Garrett Merrill’s New Year’s wish is for a part-time job.
This wish is harder than it sounds. At 47, Merrill is HIV-positive, a felon and a former homeless crack addict.
“I’d wash dishes or do the cleaning — anything,” Merrill said. “I’m a smart guy and I’m a fast learner…If I spend some time working, that’ll help me stay clean.”
For almost three decades, Merrill lived on the streets, unable to escape the lure of crack. But now, nine months clean, he speaks with disgust about what was once a temptation. He dreams of steady employment instead of the next high.
“Just seeing people in their addiction reminds me not to go down that path,” he said, explaining that finding a job is a priority for his new life. “I realized I’m a fighter, and when I meet the devil, I’m going to say to him, ‘Devil, you stay out of my face.’”
Merrill’s life veered off course during his senior year at Miami Carol City High. The first time he smoked crack, he was hooked. He stopped going to class, quit football and spent his meager money on drugs. It wasn’t long before he was on the streets, distrusted by his mother and estranged from everyone he loved. The foundation of family and school was replaced by the crack-addicted underworld.
When he was 21, he asked his brother, 20, to drive him to meet a drug dealer. The transaction went wrong, and the dealer got angry. When Merrill’s brother tried to defend him, the dealer left and came back with a shotgun, killing Merrill’s brother in front of him.
“You would think that the average person would stop in their addiction, but that thing had a grip on me,” Merrill said. “I’ve always had this guilty feeling, like if I wasn’t on drugs, my brother would still be alive.”
Crack drove him to steal, first from his mother, then from a corner store near her house. He held up the place at gunpoint and spent five years in jail for armed robbery.
Crack led him to the woman with whom he had two children. When that relationship crumbled, it led him to another woman, from whom he contracted HIV. .
“At that time I didn’t care about living or dying, I just wanted to smoke,” he said.
He followed his kids to Tallahassee but found the same bad influences there. In 1996 he got shot, but after two days in the hospital, he was back on the street. Merrill said for all those years he was “sick and lonely,” penniless, and suspicious of everyone around him.
Last year, knowing his precarious life had almost exhausted his second chances, Merrill found his way to a rehab program in Georgia and ended up at the Salvation Army.
He spent six months in the Salvation Army’s “Here’s Hope” program for people with HIV/AIDS in Miami-Dade. He started going to counseling and Narcotics Anonymous meetings; he credits these programs and his mother’s prayers for his recovery.
Merrill quit everything that reminds him of his previous life: drugs, “associates” he refuses to call friends, even cigarettes.
In some ways, his new life is simple. He lives in a rooming house in Gladeview and attends two NA meetings every day. He visits his mother in Carol City, restoring relationships he once thought severed. His best friend is also an HIV-positive former crack addict who has been clean for five years.
But reentering society is complicated. The $47 he gets in food stamps and his $400 government disability check barely stretch to the end of the month. Merrill wants to assume the adult responsibility he initially shirked.
“I could cut grass or wash cars,” Merrill said, adding that he’d take any part-time job.
The Salvation Army nominated him for The Miami Herald Wish Book, “because of his inspiring efforts to overcome his difficulties, become a better person and moving to a permanent home.”
Until he realizes his humble employment ambitions, Merrill celebrates the little triumphs that marked his progress last year. He brushes his teeth and takes his medication. He’s back at a healthy weight after battling addiction and disease. He eats properly and sleeps well.
Merrill said he’s also lost the flash of anger that gave him a “violent look” ever since his brother died.
“Now I can have a smile on my face again,” he said. “I think my brother would be proud.”