From Life on the Street to Easy Street

Even to Williams, it was an unusual sight. The Urban Institute estimates that children make up 25 percent of the nation's homeless population, but most are living with a single mother — not the father.

‘It’s a Green Thing’

With Williams' help and a room supplied by Glide Memorial when he needed it, Gardner not only made it through the brokerage training program, he passed his licensing exam on the first try.

Gardner went to work making cold calls at the firm of Dean Witter. He says no one at the firm knew he was homeless. "I was the first one at work, I was the last one to leave … I'd be on the phone — 200 phone calls a day. That's what they noticed," he said. "Every time I picked up that phone, I was digging my way out of this hole."

Gardner moved on to Bear, Stearns. As he learned the business, he also learned that it came with some unpleasant baggage. Because African-American brokers were rare, one phone customer, assuming that Gardner was white, told racist jokes as he placed his orders. When the client came for a face-to-face meeting, Gardner says, "He was either gonna close his account with me or … I was gonna get all his business."

Gardner kept the account. "That's when I learned in this business, it's not a black thing, it's not a white thing, it's a green thing. If you can make me money, I don't care what color you are."

In 1987, with $10,000 in capital, Gardner started his own company in Chicago — operating at first from his home. His company is now an institutional brokerage firm with offices in Chicago's financial district.

Ironically, when San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit System issued new bonds to raise money a few years ago, one of the underwriters was Gardner's company — run by a man who, when he was homeless, had bathed his son in the bathroom of one of its train stations.

No Books, No Bucks

He has donated money to educational projects in memory of his mother. And he has been honored for his work on behalf of an organization called Career Gear, which helps clothe and advise young people who are applying for jobs.

When he speaks at high schools he keeps his message simple, telling students: "No books, no bucks. That's it."

He also has returned many times to Glide Memorial in San Francisco, not only to donate money, but to work on the food line where he used to stand. "I see me, I see my son 20 years ago," he said. "And I know how important this meal is to that individual, to that man, that woman."

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