After surviving homelessness, Joe Flamm is a ‘very positive person’, resilient and optimistic about the future | Berks and Beyond


Sitting on a black metal chair outside of a South Heidelberg Township cafe on a chilly November afternoon, a subtle but noticeable smile took up permanent residence on Joe Flamm’s face.

Joe, a University of Iowa sweatshirt covering a bright purple dress shirt and multicolored tie, flashed the smile while chatting about a recent appearance on local television. He grinned as he shared that his sister had recently gotten married. He beamed while discussing his ongoing plans to write a book.

For more than an hour, the 64-year-old wore his happiness clearly on his face.

Given what the past decade has thrown his way — trials and tribulations that included the deaths of his parents and a 22-month stay in a Reading homeless shelter — Joe’s incessant joy might come as a surprise. But that’s just the way he is.

“I’m a glass-half-full person. I always have been,” Joe said. “I go into my funks, but I’m overall a very positive person.”

Joe was one of several local people featured in the 2019 Reading Eagle series No Home of their Own, which took an in-depth look at the issue of homelessness in Berks County.

At the time of the series, Joe was nearing the end of almost two years living at Opportunity House, a homeless shelter on North Second Street. He was out of work, caring for his mentally disabled sister and unsure of his next steps.

While Joe remained hopeful — he constantly has big plans in mind, from writing his book to becoming a motivational speaker — his future was, to say the least, uncertain.

Nearly two years later, Joe said he’s getting by just fine.

“I’m doing great. I really am,” he said. “I’m basically just living and enjoying life. It’s nothing extraordinary, but that’s all right. That’s more than all right.”

An unexpected path

For the first six decades of his life, Joe didn’t know what it was like to be homeless.

He had always had a place to stay, was always able to find work. The thought of ending up in a homeless shelter never crossed his mind.

But a series of twists and turns led him down that unexpected path.

In 2010 he moved back to Reading from Maryland, where he had been beckoned by his father, who was in need of heart surgery. Joe’s dad asked that he watch over his mother and sister.

Joe’s father ended up passing away in October 2011. And in 2013 he was forced to put his mother in a nursing home because of her worsening dementia. She died in 2015.

Work had been sparse for Joe since his return to Reading, and the cost of his mother’s nursing home tapped him out pretty thoroughly.

The family house was sold, but a legal battle that followed meant the meager proceeds he cleared didn’t stretch very far.

Joe and his sister, Lisa, eventually ended up moving into a motel near Kutztown. But in 2017 Joe lost a job he had taken to foot the bill, and he and Lisa were forced to move into his car.

But without any money coming in, Joe wasn’t able to keep his vehicle insurance or registration up to date. He was eventually pulled over by police. Living in the car was no longer an option.

Joe and Lisa ended up finding their way to Opportunity House.

Feeling he had let down his family, that he had failed in fulfilling his father’s dying plea, Joe was despondent. The first night in the shelter he sat in a corner and cried.

But as the days and weeks went on, Joe’s effervescence returned. He grew comfortable at Opportunity House, became reliant on its rules and structure.

“At Opportunity House I had purpose,” he said. “I volunteered for everything, and I enjoyed it.”

Out on his own

Life at Opportunity House couldn’t last forever.

The story profiling Joe was published in the Reading Eagle on Feb. 26, 2019, a Tuesday. Two days later, on Thursday, Joe left Opportunity House.

He had already stayed there much longer than is normally allowed. But he was a model resident, almost never breaking any rules and always eager to help out with chores around the shelter. Exceptions were made to give him some extra time.

Leaving, Joe said, was both much needed and difficult.

“I needed space. I badly needed space,” he said. “And I had to deal with the trauma of it all.”

Leaving the comfortable familiarity of Opportunity House and being out on his own, again with the full responsibility of his sister on his shoulders, was very scary, Joe said.

“It was hard, we weren’t where we needed to be financially,” he said. “After two months I thought we might have to go back to the shelter.”

With the help of a couple of friends who gave Joe what money they could afford, Joe and Lisa moved into a motel in Muhlenberg Township. By April, Joe started getting Social Security checks, and the pair moved to a motel in South Heidelberg Township.

Joe still lives there, but Lisa has moved in with her husband after the couple married in October 2019.

Despite being out of the shelter, Joe was still struggling. By summer 2019 his fear had shifted to overwhelming guilt, regret and sorrow.

Joe said he took stock of where his life was. He didn’t like what he saw.

“I was in a very dark place,” he said. “You get to thinking about what you’ve done, about what you’ve accomplished. And I felt guilty because I had a lot of friends that were still back at the shelter struggling.”

Things got so bad, Joe said, that he even contemplated ending his life.

With the encouragement of friends and his sister, along with his faith in God, Joe said he was able to pull himself from the brink. He set his mind on the future, choosing to think about what’s possible instead of dwelling on his failures.

“I’ve always been a dreamer,” he said. “I got back to thinking positive thoughts, to what was next. It’s important to get up in the morning and have something to strive for, something to truly live for.”

For Joe, that’s sharing his story.

Telling his tale

Joe said he saw the power his story can have when it was plastered on the front page of the Reading Eagle.

A few days after the story appeared Joe was getting on a bus in the city when he noticed a woman looking at him.

“She said, ‘I know who you are. Keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” Joe recalled.

Joe said all of his friends were ecstatic to see their buddy in the newspaper. But it was the reaction of strangers like that woman that really touched him.

Like the shoppers at Barnes and Noble, a regular haunt of the heavy-reading Joe, who would pause to stare at him.

“I knew what they were going to say,” Joe said. “They were going to say, ‘Aren’t you that guy?’ “

Many offered to buy Joe books or coffee or give him money, he said. Some just thanked him for his honesty, for providing a window into a life they may not have seen before.

“The best was when people I don’t know who saw the article would come up to me and tell me I’m an inspiration,” he said. “That article has impacted a lot of people.”

Joe said he hopes to impact even more.

He’s working on writing a book and wants to be a motivational speaker, both things he spoke about back when he was at Opportunity House. The theme of each, he said, is that it’s never too late.

Joe also recently got a chance to host a show on BCTV, something he said he was excited about. Titled “What About Homelessness,” the half-hour program took at look at some reasons for and solutions to homelessness.

Admitting he was “one jittery host,” Joe said he would like to do more shows in the future, perhaps one every two months. He said he thinks he’ll get better at hosting them the more times he does it.

“I don’t think it could get any worse,” he said with a laugh.

Joe hasn’t found much work since he left Opportunity House, other than a gig with UPS helping deliver packages the past two holiday seasons. He has been able to live off Social Security.

Looking back

It would be easy for Joe to be bitter, to look back at what he went through the last decade or so and curse his lot in life. It wouldn’t be shocking if he was resentful or embarrassed.

That’s not his style.

“I’m completely serious: I’m glad I went through it,” he said.

Joe says his experience with homelessness has made him a better person. It has made him more patient, more caring.

He got to see the best parts of humanity, he said.

Joe marvels at the volunteers who gave their time and money to help him and others at Opportunity House. He witnesses people with next to nothing not hesitating to offer a razor or bar of soap to someone else who needed it.

“Truthfully, it was a blessing,” he said. “I’m very thankful for it. I’m more compassionate, less judgmental.

“I count it as one of the good things I’ve had in my life,” he added. “With all I’ve been through, the homeless shelter may have been the easiest part of it.”

Joe said he believes that if people experienced homelessness like he did, even for just a month or two, it could lead to the problem finally being addressed the way it needs to be.

“If people were homeless, in Opportunity House or Hope Rescue Mission, they would know what this is all about,” he said. “People are hurting. They need compassion. There’s no doubt we need more compassion in our society.”

But tackling homelessness, while most certainly on Joe’s extensive to-do list, is a project for another day. In the meantime, he’s focused on making himself a little better each day. On taking one step after another.

“I was happy for my time at Opportunity House, but, of course, it was very hard,” he said. “When I was in the middle of it I wasn’t always feeling the vibes, necessarily. But that was just the first step in my journey, and I have a long way to still go.

“And this is not my best version version of myself. I have plans for my life.”


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