A gift for James on his 50th birthday — a home

James Williamson at his 50th birthday party. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

After years of living on the streets, James gets the keys to his own apartment the day after he turns 50. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

A few weeks ago I asked my homeless friend James what he thought about his upcoming 50th birthday.

“It’s just another day,” he said as he sorted returnable bottles and cans before taking them to the redemption center. “Just another day.”

James couldn’t have been more wrong. He turned 50 today; tomorrow he gets the keys to his own apartment. If there’s a better birthday present, I’d like to see it.

Thanks to the efforts of a variety of people who know and admire him, James is finally off the streets — where he’s been for more than half his life.

Today, James’ friends and supporters helped him celebrate his 50th and the beginning of a new chapter. The mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner, attended the second of two gatherings held in his honor.

“I can’t believe the mayor’s here,” he said. “I’ve never met a mayor before.”

James prepares to blow out the candles on his 50th birthday cake. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

James prepares to blow out the candles on his 50th birthday cake. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

He and the mayor discussed cooking vegetables, and James joked that the next time she sees him downtown, he’ll be showing some extra pounds from eating too much birthday cake.

Yes, there was cake — two, actually, both made from scratch, including one for breakfast at Freedom of Espresso, a coffee shop whose co-owner Anna Dobbs has been helping James for years. At his second celebration of the day, James made a point to thank Dobbs, who wasn’t among the dozen or so in attendance.

“This all started with her,” he said, prompting smiles throughout the room.

James has been smiling a great deal since he transitioned into a motel two weeks ago. A few days before that, when he was sleeping outside on a bench, he had his belongings stolen — the second time in a matter of weeks.

The thefts coincided with efforts by community advocates Mary McLaughlin PhD and John Tumino, who operates a not-for-profit outreach, In My Father’s Kitchen.

McLaughlin had watched a recent video about James by photojournalist Kevin Rivoli, and arranged a meeting with an agency to get services for James. Things started falling into place. Tumino then helped him find the apartment and is guiding him through the transition, including working with an agency to get the apartment furnished.

James even picked out a color scheme — black furniture, red couch, white kitchen table and chairs.

James and Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner at James' 50th birthday celebration. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

James and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner at James’ 50th birthday. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

It’s important, Tumino said, for people to maintain a connection with James now that he’s found housing. Volunteers from In My Father’s Kitchen will visit and help him with life skills and with situations in which he may need support.

James is ahead of the game.

He’s intelligent, respectful and sociable. He has no addictions other than cigarettes and coffee. He doesn’t panhandle, and walks several miles a day collecting returnable bottles and cans to redeem for walking-around money.

More than once during the birthday celebrations, I heard the phrase, “It takes a village.”

I also felt some momentum starting to build.

A customer at Freedom of Espresso offered to donate a piece of art for James’ apartment … a party guest noted that he and James are about the same size, and said some clothes are headed his way … co-workers of mine are asking me what else they can give (they’ve given a lot already).

And then there’s this: the notion that, as long as James thrives in this new chapter, there might be someone else on our streets who could use a village.

John Tumino gives a blessing before cake is served at James' birthday party.

John Tumino gives a blessing before cake is served at James’ birthday party. Photo by Michelle Gabel.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to A gift for James on his 50th birthday — a home

  1. reocochran says:

    I am a sucker for happy endings, Jim. He seemed sincerely happy and thankful.


  2. This is great news Jim! I hope we will still hear how he’s doing. I am beside myself with joy, Jim ❤
    Diana xo

    Happy Birthday James and enjoy your new apartment! 😀


  3. Happy Birthday James! Happy day for the village !!! Thank you for the story Jim, this is something to celebrate.


  4. Reblogged this on Martha Keim-St. Louis' blog and commented:
    Brought tears, it did


  5. J. Geddes says:

    It would be wonderful to know what else this gentleman needs and how it can be delivered. And perhaps a way of helping others, as well. How about a follow up story with that information?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, John & Leigh-Ann Tumino for the tireless and selfless work you do with In My Father’s Kitchen. For those who would like to make a donation to help IMFK continue serving James and others like him, please go to this link: http://inmyfatherskitchen.org/donate
    You can mail a personal check to: In My Father’s Kitchen, PO Box 11328, Syracuse, NY 13218
    Want more info about In My Father’s Kitchen?? Phone (315) 308-1561
    All donations are tax deductible.
    Thank you, for being a part of “The Village”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. cat9984 says:

    That is totally awesome. I’m glad you let us know.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m so happy for James and wish him all the best as he strives forward. It does take a village. Thanks, Jim. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: A gift for James on his 50th birthday — a home | earthriderdotcom

  10. I shared your post on my wordpress page. It’s such good news. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  11. ksbeth says:

    this is stunning. a life has been changed forever with this act of compassion and understanding from the community. i cried throughout this post. simply beautiful –

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Beth … it was a truly remarkable day. And another friend shared a photo yesterday of James in a recliner watching football on TV — both items donated to him. The rest of his furniture comes this week.


  12. chelharris says:

    Happy birthday James I am so happy for you may you have joy in your new home …I bet you can’t wait to get your keys …can I come for supper tee hee.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. This article is a gift to us. Thank you for writing and sharing this. Happy 50th Birthday, and blessings on you and your home.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. marianbeaman says:

    May your next fifty years be most blessed, James. Thank you for this heart-warming story of hope and joy.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. lundygirl says:

    This is wonderful. Did I ever tell you that my grandfather was in need of help back in the 1920’s? He was welcomed into Williamsburg Rescue Mission. I wouldn’t be here if not for the people who helped him start his life over again.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This is such good news! I am so very happy for James.
    The support and kindness of all those who have helped James is an example of the best parts of being human.
    Thank you for sharing this Jim!


  17. markbialczak says:

    Happy 50th and new start in life, James. Thank you for keeping your eye on our city was such passion, Jim. And thank you, everybody, who rallied around James. Next? The work needed won’t stop, that I know.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Such an important story Jim my heart breaks to think I am only year older than James and was so happy to hear of the support he is getting. Happy birthday James may the next year bring much joy and light in your life

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Wonderful thing to do for someone in so much need! Homelessness is on increase where I live, and it really doesn’t need to be that way. If this kind of thing happened everyday there wouldn’t be a major homeless problem. Thanks for sharing a lovely story! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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