Glenn Johnson in 2016. | File

Austin Weekly News used to do a series we called Street Beat, in which we approached West Siders where they were while living their everyday lives (on the street, at the bus stop, in the grocery store, etc.) and asked them to tell us about themselves. Of course, that was pre-pandemic. But the series produced some compelling gems from some pretty compelling West Siders. This week, I thought I’d revisit one of those Street Beat conversations for this week’s edition of West Side Lives. I’m calling it the ‘throwback edition,’ which you’ll see once in a while.  

I came across Glenn Johnson, at the time a 62-year-old Austin resident, at a job and health fair hosted by Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center, 2942 W. Lake St., in 2016. At the time, the center was a new East Garfield Park social service organization that Johnson helped found. He discussed his decades-long drug addiction and his long road to recovery. 

I was on drugs (heroin, cocaine and some alcohol here and there) for almost 40 years and when I got through I was completely blind, crippled and crazy. I’m still a little crazy [laughing]. The first 10 years of using drugs were fun, but the last 30 were horrible. Horrible. You lose everything — your family, jobs, loved ones, friends, self-dignity, self-worth.

‘They had won’

I was 16 or 17 years old — young and carefree. My teenage years were fun. Drugs were just what people were doing back then. This was 1968 or 1969. I was sweating about going to Vietnam, because I didn’t want to go fight in a war. I was a rebel, a partway revolutionary and into Black Nationalism.

I went away to college and got totally twisted the wrong way. I went to Bradley University, but I got put out. What did it was we had kidnapped one of the white deans, made him come to the black culture house and listen to our demands. That’s what did it.

The dean was one of the people on the reinstatement board. When I went in there with my reinstatement letter, the dean wouldn’t even open it. He held it over the trash can, let it go and said, ‘Mr. Johnson, you need to go back to Chicago and get a job because you’re not college material.’ I was mad. I knew I was just as smart, if not smarter, than those people I was talking to.

So, I went and enrolled at Roosevelt in Chicago, but I had a different attitude. They had won.

On coming clean

It’s kind of hard being a dope fiend when you’re blind, cripple and crazy. I got tired of smoking my finger. I just didn’t have any more to give. I had given everything I had to it. I had nobody left, had ripped up everything you can rip up in life that’s good.

In June 2010, I went into drug treatment and got into a halfway house. They closed that down and from there, I went into this homeless shelter called the Boulevard. I was there for about seven or eight months. That placed turned out to be a blessing in my life.

On ending up on the West Side

The Boulevard had a housing department and a guy said, ‘We got you an apartment in Austin.’ I’m from out South, 63rd and Cottage Grove. But when the guy said, ‘You can either take this apartment [on the West Side] or I can get you a room at the YM,’ I didn’t even let him get the CA out. I said, ‘I’ll take the apartment!’

On Above and Beyond

This was born out of an idea for a halfway house that got closed down in 2011. It was the first halfway house that opened in the state of Illinois. It helped so many people over the years that we formed an alumni association and decided we need to keep helping people.

We decided we were going to get us a little storefront and keep helping people. We have a friend, Bryan Cressey, who’s been a friend of a halfway house called the Higgins House. Bryan used to come and eat dinner with us and just shoot the breeze. He came over and asked us what we were doing [with the halfway house] and we told him. He’s been supporting us ever since. He took our dream and he blew it up.

Everything they offer here is free. You don’t need insurance. All you have to do is walk through the door and say, ‘I’m looking for help.’ 

Want to share your story?

This is part of a series we're launching called West Side People, designed to introduce our readers to their fellow West Siders. If you know of someone we should write about, email me at: michael@austinweeklynews.com. And in the subject line write: West Side Lives.