The degree — and the life — that slipped away

On his desk at home sit dual computer screens, one with a background image of a man — he doesn’t know whom, as it’s only a stock photo — wearing a cap and gown and receiving his degree; and the other with an image of a bachelor’s degree in health care management. To the right stands a Gaylord the Camel bobblehead. For Michael Watkins, these all serve as reminders of where he is now and where he’s heading. And when that glorious day arrives for the 56-year-old Clinton native, only then will he have the time to reflect on the road — an arduous, unforgiving road — that brought him here.

Eight years ago, Watkins was homeless. He stayed in Raleigh-area shelters when there were openings, but too often, his bed was a park bench. Or an alleyway.

And this vagabond lifestyle wasn’t the short-term result of a lost job or sudden tragedy. Watkins was homeless or barely hanging on to temporary housing for over 20 years — nearly the entirety of his adulthood. A breaking-and-entering charge in 1989 started it all, he says. After a six-month prison sentence — and a felony on his record — Watkins had difficulty finding steady work. And he admits to mistakes or hard-headedness that led to dismissals from the places that did hire him.

The homelessness came first.

“I stuck out like a sore thumb,” he says of his first experience in a shelter. “I was well-dressed … slacks, tie, dress shoes. Everyone looked at me like I didn’t belong. And I guess I didn’t. That first night, I had to sleep on the floor because the beds were full. It’s not the place where I wanted to be — that’s never the place anybody wants to be. But I had great difficulty getting out of that situation.”

Like many in his shoes, he turned to alcohol and drugs — items readily available, he says, in urban shelters. At his lowest points, Watkins all but accepted this as his life. More often, however, he found moments of clarity … a desire to climb out of the hole he had dug for himself.

In 2002, he began distributing a newsletter for other homeless men, women and families in Raleigh. “News From Our Shoes” began as a handout, then a full-fledged (though low-budget) newspaper supported by local charities. With the rise of social media, it became more of an online product, heavily promoted through Facebook and other outlets.

“I wanted to open people’s eyes of what was going on in the homeless community,” Watkins says. “And have something that discussed what people could do to change their habits and get out of that place.”

His paper — and a four-man acapella group he formed with others in the community (yes, Watkins’ voice is a smooth bass) — were profiled by Raleigh television stations and newspapers. The notoriety earned him enough money for an apartment and a computer. But this wouldn’t become the thing that turned his life around for good. But fortunately, the eventual relapse into drugs and eviction wouldn’t mark the back-breakers, either.

On the cusp of gathering what money he had for a plane ticket and a new start in Seattle, Watkins learned — after months of applying and legwork — that he was accepted for a housing voucher in Raleigh. He moved in to his new home on June 25, 2010, and he has lived there since.

That stability — something he’d been missing for years — allowed Watkins to reassess his future. He was taking college classes when his life was turned upside down in his 20s. He gave that another shot, but even that didn’t come easily. His mother, who suffered from dementia for years, died in 2012 from kidney failure. Watkins dropped out of school again, but returned to Wake Tech in 2015. He earned his associate’s degree in medical office administration last May.

With a bachelor’s degree in mind, he enrolled in Campbell’s Adult & Online Education program last fall. He calls the day he received his acceptance letter to Campbell “the happiest day of my life.”

“Or maybe the second happiest,” he says. “I think I was even happier that day I got my student ID.” Watkins takes it out of his wallet and shows it off, the pride radiating in his smile. “I was so happy the day this arrived. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”

Michael Watkins will be nearly 60 when he earns his degree. He laughs when reminded of this, then pauses to think of what that moment — like the image on his screen saver at his desk in his apartment — will say about his journey.

“Twenty years ago, I didn’t have the mental stability to be the person I wanted to be, much less pursue an education,” he says. “I desired it. I always desired it. But my mind wasn’t there. But now … I’ve been clean from drugs and alcohol for over 10 years, and I intend to stay that way. I’m so focused on me — and I’ve never been this focused on me in my entire life. I know what I want, and I’m going to get it. And I won’t let anything stand in my way. I refuse to.

“I’ve cheated myself out of a life all my life. I feel like I owe this to myself.”