A homeless man leaves the streets to become a straight-A college student

May 13, 2009

A journey from the streets to straight A’s
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Fort Worth man who has been homeless is well on his way toward his goal of becoming a math teacher.

Jo Ann Reyes was hesitant when the homeless man volunteered to teach a GED class at her church. His clothes were in terrible condition. He had long hair, his front teeth were rotted out, and he smelled of the streets.

But Reyes agreed to let Jeremy Burnett teach. He quickly got everyone to pass the math portion of the test. So Reyes, president of the Hope Center, a ministry for the poor at the Without Walls Church in Fort Worth, recommended him to a nearby electrical training company. He soon had those students up to speed on the math portion of their test, too.

It was clear that, despite his appearance, the 35-year-old was intellectually gifted. Encouraged by his successes, Burnett told Reyes he wanted to save money for college.

Reyes told him: “Don’t wait. Go now.”

Last month, Burnett finished his first semester at Texas Wesleyan University. He got an A in every class.

The achievement contrasts starkly with nearly every other part of Burnett’s life. He failed at military enlistment, marriage and three attempts at community college. He slept in parks and homeless shelters for years. He struggled with depression so severe that he was locked in a psychiatric ward three times.

“The hardest part about being homeless was getting food,” Burnett said. “There were several times when I had to eat out of garbage cans. Then there’s the loneliness because it’s hard to find people to talk to.”

High school dropout

Attending high school in Spokane, Wash., Burnett showed promise. His teachers enrolled him in advanced math classes, but he started using drugs and alcohol.

He stole from his parents and his brother and sister so often that his mother threw him out of the house in October 1990. Three months later, he stopped attending school.

Life as a homeless drug addict was so difficult, Burnett said, that he soon resolved to quit.

“I was sitting in the snow, crying, and I can remember the tears freezing on my face. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t live like this forever,’ ” he said.

He quit drugs and alcohol for good, but years of homelessness and depression lay ahead.

He tried to turn his life around by joining the Army. Five weeks or so into basic training, he said, the Army decided he wasn’t soldier material and sent him home.

Unintended destination

Always a lover of books, Burnett decided to see the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“I just had this idea of all these books and wanted to see them all,” he said.

He resolved to get there by hitchhiking. He slept in parks and got by on scraps.

“People would give me money or food on occasion. Mostly, I ate out of trash cans,” he said.

Burnett caught a ride out of Denver that brought him to Fort Worth. He arrived around July 1992.

“It’s not exactly that I decided to stay. I just ended up staying,” he said.

On several occasions, people would take a liking to the soft-spoken young man and offer him a place to stay. But in what would become a pattern, people soon realized his bouts with depression were more than they could handle, and they had to force him out.

“They really couldn’t take care of me, especially someone with the psychological problems I had at the time, complicated by the problem I had with withdrawal from drugs,” Burnett said. “I don’t blame them at all.”


Burnett was in and out of homeless shelters for years. He slept in parks. Sometimes he enrolled in 12-step recovery programs to deal with withdrawal.

Depression would burn the biggest holes in his life. He would not care about anything and would not take care of himself. His front teeth rotted and fell out.

In some intervening brighter times, Burnett would visit libraries to read fiction and sift through books about math.

Around 1993, he said, he worked in a fast-food restaurant and followed a co-worker to a GED class. On his third visit to the class, he passed the test, getting the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Burnett took the GED to enroll at Tarrant County College three times. But depression returned each time, robbing him of all interest in studying and eventually leading him to drop out.

Eventually, a public-health counselor referred him to the county’s mental-health facility. Burnett said he was locked in the psychiatric ward for three months in 1997, a month and a half in 1998, and another month and a half in 2000.

Church folk

Sometime in the mid-1990s, Burnett befriended a woman who worked at a laundromat he frequented. He was struck by the warmth she showed him.

“One day I decided, ‘You know, I want to love the way she does.’ That was the moment I got saved. A week after that, I went to church and was baptized within a month,” Burnett said.

Homelessness and depression continued, but going to church put him around supportive people who could help him.

One was Tom Hardy.

Burnett met Hardy at the Union Gospel Mission, a shelter in Fort Worth where Burnett was staying and where Hardy worked as the night manager.

“He was the most depressed person I’ve ever known,” Hardy said. “When I first met him, he used to just sleep for days, just days on end. And when he got up, he would just reach in the closet and whatever would cover his body he would just put it on and wear it no matter what the condition. It could be dirty, smelly, wrinkled.”

But Hardy was impressed with the kindness Burnett could show others. When a homeless man was kicked out of the shelter for being obnoxious to others, Burnett went out and sat with him on the curb all night.

Hardy became Burnett’s friend and would often suggest churches he could attend.

Burnett studied the Bible and eventually told Hardy he wanted to get married.

Hardy introduced him to a woman from church he thought would be right for him.

They married in 2004.

It did not work.

“I think it might have been a mistake because the marriage didn’t last very long. He didn’t open up to her,” Hardy said.

A man of math

Even as he struggled, people noticed that Burnett was gifted in math.

He would talk about complex mathematical problems, whether people wanted to hear it or not.

“I’d tell him, ‘Jeremy, don’t start.’ And he starts talking, and he tells me about some elaborate equation,” Hardy said. “I tell him, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ but that doesn’t stop him.”

Larry Acuff met Burnett through a friend. Acuff, an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin who has a master’s degree in engineering, was struck by how much Burnett knew.

“I was surprised to see someone who’s in the position that he’s in who can talk a little above me sometimes — or a lot above me — in math,” Acuff said.

Hardy had suggested that Burnett try the Without Walls Church, a Fort Worth congregation that was trying to fight off bankruptcy while maintaining ambitious outreach programs for the poor.

Burnett took a liking to the place and hung around. When he heard Reyes was struggling to teach math to a GED class, he offered to teach it.

Reyes said the neighboring Independent Electrical Contractors told her they were having trouble getting people to pass the math portion of the electrician licensing test.

Reyes suggested Burnett, with a warning about his rumpled appearance. He was hired at $25 a hour.

Burnett said it was his first paying job in 10 years. Inspired, Burnett took Reyes’ advice and sought college enrollment.

‘I want to enroll’

Burnett said he went back to Tarrant County College. He was told he could not come back after dropping out three times. A friend suggested Texas Wesleyan University. So Burnett went there next.

“I got off the bus and I came to the library because it was the biggest building, and I found a map of the campus,” Burnett said.

He made his way to the administration building and said, “I’d like to enroll.”

Since his federal disability payments for depression amounted to so little, he qualified for enough grants and loans to cover his expenses. He moved out of a homeless shelter and into a dorm.

Joe Brown, dean of freshmen, said Burnett stuck out.

“At orientation, we noticed this big, goofy smile, and he was all in black and just so enthusiastic,” Brown said. “He can look at a blackboard when I’m writing down something and say, ‘Well, you’ve got 27 A’s and 40 C’s.’ He just sees things numerically.”

At orientation, the students were asked to say something about themselves. Brown said Burnett’s new classmates were stunned when he said he had lived on the streets for eight years.

A math placement test indicated that Burnett should enroll in a calculus class.

Brown asked the students to write down a goal for the semester. Burnett wrote that he wanted a 4.0 grade-point average.

Burnett studied assiduously and enjoyed hearing the correct pronunciation of terms he had only seen in books. He missed only one class, to attend court to finalize his divorce. He no longer takes any medication for depression, and his GPA came out to a perfect 4.0.

New goals

Reyes said she wants to find someone to fix Burnett’s teeth.

Burnett said he wants to become a teacher. He has not decided whether he wants to teach college or high school. He wants a degree in math and Spanish.

Ambitious goals for someone with his history.

But Burnett brushes that aside and is optimistic. He said he’ll rely on his faith to get past his troubles: “I think Jesus is just a little bit stronger.”