Raeshawn Gipson will never forget the day his teammates picked him up above their heads after he hit at home run at age 7. He’ll never forget the time his peers gave him a standing ovation after a solo in gospel choir in junior high, or the ear-to-ear smile on his father’s face when he came to see Raeshawn play football.
As he sits in the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH) office, every memorable event Raeshawn has experienced, along with its accompanied year, rolls right off his tongue. He dawns a wide-brimmed hat around the back of his neck and gold-rimmed glasses. He speaks softly, because he says it’s not good for his diabetes to stress and cause his blood pressure to go up.
Although he’s currently living with his brother, Raeshawn has experienced years of homelessness. He’s slept under bridges, in abandoned Cincinnati homes, even in the back of U-Haul vans. Right now, his only means of income are through Streetvibes, which he’s been selling for six years. Raeshawn doesn’t give up hope, though; he can often be found selling the newspaper across from Esquire theatre, humming his favorite song “Can’t Give Up Now” by Mary Mary.
“I just can’t give up now. I’ve come too far from where I started from,” Raeshawn sings with a smile. “That line, ‘I just can’t give up now’; when I’m selling Streetvibes, that’s what runs through my mind. That song really reflects on what I’ve had to do and what I’ve been through.”
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Raeshawn graduated from high school with dreams of working with cars. After high school, he moved to Indianapolis to pursue a career as a design engineer. After completing 5 of the 12 needed courses, though, Raeshawn had to drop out.
“I got sidetracked and I never went back,” Raeshawn said. “I ran into other jobs that paid me enough to where I could get a car, pay my rent and for my recreational use.”
These other jobs, however, weren’t always smooth sailing. At one company where he cleaned kitchen systems, he slipped into a deep fryer—the incident left him with second and third degree burns, and a visible patch of skin was taken from his thigh to replace the missing skin. It wasn’t long after this incident that he worked as a crane operator and was electrocuted with 13,200 volts—and again, his missing skin was replaced with skin from his other thigh.
“I wouldn’t wish a skin graft on my worst enemy,” Raeshawn said. “I had to deal with it by myself mentally. I didn’t have someone to say ‘hey, let me help you change that bandage,’ I had to do it all myself. I look at that as God preparing me to do better things.”
Years later—May 15 of 1996, to be exact—Raeshawn’s son, Jason, was fatally shot in Kennedy Heights at age 18. Just two days after his death, Raeshawn’s fiancé at the time, Karen, gave birth to their son Kendall.
“It still eats me up inside,” Raeshawn said. “But God gave me another chance to be a true father to Kendall.”
The next year, Raeshawn, Karen and Kendall left the painful memories of Cincinnati behind and moved to Los Angeles. There, Raeshawn worked as a limo driver, and said he had the opportunity to drive Jerome Bettis “The Bus,” Tim Brown and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“(Leonardo) smoked Marlboro lights,” Raeshawn said with a smile. “He may not now, but then, he did.”
Seven years later, Raeshawn went back to Cincinnati for his brother’s funeral—(Raeshawn is one four living children of his original eight siblings, who did not make it to age 50). After the funeral he went back to LA briefly, but after a run-in with the law, he spent that Christmas and three more days in LA county jail. After marriage complications, he moved back to Cincinnati alone. Kendall stayed with his wife.
The next year, Karen visited Cincinnati, and Raeshawn was able to see 7-year-old Kendall. That was 11 years ago, and it was the last time Raeshawn saw his son. Although they still talk on the phone from time to time, Raeshawn isn’t sure if he’ll even get a father’s day call.
“I didn’t get a chance to go to his graduation, none of those things. It bothers me because I felt like I was going down the same pattern of parenting as I did with my older kids,” Raeshawn said. “People don’t understand how much it hurts.”
Raeshawn spent over a year “going from one labor place to another trying to find work just to pay rent.” At one point, he became so fatigued that he spent three days in a hospital, and soon after was diagnosed with diabetes.
“Once I realized I was on insulin, I had to make a choice: am I going to allow life situations to upset me, or am I going to go ahead and try to stay calm?” Raeshawn said. “I had to accept that as people, we get caught in traffic. We may not like it, but we have to accept it.”
Raeshawn often finds peace sitting underneath the trees in Clifton parks, not far from where he sells to his regular Streetvibes customers.
Program Manager of Streetvibes Anna Worpenberg said that in the winter months, Raeshawn shovels snow on the patio across from the Esquire where he sells. She said that doing this shows the way he actively contributes to the community, something his customers can appreciate.
“People have a neat relationship with him as their Streetvibes distributor,” Worpenberg said. “I feel like I can really talk to Raeshawn; if there’s something new about the program, I might ask Raeshawn what he thinks because I know he would give me a really honest answer.”
This year, Raeshawn will participate in the Day by Day calendar project, which aims to educate students on homelessness in their city as well as provides distributors with an additional source of income.
GCCH intern Josh Harness, who worked with Raeshawn in last summer’s Day by Day project, said the students in their group learned a lot from Raeshawn and loved how friendly and approachable he was to them.
“He’s a very loyal, honest person,” Harness said. “Every memory I have of him is him being extremely friendly and extremely happy. He’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.”
That attitude is something Raeshawn takes pride in. He said he looks at Streetvibes as a business, a place where he maintains a professional presence representing the coalition.
“I’ve experienced some beautiful things in my life. If I was on my death bed right now, I wouldn’t say ‘why me’ because I have experienced so many good things,” Raeshawn said. “With the way the economy is, people can be homeless in a matter of weeks. They keep moving forward even though they may not have a house or an address. The homeless don’t give up.”