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2012 January 23 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: W.Va. Trade School Graduate Homeless but Hopeful

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — When Garnet Career Center Principal Jim Vickers asked one of his soon-to-be graduates where he would be staying one recent weekend, the answer was a stairwell.

Elgin Patterson won’t be going anywhere special to celebrate his graduation. His family wasn’t there to watch him finish an educational journey he began a year ago.

That’s because he is here alone. Patterson, 37, attended Garnet despite being homeless..

“I’m trying, and I’m not going to give up,” he said.

He made the decision to attend Garnet to obtain a certificate in automotive technology in October 2010.

He had come to Charleston after moving out of his sister’s house in Oak Hill, his hometown. He worked in some restaurants there, but it didn’t satisfy his need to design and build.

He is drawn to hands-on work.

“I like seeing things come to life; as a kid I wanted to be an inventor, so I just kept it in my mind that I would always keep trying, always keep trying,” he said.

Before he even considered moving to Charleston, Patterson lived in Beckley and attended New River Community and Technical College. There, he started taking classes in engineering, but the chemistry and math proved too difficult. So after two years he took a break.

The break was extended by difficulties when he eventually found his way to Charleston.

Patterson doesn’t have any family here. He held a job at McDonald’s for a few months, but even then he was living in homeless shelters.

He started his classes at Garnet in January 2011. The coursework, combined with the challenges of life on the streets, proved to be draining. So in February Patterson quit his job at McDonald’s to focus on school.

“I was working and going to school, but school is more important. I was so tired,” he said. “I just couldn’t get any sleep being with so many guys around. I was getting sick from them.”

After he lived in the Charleston Men’s Shelter for six months, Patterson was sent back out on his own. The state Department of Health and Human Services allows the homeless to stay in a shelter for up to six months.

So Patterson is sleeping in stairwells when he can and occasionally under a bridge. When it gets cold enough, shelters will allow him to spend the night in an overflow room, even when they are at capacity.

Staying outside the shelter has come with more dangers than the cold. Patterson says at one point another homeless man stabbed him in the rib cage during an altercation.

That incident prompted police involvement, but Kathy Casdorph, a counselor at Garnet, said it also spawned support from one of the investigating officers.

The officer provided a care package to Patterson, including blankets and clothing.

“Everyone wants to help someone who is helping themselves, and he’s really helping himself here,” Casdorph said.

She speaks of Patterson as a proud mother would, explaining that at Garnet it is the norm for students to overcome obstacles. However, the school has high standards, including a strict attendance policy.

To earn a certificate in automotive technology, a student must clock 1,284 hours of instructional time over the course of a year. Students clock in and out of school as they would on a job.

Casdorph and Vickers both were amazed by Patterson’s consistent arrival for class at 7:30 a.m. Sometimes he would show up early to study in the cafeteria.

One day he was two hours late.

Casdorph says she was worried that morning. When he showed up, he said his watch had stopped working. That previously trusty digital watch was the only way for him to track the time because he was sleeping under a bridge.

“We get people who have a lot of difficulties in their pasts, but he has stood out here in particular,” Casdorph said.

Patterson has received some help in the form of federal funding. Pell grants covered his $6,253 tuition and the tools he needed in the auto body shop.

Even though he is graduating, Patterson still has some goals to achieve.

He wants to take the Auto Service Excellence Test, which will check his mastery of the fundamentals in categories such as engines, suspensions, steering and brakes. Luckily, that’s all covered in Garnet’s Automotive Technology I program.

Before coming to Garnet, Patterson had no experience working under the hood of a vehicle.

Lately, he has been flushing the brake system of a 1978 Jeep.

“That’s the thing about me is I love education; I always want to learn something. It’s my goal to get up and learn something every day,” he said.

Despite his hardships, Patterson hopes to find a job soon after he graduates so he can secure a place to live, but eventually he would like to move to South Carolina.

He credits divine intervention for that choice.

“I was asking God just where would be a good place while I was walking the streets, and I found a quarter that had South Carolina on it, so I said, ‘Well, that’s where I’m going to move,’” he said.

Patterson had to dash off from an interview to get a free haircut offered to him. He was eager to get cleaned up for graduation Dec. 22.

He has breakfast at Crossroads Homeless Shelter on Leon Sullivan Way and lunch at Manna Meal, the soup kitchen operated out of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston.

And for now he still is spending nights under a bridge or in a stairwell, but he is hoping that won’t last much longer.

“Pray for me,” he says. “I need it.”

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