Street philanthropy

Wake homeless lose friend, advocate, champion.

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. — When John Harrison wasn’t getting coffee at Cup A Joe on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, you could likely find him searching the streets and woods in and around the city looking for the chronically homeless, severely mentally-ill people he spent his life trying to help.

Harrison, 59, an outreach worker for Wake County Human Services, died Feb. 14 of lung cancer.

Harrison, who looked more like the people he served than the government worker he was, usually wearing an old leather jacket, a bandana, blue jeans and motorcycle boots, spent the last decade of his career with Cornerstone, a day center serving the homeless.

As a case manager, he sought out the county’s hardest to reach and most vulnerable population — homeless people with severe and persistent mental illness — and helped connect them to programs and services that could help.

“They would trust him and talk to him when they wouldn’t talk to anybody else,” says Carolynn Crowder, Harrison’s supervisor at Cornerstone. “There are hundreds of people in this community who have housing, and even employment, because of John Harrison. There’s a big hole in the world that will never get filled up.”


John Harrison

Job: Case manager, Cornerstone, Wake County Human Services

Family: Two daughters; two sons; seven grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; significant other, Mary Washington

Education: Associate’s degree, business, former Kings College; classes at Shaw University, N.C. State University, Wake Technical Community College

Hobbies: Fishing, working on cars, hunting, riding motorcycles

Harrison’s commitment to Wake’s homeless was more than a job, says his son, Jonathan Harrison, who occasionally rode out with him after his father had gotten off work, to find homeless people in the woods or on the streets to check on them and bring them food.

His son believes that passion and commitment sprang out of Harrison’s own experiences, and was something his clients could relate to.

“He had times he went through tribulation,” says Jonathan Harrison. “After what he went through, he wanted to help others get back on their feet like someone helped him.”

Harrison’s coworkers felt that as well, marveling at his street smarts, his easy grasp of the language and issues of the homeless, and his ability to gain the trust of those he called “my people.”

“Every time I got somebody from John, there was a sense they really trusted him and his work with them,” says Pam Floyd, senior practitioner at the county’s Drop-In Center, of clients transferring from his care to hers. “When the transition took place from his program to mine, the sense that I got from them was that I had big shoes to fill.”

Harrison, born in Baltimore, served in the Army before joining Wake County Human Services as a driver for the county’s in-patient substance abuse treatment center almost 20 years ago.

One of Harrison’s clients, a veteran in his mid-fifties, who suffers from schizophrenia and who Harrison helped get disability payments and find a spot in a rooming house, reacted to the loss when he heard Harrison had died.

“I don’t know what John ever saw in me,” the man told Harrison’s coworker. “He never let me down, no matter what I did. He would sit in the hospital all night long. He came to the court and talked to the judge for me. He would come looking for me in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night, in the woods, to make sure that I was okay.”

Harrison left his son with advice and encouragement he may have shared with the homeless people he served.

“My father always told me that if there’s anything you want to do you can do it,” his son says. “He said the hardest part is applying yourself. Once you apply yourself, the rest will come to you.”

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