Bringing "Lived Experience" to the Front Lines of Homelessness Issues

John Brady survived life on the streets of San Diego. Now, with a seat at the political decision-making table, he advocates for a hand up for others

“Lived Experience” is one of those contemporary, benign-sounding labels that dulcifies inclusion in an at-risk community.

It’s politically correct to say John Brady has lived experience in the area of homelessness.

More viscerally and to the point, Brady, used to sleep on the streets of San Diego. He was a “homeless person”–one of countless souls that passersby tend to silently pity or openly show disdain.

How did he get there?

A senseless act of violence perpetrated on Brady led to a medical issue that spawned drug and alcohol abuse. Depression followed. Then suicide attempts. A 30-day stay in the County Hospital was followed by a penniless release onto the streets of San Diego.

Before the downward spiral, Brady had a lucrative career as an entertainment-tech executive.

Today, after a rollercoaster ride back, he’s a paid consultant who sits on several advocacy boards and political committees.

His new resume includes a seat on the Continuum of Care advisory board, which accepts funding and recommends how HUD and state money gets spent by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness.

Brady also serves on the Metropolitan Transit System’s Security and Passenger Safety Community Advisory Group; the steering committee for San Diego’s Homeless Court; and the advisory committee for Yes In God’s Back Yard (YIGBY), which focuses on building low-income housing on faith-based properties.

After serving as full-time director of advocacy and operations for the uniquely exceptional Voices of Our City Choir–which helped get him off the streets–Brady founded Lived Experience Advisors.

Recently, the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a nonprofit that primarily serves the business sector, hired Brady to advise the organization on a proposed idea to create a Safe Village pilot program.

DSDP President and CEO Betsy Brennan describes the program as a non-congregate village where people experiencing homelessness can access transitional resources.

“John’s insight and expertise have been invaluable to make sure this proposal creates a safe, affirming space that meets the basic human needs of the people it hopes to serve,” Brennan says.

Brady started Lived Experience Advisors as an LLC. It’s now fiscally sponsored by a nonprofit group called Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego.

[Note: Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego is under the umbrella of Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties. Until recently, Catalyst was called San Diego Grantmakers.)

“I’m not sure about the rest of the country, but we are at the beginning of the trend to pay people with lived experience for their time on advisory boards,” FTEHSD director Amy Denhart says.

Denhart strongly supports Brady and the concept of the organization he runs.

“John is an excellent advocate–he’s very professional,” she says. “He works well with elected officials and with other advocates. John has good perspective, is solutions-based and very engaged with the community. He did good work at Voices, and we support him as well as the concept of reimbursing people for their time spent on this subject.”

Brady also trains other unsheltered people to be lived-experience advocates.

“We want John’s organization to continue,” Denhart says. “To have an effective response to homelessness, the system has to include the people we are trying to serve.”

A Fall From Grace

John Brady addresses a corporate group at a performance during his time at Voices of Our City Choir.

A candid glimpse into Brady’s life story hints at an overarching message: Anybody could find themselves living on the streets. Bad luck and unexpected twists can trip up the best-laid life path.

Born in Orlando, Brady was raised in a conservative, upper-middle-income family. He got an undergraduate degree from University of Central Florida and a Master’s degree in business from Rollins College.

During his college years, he worked at Disney in the entertainment production division. Near the end of that job, he became the lead technician on the laser and fireworks show at Epcot Center.

For a decade, Brady worked in Texas for a consulting agency that specializes in direct-to-consumer marketing. He dealt with major companies like Procter & Gamble and Southwest Airlines.

During the dot-com boom, he moved to California. Laguna Beach. Then San Francisco. Along the way, he started his own entertainment production company in Los Angeles and was the CEO of a venture capital tech company.

At one point, Brady lived in a beautiful 1920s townhouse in the lower part of the Hollywood Hills.

“It was gorgeous,” he says. “It was built by Cecil B. DeMille. Two bedrooms and two bathrooms, right above the famous Hollywood Theater. Massive picture windows. Outdoor deck the size of my living room. Vaulted ceilings.”

When he inherited some money from his family in 2012, John bought a boat to live on and moved to San Diego. He ported his new 41-foot Newport near Coronado. His plan was to rig it out to sail around the world. Unfortunately, a major winter storm in 2015 unmoored his boat and blew it all the way to Mexico. It was wrecked beyond repair.

Even before the boat incident, Brady was spiraling.

That senseless act of violence he suffered had come on a Christmas Eve. Brady had been spending the night toasting the holiday with “some of the gay ‘Who’s Who’ in West Hollywood,” as he puts it.

When he left a club that night he was attacked by a stranger who’d been partying at another club. This guy came around to the driver’s side of Brady’s Mustang. Unprovoked, Brady says the man senselessly began punching him in the face. He was wearing a ring that ripped into Brady’s face. The assault landed him in the hospital with 15 stitches.

He couldn’t speak for a week, for fear that moving his lips would create permanent scarring. What went unseen, however, were the mental scars.

Brady had a very public persona as an event producer and nightclub promoter. He was involved in another incident with a notorious ne’er-do-well who took major offense at Brady having him thrown out of the nightclub he was helping manage.

The incidents left him paranoid.

He hired personal security, and was always looking over his shoulder into dark corners.

Brady says his biggest mistake was not seeking counseling.

“I got reckless and started medicating with alcohol and drugs,” John says. “Vodka was my preferred liquid poison. And using drugs was a big driver in my downfall.”

Then his lived experience began.

“That first night on the street, I slept across from San Diego’s downtown public library, pretty much dressed like I always had dressed,” he says. “Nice pair of jeans and comfortable tennis shoes. I had a long-sleeve collared shirt, and I slept on the pavement with just that.”

Quickly, John began developing relationships with others living on the streets. He started sharing a tent. After a few nights, he was able to scrape some cash together to buy his own makeshift shelter.

“My perspective on homelessness was completely different up until the point that I became homeless,” Brady says. “Let’s just put it this way—my expectation was that there was going to be a safety net and services. My opinion was that I spent a lot of money on taxes, and there better be something. I found that, effectively, there’s nothing.”

He says being homeless is like living in a no-man’s land.

“There’s no good answer,” he says. “Even now, there’s still the question of, ‘Where can I be?’ I remember my first time with a cop rolling up. He says, ‘Hey, you can’t be here.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, well, where can I be?’ Right? But they can’t tell you because…they can’t. The police don’t know. The answer is, you can’t be anywhere.”

Could Anybody Become Homeless?

John Brady: Participating in the Sailing for Solutions program in the San Diego Bay. (Facebook)

How else do you say it except like this: John Brady doesn’t look like a person who’s experienced homelessness.

He’s a good-looking guy with fashionably spiked hair. He usually dresses in crisp jeans and an untucked button-down shirt. He’s witty, earnest and has that special something that makes you like him the first time you meet him.

Yes, he believes homelessness could befall anybody.

“I don’t even need to speak just to my own general situation,” Brady says. “We see seniors who were in living facilities that get shut down and have nowhere to go. Or, seniors in apartments where rents get raised significantly, and all of a sudden they’re living on our streets, or in their vehicles.”

COVID is also creating health outcomes that put people in danger of losing their housing, he says. Many people living on the edge are being denied disability insurance by private insurers and the social security system.

Brady points to recent local polling that suggests a third to more than half of people out on the streets have mental health issues and/or disabilities. Most have co-occurring disorders, he says.

“For the longest time, its been said that these people need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” Brady says. “Well, what if you don’t have any boots?”

He recalls that during the first week or two on the streets the light at the end of the tunnel was more likely the headlamp of an oncoming train.

“There is nothing good about ending up on the streets of any city,” Brady says. “And it exacerbates whatever got you there. Exponentially. If you didn’t have PTSD when you got there, you will within 30 days. If you had a minor substance abuse problem, then it will exponentially grow. Because in many ways, that’s your only affordable relief. It’s not like you can go to the movies, go have breakfast somewhere or do regular things.”

His personal experience was eye opening. Especially the lack of appropriate services. So now he advocates for others.

He’s being heard.

“With his lived experience, John has been–and continues to be–an invaluable resource and sounding board for our regional coalition as we seek to end homelessness,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria says. “He’s a straight-shooter who lets us know when we’re doing it right and doesn’t mince words when he thinks we’ve missed the mark, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Deputy Public Defender Matthew Wechter, who is the liaison between the Superior Court, the District Attorney and Homeless Court Providers, serves on several committees with Brady.

“John is able to articulate how policies affect the homeless population, and he is the essence of a tireless advocate on their behalf,” Wechter says. “Each group of which he is a member or advisor, as well as the community as a whole, benefit from his participation and advocacy on behalf of the homeless community.”

Not every person living on the streets today has executive experience or consultancy potential.

One man with lived experience, however, is in the public eye to remind us anybody can slip through the cracks–and that it’s hard as hell to crawl back out without a little help. SDSun


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