Ex-drug addict Robert Hayes fights his way out of homelessness with comic strip

Cartoonist Robert Hayes holds up a framed print of his work. Hayes is the one of the creators of "Lil Addict," a cartoon published in the One Step Away homeless newspaper and soon to be a book used in the Philadelphia school system. Hayes, who lives at the Ridge Avenue homeless shelter, hopes the cartoon will be a way out of homelessness, 1360 Ridge Ave, Philadelphia, March 30, 2011. ( Rachel Gouk / staff photographer )
Cartoonist Robert Hayes holds up a framed print of his work. Hayes is the one of the creators of "Lil Addict," a cartoon published in the One Step Away homeless newspaper and soon to be a book used in the Philadelphia school system. Hayes, who lives at the Ridge Avenue homeless shelter, hopes the cartoon will be a way out of homelessness, 1360 Ridge Ave, Philadelphia, March 30, 2011. ( Rachel Gouk / staff photographer )
Posted: May 04, 2011

FOR TOO MANY years, Robert Hayes was drowning in addiction and homelessness, unable to see that he had a unique voice, and that by using his voice to help save the lives of others, he could save his own as well.

Last year, in the depths of his decades-long cycle of dependency to recovery to dependency again, Hayes was living at the city's Ridge Avenue shelter for homeless men. That's where he met the art facilitator, Alan Bell, whose mission was to peel back those layers of failure and depression and let Hayes' light shine through.

From the moment they met, everything began to change for Hayes. Everything.

Together, the two men created "Li'l Addict," a comic strip that tells Hayes' life story as rawly as he has lived it.

Hayes writes the narrative, creating fictional versions of the unsavory characters that dominated his alcohol- and drug-dependent years. Bell draws the strip, which appears in One Step Away, a monthly tabloid written by homeless people at the nonprofit social-services agency Resources for Human Development. The 12,000-circulation tabloid newspaper is sold on the streets of Philadelphia.

Because Hayes has had the guts to examine his life in the harsh light of reality, leaving himself exposed and vulnerable, writing "Li'l Addict" has helped heal him.

With his mentor Bell's support, Hayes has grabbed onto a lifeline and pulled himself ashore.

The two men couldn't have come from more different backgrounds.

Bell, 66, is a white South African who suffered years of psychological and physical abuse as a young gay man in his native country. Conscripted into the military, which enforced apartheid and persecuted gays, he escaped to Amsterdam. He lived as a refugee there, turning his home into a safe haven and art school for fellow refugees.

When he eventually came to Philadelphia, Bell created the ArcheDream for Humankind theater company, where blacklight-illuminated dancers wearing wildly colorful African masks and bodysuits that Bell designed act out otherworldly myths on themes as varied as rape and rebirth, hatred and healing.

His work with the dispossessed led Bell to start the art program at the city's Ridge Avenue shelter, where he met Hayes, 44, an African-American who grew up in Germantown and was deeply affected by his parents' divorce when he was 10.

At Germantown High School, Hayes was into gambling and gang fights. He went into the Army and was stationed in South Korea, but by the time he got out in 1989, he was eager to start selling cocaine.

"It was hard being in Korea and hearing about how much money people were making on the street in Philadelphia," Hayes said. "I couldn't wait to get home and get some of that."

But when he did, Hayes recalled, "You are the last one to know you got a problem. I'd put on some gold and a shirt and think I was doing fine. I was in denial. I wound up becoming my best customer."

He spent years in and out of jobs, rehab and drug-and-alcohol abuse before he landed in the Ridge Avenue shelter last year, saw Bell painting and asked if the artist could teach him to draw so he could do a comic strip about his up-and-down life.

"He's like a guardian angel," Hayes said of Bell. "He told me, 'Once you start going on the path you were meant for, you will follow that calling.' He was right."

That path is "Li'l Addict," Hayes' semiautobiographical comic strip about a child of divorced parents who becomes addicted to alcohol and drugs, is bullied and abused in prison (Hayes drew upon past experiences as a prison guard) and struggles to escape the dependency trap.

"When Robert brought 'Li'l Addict' to us, we were blown away," said Kevin Roberts of Resources for Human Development.

"He asked if we'd be interested in publishing it, and we just about pulled a hamstring jumping at it," Roberts said. " 'Li'l Addict' became our most popular feature. And Robert obviously now has his feet under him."

Hayes has a steady job as a security guard, and last month he moved out of the Ridge Avenue shelter and into an affordable apartment in Mount Airy.

He begins training next week at the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services to become a certified peer specialist - an addiction counselor who is himself in recovery.

Hayes and Bell plan to publish the "Li'l Addict" comic as a book with an accompanying recovery workbook. They've already heard from therapists interested in using "Li'l Addict" to work with drug-dependent and at-risk young people. Hayes also is talking with the Philadelphia School District about a PG version of "Li'l Addict" called "Li'l Bob."

Meanwhile, Hayes continues to write new "Li'l Addict" episodes for One Step Away.

"We'll publish 'Li'l Addict' as long as Robert wants to keep doing it," Roberts said. "We probably won't see as much of him, and we'll miss him, but - good. That's the way it's supposed to work, you know? One person at a time - that's how you change things."

Meanwhile, the city is slowly relocating the population of the Ridge Avenue shelter - long criticized as a bleak warehouse for homeless men, too big to address their intense individual needs - as it moves toward termination in December.

Hayes will not be sorry to see the shelter close.

"Hopefully, the men will end up living in smaller places and they'll get more care," he said. "They had up to 500 people in Ridge. The staff couldn't possibly see 500 people and evaluate them.

"Some men were just living under a bridge all day and coming back at night," he said. "When somebody's jumping around, talking to himself, you don't want to lay down and go to sleep. You're afraid you'll get hit upside the head.

"You have to find out whether a person's mental barriers are preventing him from becoming self-sufficient. If you have a mental-health problem, and you self-medicate through drugs, you're stuck indefinitely."

Hayes himself has been clean for almost three years. And as his life changes for the better, so does "Li'l Addict."

"Some people might die in 'Li'l Addict' because that's what happens in life," Hayes said. "But we're near the point where the story turns positive, when [the character] Li'l Addict begins the hard work of recovery."

Hayes paused a moment to think about the storms he's weathered, the pain he's caused himself and others, and his against-the-odds survival.

"They tell you in recovery that 12 Steps is not about religion, but about spirituality," Hayes said. "They tell you that religion is for people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there. I'm a spiritual man."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|