Originally created 02/25/02

Harleys help man stay off street



SAVANNAH - The question jarred Lonie Davis: "If you had a choice of the job of your dreams, what would it be?"

For the 44-year-old man wandering in the depths of homelessness and substance abuse, those words from a frustrated job training counselor turned his life around.

"This is my last stop," Mr. Davis said during a break at Savannah Harley-Davidson, where he is a detailer. "This is what I want to be my last career."

He hopes to become a Harley mechanic.

Mr. Davis is one of 507 men, women and children in the city who left homelessness last year, said the Rev. Michael Elliott, the president of Union Mission Inc.

Ending homelessness in Savannah is his organization's goal.

Since 1992, Savannah's homeless population has dropped 58 percent, from 6,511 to 2,795, the Rev. Elliott said. Mr. Davis is included in those numbers.

"He really illustrates the complexity of the situation some people encounter when they come here for help," said Laura Webb, the director of community education at Union Mission.

His problems included legal, financial, substance abuse and education.

"There was so much going on in his life, he was in danger of overloading himself," Ms. Webb said. "He really needed to pay attention and take care of his substance abuse problem first."

Mr. Davis now is making plans to obtain his General Educational Development certificate, a goal that had to be put on hold. Working as a mechanic on Harleys is a long-range goal for Mr. Davis. It is a far cry from the broken spirit who rode the bus from Spokane, Wash., with his trusty 151-proof rum in hand.

A broken seven-year marriage in 1995 cost him a good job in fleet maintenance in Spokane and left Mr. Davis on an aimless course.

"I just gave up," Mr. Davis said. "I just didn't care."

He took $4,000 from his retirement savings, boarded a bus and headed for Orlando in what he calls a "vacation from life."

"I've been on the streets since I was 14 with street trash and millionaires," said Mr. Davis, a soft-spoken man who left school two weeks into the ninth grade.

When he arrived in Savannah's Greyhound Bus Terminal in February 1998, Mr. Davis said he had a funny feeling he should stop.

He wandered across the street to the Grace House at Union Mission.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," Mr. Davis said. "I am broke. Else I wouldn't have done this in the first place."

He was sent to Union Mission's Employment & Training Center, where he admits his counselor grew frustrated with him.

"But they don't give up," he said.

It was then that an exasperated counselor posed the jarring question.

"I've been a mechanic all my life," Mr. Davis answered.

He found work at Great Dane trailers, where Human Resources Coordinator Clint Rushing provided guidance.

But Mr. Davis says his past still haunted him.

Several drunken-driving tickets were outstanding in Spokane when he bolted. With encouragement from the Rev. Elliott and others at Union Mission, Mr. Davis said he found his conscience and decided to return to face the music.

Scared to death, Mr. Davis said he rode a bus 4,000 miles to show up on his lawyer's doorsteps on a Monday morning.

A helpful lawyer "believed in me. She pulled a rabbit out of the hat," getting Mr. Davis a short jail term and probation.

"I had burned every possible bridge (in Spokane). I knew it was just a matter of time before I would not have a job," Mr. Davis said.

So, he returned "home" to Savannah and Union Mission last fall.

He enrolled in an alcohol rehabilitation program and filed bankruptcy to get out from under mounting debt, stemming in part from court fines.

A friend told him Harley-Davidson was looking for a mechanic's helper and Mr. Davis was on his way.