Janis Fontaine , Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
At his core, Daniel Gibson is still the shy, introverted child who grew up in a biracial home in a dangerous part of Los Angeles.
”But as shy a person as I may be,” Gibson said, “the moment I’m representing a cause, there’s no shyness about me at all. I’m very bold about my opinions and the ideas that I have and the human rights I want to champion.”
For the past three years, Gibson has been a champion for the homeless as the director of programs for The Lord’s Place, a nonprofit organization that has been helping the homeless in Palm Beach County for 30 years. It shelters people in transition on four campuses, and provides both residential and day programs to remedy whatever led the client to homelessness in the first place.
”There are so many injustices that can cause people to experience homelessness,” Gibson said. “I think it’s our duty as a community to address those issues, whether it be access to health care, mental health, unemployment, a lack of education or even racial issues.”
Gibson and The Lord’s Place are also committed to the reintegration of ex-cons into society using a model by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Gibson serves as the project director for the Transition from Jail to Community Project, a 31-agency collaborative that is helping to rehabilitate and reintegrate ex-offenders into society.
”When you ask me what I’m proud of,” Gibson said, “having been part of this project from its formation three years ago to today. These men coming out of our local jails are deserving of the services we can provide and the attention that this project is providing. I also want people to know that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has gotten behind us financially.”
Some local businesses are stepping up to help, Gibson said. But not enough.
”Add one of these men to your workforce and you’ll have a dedicated, grateful employee,” Gibson said. “You will change a life, and you will change your community.”
It’s a issue Gibson has seen reflected in his own life. His younger brother was released from prison in California more than a year ago. He had served 13 years and was only 31 when he got out. He moved in with their mother.
”What if my brother didn’t have my mother? He’d probably be incarcerated now. Or dead. And he’s a wonderful person. He’s not drug-addicted. He’s a loving father. A good man. But he can’t find a job.
”I see my brother, I see my uncle, I see my father in the faces of the people we serve every day. Sometimes I have to leave and come into my office and shake it off.”
But Gibson rebounds quickly. He’s tireless. He’s passionate. He’s dedicated.
”I think what makes me good at my job is when I sit there with a client, I’m so curious. I don’t care what led you to walk through these doors, whether it was a life of addiction, or a life of crime or just poverty or just stupid behavior. I will never have a moment of judgment, but I will be so curious about why you did what you did. Then we’ll try to figure out how I can help you switch the lens you’re looking through so that you can consider a different curve.”
Finding his path
Gibson used those problem-solving skills in his own life. He grew up in South Bay, a run-down section of southwestern Los Angeles, where his life was directly touched by the gang violence that robbed him of his older brother and the prison sentence that stole his younger brother from him.
”I was one of four kids, the third child. My mom was about 20 when she had me so she started very young. I was like this little flower, very shy, the runt of the family. I was quiet and just hung out at Grandma’s house in the back.”
Then, a conversation with his eighth-grade science teacher changed his life.
”She told me about a private school up in the hills that gives kids scholarships. Now, as an adult, I realize she was planting a seed. I asked, ‘Do you think I could go to a school like that?’ And she said, ‘I don’t see why you couldn’t.’ I went to the nurse’s office, asked to use the phone and I called.”
Gibson was accepted to the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes Peninsula, where tuition for a high school student for the 2012-’13 year is $28,770.
”I laugh when I say this, but I literally had to walk uphill 3 miles to get to school. I got up at 5 in the morning to catch a 90-minute bus ride that dropped me off at the bottom of the hill. I had to walk up, rain or shine, and as I’m walking, everyone is driving past in their Jaguars and Mercedes. It was such a life-altering experience. I was on the bus with all the maids that were going to work for those families. It was culture shock, an absolute mind-blowing experience. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
By the end of his freshman year, he’d caught the acting bug and found a home. In his junior year, he was elected class president. And the first person in his family to go to college earned admission to Yale University.
Gibson graduated with a double major in theatre and psychology, and spent quite a few years following his acting dreams from New York to L.A. and back again. Then, about 10 years ago, Gibson decided to give up acting for a while to walk a new path.
”Part of the strategy of me moving here was that I was missing something. I didn’t know what I was missing but I knew I was no longer fulfilled by acting. I realized it was time to grow up and become a man. At first I thought I was going to be a teacher, and I did that for a year, but I put it aside. Then I thought I was going to be a clinician, so I got my master’s in social work.
”I worked at Compass, which serves the gay and lesbian community. That’s where I really cut my teeth. I thought I’d be working there forever, but I grew and new opportunities came along. I actually came to The Lord’s Place initially because of (CEO) Diana Stanley. She was a strong leader and I wanted to work with and learn from her. And I believed in the mission.”
”He inspires me too,” Stanley said. “I remember my first meeting with Daniel, listening to this young man with just a wonderful presence. It took me a couple years, but eventually, the right position for him came up. He’s an amazing administrator, but he also has the biggest heart. Here is a young man that is Ivy League-educated but can sit with one of the chronic homeless people and treat them with respect and dignity. He’s made us a better organization.”
The goal of every program at The Lord’s Place is to help clients find independence, and Joshua House, the men’s housing unit in Boynton Beach, provides clients with the opportunity to do that. Calvin Phillips has been the director of the men’s campus for about a year.
”The environment is uplifting,” Phillips said. “This is their home and they have the responsibility for taking care of it. They have chores. They keep busy.”
Believing in change
Phillips and Gibson believe in these men. They tell them, “I see something in you that you don’t know you have.”
Edward Causey, 48, is one of those men. There’s nothing that screams “homeless” or “addict” about him anymore, but the truth is he’s been homeless for about 18 of the last 30 years.
”I didn’t think there was a place that could help me, but I found it here,” he said. Causey, who never had more than a week sober in his life, has notched up “14 months of sobriety,” with the help of The Lord’s Place. The difference, he says, is the team approach.
”I’ve been through a couple of programs and this is the real deal,” Causey said. He understands now that his problem was deeper than addiction. His dual diagnosis, depression and addiction, was treated for years by self-medicating, and had left Causey living on the streets.
At The Lord’s Place, “I’m part of a team,” Causey said. “They taught me there are caring people out there. I was sketchy about it, but it’s exactly what it’s called: The Lord’s Place. Now when I go off campus, I take respect with me,” Causey said.
It’s why Gibson, now 38, came here more than 10 years ago. “I really do have a sense of pride in the work that I’m doing and the role that I have in this community.
”I love working for the underserved.”