It wasn’t until Devon Davis found himself sleeping in a homeless shelter that he tried to pull his life together.
Three months had gone by since he was released from almost three years in a solitary confinement cell. He had been living at his aunt’s home in Knightdale.
He met with his parole officer and attended therapy appointments for his mental illnesses. Other than that, he stalled. He had a safety net where he could connect with old classmates on Facebook, surf the Internet and watch action movies and “The Walking Dead” TV series.
But on Jan. 8, Davis’ aunt, Jeanette Lynch, kicked him out of her house. She had cancer in both lungs and was fed up with Davis, saying he refused to help her out. It was a cold winter day, and he had nowhere to go but the homeless shelter on South Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh.
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After one night, he frantically looked for a way out. He complained about the lack of cleanliness at the shelter and feared the other men would steal the few belongings he carried in a little black and red backpack. He refused to shower there and didn’t want to eat the food. He wore a white nurse’s mask.
He swiped instant coffee packets from his aunt’s house and sold them to men at the shelter for bus money.
Davis, 24, was so desperate that he contemplated checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, a place he had been numerous times.
His first day of homelessness was the first time he visited a temporary staffing agency. Later that day, he wandered into a Bojangles’ on Falls of Neuse Road and asked for a job.
A week later, he had his first interview.
Davis was consumed with making a good appearance. The day before the interview, he could think of nothing but his clothing. Calling the Bojangles’ restaurant, he impersonated his therapist and told the manager his client was coming to interview for a job and was homeless with one set of clothes. Would that be OK?
He refused to go to the shelter the night before the big interview. So when he discovered his aunt had been admitted to the hospital overnight, he slept in a chair in her hospital room.
Davis walked into his interview the next day wearing the same black jeans and Columbia jacket he had on the day before. He didn’t take off his coat. He looked down at the table as he talked. Davis’ therapist came for support.
After five minutes, the manager said she would call him about the job the next week.
Davis hoped that was the break he needed. Afterward, he sat eating a chicken sandwich with a big smile on his face – a smile that was rare during those days.
“I just want to see myself working back there,” he said, looking at the employees behind the counter. He was convinced that if he just got a job, everything else in his life would fall into place.
“And they didn’t judge me for my clothes,” he said, still smiling.
He refrained from telling the manager that he was homeless again and stuck to his past work experience at Hardee’s when he was 16.
Davis’ therapist drove by the window, honked her horn and waved goodbye. Davis waved back, grinning, and gave a thumbs up as she drove away.
But he didn’t get the job.
Good days, bad days
Multiple job applications later, he still is unemployed.
“I had an interview, but there was no hope. Nobody called,” Davis said. “Due to backgrounds and felonies and things like that … that’s what’s stopping me from getting a job. So what am I supposed to do?”
After two weeks of living at the shelter, Davis was kicked out of there, too. He says the metal detector at the shelter beeped too many times, and he got frustrated with the sheriff’s deputies who ran it. They got into an argument, and that was his last night there.
Davis went back to his mother. Shirley Lynch had been in and out of prison when Davis was a child. Both of his parents’ custody rights had been revoked by the court.
He and his mom ate pizza and chicken wings. Everything was great, but that didn’t last long.
Davis admits he doesn’t treat his mother well and says they will never have a good relationship. He knows the way he talks to her is cruel. He does it intentionally.
It’s payback for the years she was absent while in prison.
Shirley Lynch acknowledged that her sons are still upset about growing up in foster care, but she said she is not going to put up with their attitudes and disrespect when she is trying to help.
“You can’t carry that load all your life about what somebody did or didn’t do,” she said. “You have to learn to let stuff go, live for the now and keep it moving.”
After a couple of days at his mom’s, Davis became stir crazy, didn’t want her in his business and left. His days are spent waiting for the bus, bumming cigarettes, hanging out at his cousin’s barbershop and charging his cellphone in sandwich shops.
His nomadic lifestyle continues. One night at his mom’s, then at an uncle’s, the next at a cousin’s. It depends on whom he’s on good terms with at the moment.
Davis has his good days and his bad days.
On good days, he is all about getting his life together. He submits job applications, looks for housing and works on finishing his GED. He takes his medications. He is calm and helpful. He calls family and friends to chat. Everything is a joke, and life seems full of opportunity.
On bad days, no one is his friend. Everyone is out to get him or poison him. He flips off police officers as they drive by. He says hurtful things to his family and claims he doesn’t need anyone. He stops taking his medications because he says they give him the shakes. He struggles to focus and make eye contact. He cancels appointments and refuses to do anything. He just gives up.
For about a month this spring, Davis had a contract job working for a commercial cleaning service. It’s unclear whether he quit or was fired, but it did not last long.
“I had a job, but I quit. I quit because I wanted to,” he said. “I want to work for myself. Nobody else. It’s hard to get a job. You have to be Mr. or Mrs. Perfect. Nobody is perfect.”
The promise of change
For three years, Davis was alone in a prison cell roughly the size of a parking space. Now, he struggles with life on the outside, with unemployment, and with bipolar and other psychotic disorders, records show.
People in his circumstance are beginning to receive attention from state leaders. State prison commissioner David Guice says he wants to move away from the broad use of solitary confinement and get mentally ill prisoners the treatment they need.
“Emergency rooms, jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health hospitals,” Guice said.
He’s calling on state lawmakers for more funds to improve mental health and looking within his department for resources to open more treatment units with educational programs for all prisoners, but especially those with mental illnesses.
Others are studying how to better treat people with mental illness in the criminal justice system and when they return to society.
“It’s an amazing, sad thing that we are essentially incarcerating mental illness. It’s obviously wrong and an example of a broken system,” said Rick Brajer, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
He and a number of state lawmakers and department heads spoke at an annual legislative breakfast on mental health during March called “Breaking the Mental Health Pipeline to Prison.”
N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin wants every justice system official to take mental health first-aid training.
“We all know that when we de-institutionalized mental health treatment in this country, we took everybody and started putting them in the criminal justice system,” Martin said.
A couple of weeks ago, Davis’ aunt passed away. At the time, he said he didn’t want to go to the funeral. He hasn’t seen his family much at all. He hasn’t been living with family lately but with a new friend.
He is finishing the tests to get his GED. He has failed a few times already. Unemployed, he waits for the state to approve his Social Security disability benefits.
“I’m still bouncing around,” Davis said. “I’ll be stable by the end of next year. … Something that you can call your own, that will be coming. No longer than next year. Nothing happens on the same day.”
He says his priorities are “finding something positive to do, school, job hunting, networking. Everything but the wrong things.”
“That’s my story for the day. I hope they enjoy it.”
The story so far
Devon Davis was born with cocaine in his system, admitted to a psychiatric hospital by age 6 and in a state prison before he was 21. There, he endured three years of solitary confinement, which is doubly difficult for those with mental illness. He was released from prison last September. Reporter Taylor Knopf has chronicled his attempt to forge a new life out of prison.
About the reporting
The News & Observer made contact with Devon Davis’ family before he left prison and followed him as he arrived in Wake County from Maury Correctional Institution in Hookerton. The following months were filled with family drama, personal challenges and the expected problems of a young man not prepared to get by on his own.
All records cited in the story came from court files, or from prison records obtained by The N&O with Davis’ consent.