Muscogee County Jail Chaplain Neil Richardson moved to Columbus seven years ago as a car salesman.
Now, he heads one of the biggest homeless ministries in the Chattahoochee Valley.
Richardson sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about his childhood, his work with the Chattahoochee Jail Ministry and his own battle with drug addiction.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
I always like to start from the beginning. So tell me where you grew up and what your childhood was like.
I was born to very young people. They had a high school romance. … It was not a great childhood. … A lot of divorces. A lot of violence. It was not a good place to be.
I have a full sister and then I have, alive, two half-sisters and one half-brother, and I’ve had a brother pass.
What did your parents do for a living?
My mom was a bartender. … My dad ran a little gas station in Miami and then went into the Army. And then when they split, he ended up an insurance agent.
And who did you remain with?
Mom. … She was a sad alcoholic. She passed early as a result of drinking.
You’ve said in the past that you also suffered from an addiction. Can you tell me about that?
I spent about 30 years fighting a cocaine addiction. ... I’m kind of enjoying being in my 60s because now half of my life is on the good side. But I needed a lot of white chips. I didn’t get it. Very prideful, very arrogant. Thought I could fix it myself. So I didn’t take suggestions and I wouldn’t surrender myself to God and it took a lot of bumps and a lot of bruises.
Sometimes everybody says, “You have to hit bottom and once you hit bottom then you get clarity and then you surrender.” I found out that there were more elevator floors, so it took a long time.
Tell me some of the bumps and bruises that you had to experience.
I was a binge user so I would work and then I would disappear for weeks and come back. … I think the hardest part was having young children and seeing their faces. I lost a marriage over it. … I owned a business and that got lost. … It became a place to hide and then the hiding place became the reality. … I needed to be a dad. I needed to step up.
The good news is my ex and I are great friends. (But) she’ll probably never trust me again. When I called and told her that I was working in a jail she said, “I’m not bailing you out.” … I said, “But I have keys.” She said “You’re lying, aren’t you?” That was pretty funny. But we did a good job of raising our kids so we stayed good friends. …I’m really proud of the three boys. They’ve turned out to be really fine men and they didn’t have to do what I did to learn what I’ve learned.
What kind of business did you have at that time?
I was a political consultant. … Mostly for legislative and congressional campaigns in Florida.
So, how did you overcome your addiction?
Got on my knees and begged God to heal me and then started being obedient. I decided that I wasn’t the smartest person on the planet. … I got a sponsor. I rustled around in the (Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous) world for a while. But you have to tiptoe around saying “Jesus.” … So I found a group that was a Christ-centered closed meeting so that we could acknowledge that Jesus was Lord and that he was our hope and I got a sponsor and I did what I was told.
I went to meetings, I wrote, I worked steps and I found that I felt God calling me to get into ministry. …So I became a volunteer at the jail in Miami and started bringing a message and sharing my hope and what God had done in healing my addiction with folks.
So how long have you been clean?
I woke up at 3:30 this morning. I refuse to get prideful and name a date. I think I have to do the struggle on a daily basis, and so at 3:30 I wake up every day and I plan on not doing it again today.
What brought you to Columbus?
I got real sick and I got what’s known as necrotizing fasciitis, which is the flesh-eating disease. There’s no cure. … I guess there’s about a 5 percent survival rate and I’m one. I came out of the coma and then I had to go through about a year’s worth of rehab as a single guy without a job. That was not financially rewarding. Rob Doll, who’s been a friend of mine for 30 years said, “Come to Columbus, sell cars.” … I said, “So you want me to leave Miami and move to Columbus and take the plunge to the bottom of the list,” and he said, “Yeah, what other shots you got?” I said, “I don’t have any,” so I moved up here (in July 2008.)
How was life different compared to Florida when you first got here?
Night and day. But I’ll tell you this, in my honest opinion, this is my “Promised Land.” This is where God wanted me to be. I met a wonderful woman here. I attend a church that just blesses me over and over, and all of that got found within a few weeks of arriving. The people are really nice. It’s a loving community.
How did you go from being a car salesman to getting into jail ministry?
I volunteered at the jail pretty quickly after getting here and became a volunteer minister. So I would come to the jail on Sunday afternoons and then go to the Harris County Jail later and bring a message and share my story and the recovery battle. … One thing led to another. I just felt that God was saying there needs to be a chaplain’s office in this jail. So I went to my pastor and he gave me a list of pastors around town and said, “Go meet with all these and let’s see if everybody wants to do this.” And of course, as all things go with God, everybody cleared their calendars and made appointments with me.
Within 10 days, I had sat with every one of these (people) and everybody was saying, “We’re in,” and, so we went and met with the sheriff. … I started in the jail as a full time chaplain and then we started working on drug and alcohol programming. That’s the No. 1 reason that people are in that building and so we started getting NA meetings and AA meetings and Christ-centered recovery meetings.
(We’re) to the point now that we have a faith-based recovery dorm for women and one for men. We have GED dorms for women and men, and we’ve given out a hundred GEDs in that jail. We have a veterans dorm and a fatherhood program teaching young guys that the date doesn’t make (a man) a father and that he’s got responsibilities.
How did the SafeHouse come about?
… We began bumping into the impossible. I had a lady show up at the jail one day. She’d been out of jail for a week, carrying a 1-year-old baby. She said, “I got no place to go.” … We could not find a bed for her. … I mean I was crushed, and then the sheriff took this piece of property from a bonding company that folded. I begged him to let me use it and open it up as a women’s center and he rightfully said, “Sheriffs can’t be in the real estate business.” But Trinity Episcopal (Church) said that they would put the money up, and so we started.
(Then) Fort Benning said they had too much of the previous generation furniture brand new in a box, would we take it? And so we had that in a warehouse before we even had the shelter. … And then the sheriff gave the property to the city and the city negotiated a lease with us for the Trinity House.
What happened next?
It started off as a place where we would just take anybody that needed to get off the street, and then we started realizing there’s got to be an end game. There are emergency shelters. There are some ways of solving issues temporarily, but there’s not a transitional place where somebody could stay long enough to find an income and then save enough money to get their own place, and so we felt like … no sense enabling. Why don’t we be involved in solving? And so we kind of really morphed the Trinity House into that. And then it dawned on us that it doesn’t really exist for men and so we ended up, last year, opening Grace House, which is a 48-bed men’s facility.
What’s the difference between the SafeHouse and Trinity House?
The SafeHouse closes every day. … It’s not a residential facility. We are the warming station when the city declares a weather emergency. We’re the place that then opens. So I’ve got 75 Red Cross cots and blankets on standby in this building. …Trinity is over in East Wynnton. That’s our women’s shelter.
Why do you think we have such a problem with homelessness here in Columbus?
Well, I don’t think it’s just Columbus. … Let’s look at some stats and that might help it better. There’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,400 to 1,500 homeless people in Columbus. But only about 180 are what we would define as chronically homeless, and those are the ones that we see. But (for) most of the homeless folks there was some kind of an economic disaster, a layoff, medical bills that were (piling up), and so they’ve been evicted. They’re even living out of a car or going to churches and asking for another night at the hotel, and they’re in the gas station in the morning, cleaning up, putting on the least wrinkled shirt and going out and asking for work, and most of those will fix themselves in six to nine months.
So, you’ve got really two fronts you have to deal with. You have to deal with the chronically homeless, and that’s usually mental health or substance abuse, and then you’ve got some people who just want to live off the grid and they fit into that chronically homeless category. But the majority of folks sitting out there … if we can find a way through our resources, both using the shelters and then food here and other resources, if we can cut that six to nine months down to four to six weeks, then that solves problems.
And that’s the reason the city stopped churches from feeding homeless at the (Water Works) park, right?
Some churches might be a little offended. What is your response to that?
…We’ve encouraged the churches to continue to do what you do, just do it here and let our staff continue to work with the folks that are coming, so that we can build the relationships necessary to solve (the problem). … It’s almost as if, instead of the body parts of Christ, we’ve become the body of Christ.
Do you think we’re making progress in the effort to end homelessness?
Yes, ma’am. I really do.
What evidence are you seeing?
We had 89 homeless vets last January when the point-in-time count took place. Almost all of them have been housed in 2015. That project, “Zero in 2016,” had a two-year (time frame). The first year was to house every vet that we could get our hands on. The second year is the chronically homeless and so we’ll start in January. As a matter of fact, we’ve already begun housing folks.
What’s it like being a jail chaplain?
… I’m so happy I need to hire people to clap.
What makes you so happy about your job?
It matters. And I love working for Sheriff Darr because he said from the get-go when we started this that we’re not warehousing people. We need to take advantage of the time that we have with them to offer them whatever they need to change, and so I work in an environment that encourages me to think outside the box.
When we started the veterans dorm we were the first jail in American. We had The New York Times come down here to do a background piece, and one of the things that the two reporters from the Times said was, “We’re in the South. We’re seeing the first run in Columbus, Georgia? Not at Rikers? Not in the advanced northeast?”
Why do you think we have such a high incarceration rate in this country?
Drugs, alcohol, substance abuse. Eighty-five percent of the people in those buildings are there, directly or indirectly, because of substance abuse.
So you don’t think they belong there?
No. I think we need to see more treatment. I think we need to see more advances in post-incarceration work, like the Day Reporting Center that operates here.
How does your personal experience affect how you go about ministering to people in the jail?
Well, I have to come with what I know, and so I’m going to lead with my story and I’m going to lead with fighting addiction issues. Probably the hardest thing is I don’t look like an addict anymore. … There was a time once in our faith-base recovery dorm that I was in there kind of talking about some experiences of mine and one of the guys looked up and said, “You just read that in a book.” So being able to sit down and be honest about my story reveals truths that only other addicts would know and so, at that point and time, there’s some credibility in the message.
What’s the average day like here at the SafeHouse?
We serve breakfast from 7 to 8 o’clock in the morning to anybody that presents and is hungry. … Today there’s a class called “No Disclaimers” which is rap, theater and creative writing. We’ve discovered that some classes can feed the soul. We don’t have to fix everything every time we talk. And then this afternoon, led by Bo Bartlett and the CSU Bo Bartlett Center, we have an art class. It’s called “Home is Where the Art Is,” and there are some really talented people.
On Fridays there’s a class called, “I Want a Job.” … The first Friday of each month is, “How To Get Organized to Find Work.” The second one is “Resume Preparation,” and volunteers come in and sit one-on-one and work a resume up for anybody that wants it. The Department of Labor comes on the third Fridays of every month and does one of their workshops and then the fourth Friday of each month, an human resources department comes in.
How many people do you serve here monthly?
In October, 1,200 people came through here. …And we do track unique individuals and how often people repeat and the more repetition the higher the target is for us to get the relationship established, try to help fix (the problem).
Are you finding that most people are highly motivated in terms of wanting to get out of the lifestyle that they’re in? Or do you have to kind of nudge them?
Both. There are some people who desperately want to not be homeless and want out of addiction issues, or whatever their situation is. … Others, you’ve got to get to know their story. It’s a trust problem.
What misperceptions do you think that people in other parts of town have about people struggling with these issues?
Everybody’s not a raving addict. Everybody’s not (mentally ill) and everybody’s not going to steal from you as they walk by your house. They’re not to be feared. They’re hurting people.
And what can people do to help?
We always need volunteers to help us serve food… And we always need resources. You know the three things that we use the most here? Toilet paper, coffee, and sugar. We make 400 cups of coffee a day.
Name: Neil Richardson
Birthplace: DeLand, Fla.
Job: Chaplain at the Muscogee County Jail and executive director of the Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministry.
Previous jobs: A salesman for Rob Doll Nissan.
Education: A bachelor’s degree from Jacksonville Baptist Theological Seminary, Miami campus, 1994.
Military service: Two years in the Air Force, based at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill.
Family: Three grown sons, Billy, Tim an Danny.