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From homelessness to Yale Law School — Salt Laker Bryant Watson shows there is hope

First Published      Last Updated Mar 20 2017 07:13 pm


From desperate to successful, Bryant Watson — now 29 — found hope, friendship and love in adoptive family.

Bryant Watson remembered sleeping in a car as a young boy when his family was homeless in Salt Lake City.

He and his older sister, Carmela, were in and out of the Road Home shelter on downtown's Rio Grande Street as their parents battled health issues and addiction, found jobs and apartments, then lost them again.

They moved and changed schools often. Eventually, Bryant and Carmela settled into West High School, thanks to their adoptive parents. There, Bryant earned almost straight A's and was accepted at West Point military academy. He rose to the rank of captain and led a 27-man infantry team in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012.




Now 29, Bryant looks forward to finishing his degree at Yale Law School. He is married and has a young daughter. In 2018, he will clerk for Judge Robert Shelby at the U.S. District Court for Utah.

He beat the odds, and so did his sister, and then he shared his story, demonstrating that homeless people aren't beyond hope. Recently, Bryant, now living in New Haven, Conn., wrote to The Salt Lake Tribune to reinforce the need for homeless shelters as Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County seek a new strategy that would increase the number of shelters and spread them out, but decrease substantially the number of beds.

"Before my family called the downtown shelter home, my sister and I slept in the backseat of a rusting, white hatchback. Up front, my parents would crank the car on to use its heater and crank it off to save gas," he wrote in an op-ed column. "When my family moved into the downtown shelter, we were just happy to sleep in a warm bed."

Now, people in South Salt Lake and West Valley City are fighting to keep a new homeless shelter out of their communities, with officials expected to make a decision in a matter of weeks. These residents visualize the chaos and lawlessness of Rio Grande Street coming to their neighborhoods.

They don't often think of the homeless as individuals, like Bryant and Carmela.

Bryant recalled watching dope peddlers prey on homeless people, selling heroin in balloons. His mother, Joyce Watson, warned her children not to pick up the balloons because they were dangerous. But during their second stay at the shelter, his parents started using drugs.

"I want people to understand," he said, "there is a difference between homeless people and those who prey on them."

The Watson family was homeless on and off from the time Bryant was 7 until he was 14. Carmela is 18 months older.

"There was a pervasive sense of hopelessness," he said this week in a telephone interview.

For a youngster, it was hard to understand.

"I went to the no-name school at the shelter," he said. "You could recognize on the faces of the students that something was wrong. You could see the look on the parents' faces that something was wrong."

His parents worked hard at low-paying jobs, such as at a mall food court. As he grew older, Bryant began to see that hard work and an education were the only way out.

"I saw it was impossible to make it in America without a college degree," he said. "People tell you things when you're a kid and you believe it. I thought I had the ability to go to college."

In eighth grade, after a fire in their apartment complex, Bryant went to a foster home. His father wasn't around and his mother and sister went back to the homeless shelter.

"When I was in foster care, I ended up with some kids I knew from the shelter," he said. "Their parents abused drugs. The last time I saw them they were using drugs, too."

One boy he knew from foster care committed suicide at 18, Bryant said.

According to the New York-based Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, 31 percent of high school students who attempt suicide are homeless. And 37 percent of students who have ever used cocaine, heroin, ecstasy or synthetic marijuana are homeless.

By the time Bryant was 15, his mother's health began to fail. She had a leaky heart valve and then developed a brain tumor.

It was the most difficult time, recalled Carmela, who is now married with two small children. She excelled at West High, won a full scholarship to the University of Utah, completed a master's degree and now works for United Way as a project manager.

"She was my best friend. It is still hard to talk about," Carmela said of her mother's death. "Nothing made sense after that and it was hard to be motivated. It changed me a lot."

Before going into surgery for the last time, Joyce Watson asked her in-laws, Danielle and Walter "Tuffy" Watson, to take her children if she didn't make it.

"They were really devastated when their mom passed away," Danielle said.

Bryant and Carmela could have chosen to go with their father to Louisiana, where he is from. But they decided to stay in Utah for a number of reasons.

Their parents were good people, Danielle said, they just couldn't overcome their demons.

Danielle and Tuffy found themselves with two teenagers. "We fell in love with them right away," Tuffy said.

But the kids were skeptical when the Watsons said they wanted to adopt them. "We told them we're family, not just a house until you're 18," Danielle said. "We'll be with you forever."

Shortly after that, Danielle and Tuffy's young daughter, Emma, became ill and was fighting for her life. The parents kept a vigil over Emma, Tuffy recalled, and Bryant and Carmela stepped up to care for their young step-brother, Wesley.

"They became close with my boy," Tuffy said. "That helped them out and it helped us out too. That's the way God set it up."

Out of tragedy, they found security and love, Carmela recalled.

"With them, it's been amazing. It was the first time we had stability," she said. "We traveled. We did amazing things as a family. It made such a difference after what we had been through."

The family jelled. Bryant and Carmela's father, Bryant Sr., is an African American; their mother was white. That had no effect on the bonds that grew within the new family.

"I'm half black and half white," Carmela said. "Obviously, Emma is not. But she would tell her friends she was [bi-racial] too, so she could be my sister."

Their new family was a godsend, Carmela said.

"No family or person wants to become homeless," she said. "When you are, it makes all the difference to have someone help you get back on your feet."

Bryant and Carmela are strong people, who survived under harsh circumstances, Danielle said. Once they found their footing, they were bound to succeed.

"One person who cares can make a difference," Danielle said. "If you give people love, they respond to love."

csmart@sltrib.com

 

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