this too, and said he often looks back on his life thinking maybe, if certain events hadn’t happened in his life, maybe he’d be in housing with a drastically different life.
“If I never had picked up that little mason jar from under the bed, who knows what I might be today,” Lee said. “If I had ever went to college, who knows what I would be today. If I never had that accident that broke my arm, I might have been a football or baseball star. If I hadn’t seen my friend get hit by that 18-wheeler who knows what I’d be? I think it’s those types of stories that happened to me that define where I am today.”
But above everything, Lee is thankful to be alive.
“We as people have a tendency not to be grateful,” Lee said. “I’ve had people hold guns to my head that (luckily) didn’t go off. Once, I was in a van going to work and the van flipped over 3 times and busted into flames. I’ve been blessed most of my life and I am grateful.”