Survivor of roller-coaster early life finds peace helping others

Oakley, California, October 2017 – James McNorton’s life has been a roller coaster ride. His professional football career was cut short by injuries. His job driving a bus went off the rails after a truck-trailer crashed into him. When his disability checks weren’t enough to cover his family’s bills, he had to take out a second mortgage. That led to foreclosure, and he lost his Benicia, Calif. home, his marriage and his family.

“Thirty years ago, if you’d told me I’d be living in affordable housing, I never would have believed you,” said James, now 77, an EAH Housing resident since 2015 at Golden Oak Manor in Oakley, Calif. “I had a nice home, a family and a fine car in the garage. But after I was foreclosed on, I began renting and pretty soon I was living on the street.”

After losing his home, James moved back to his native Florida and began coaching high school and community college football, work he had done in California. His ability to connect with students, especially troubled ones, led to a job as a counselor.

His sister’s death brought him back to Vallejo where he went into an emotional tailspin, eventually finding himself on the streets. Fortunately, in time, he found meals and shelter at The Christian Help Center. Soon he began applying his counseling skills there to aiding people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

James had found his new calling: helping others as a substance abuse counselor and inspirational speaker. “A lot of people are just crying out because no one wants to listen,” he said.

At Modesto Junior College James earned an AA degree in Chemical Dependency Counseling. He spent the next several years as a counselor and teacher at the help center and at a health center on Mare Island. “It was enjoyable to me,” said James. “I loved helping people.”

Later, after retiring from drug rehab work, James found a home at Golden Oak. Even then, James struggled to stay current on the rent. But with 21 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, James was able to qualify for a Veterans Administration program that helps cover the cost.

“I can honestly say that EAH Housing at Golden Oak Manor has really helped me,” said James. “Without this apartment, I would probably have ended up in a shelter.”

To make sure fewer people end up in shelters or on the street, James says more affordable housing is needed, especially for people with low incomes. “I think the government needs to allocate more money for affordable housing,” he said. “We need affordable housing, now, more than ever.”

James pays back the aid he’s received by coaching at a local high school and assisting fellow Golden Oak residents with financial troubles. “I try to help them understand there’s still hope,” said James. “They just have to get to the right agencies. Be willing to be embarrassed. It’s OK not to know what to do.”

With the roller coaster of his earlier life over, James is at peace. “I don’t regret one day,” said James. “I don’t even regret when I was homeless. I learned from that. It allows me to help other people. When they get a smile on their face, that’s my reward.”