Jerome Piper’s life changed the day his newborn daughter tested positive for drugs.
It was Dec. 23, 2016. The next day, at a time when many families are coming together to celebrate Christmas Eve, Child Protective Services removed Piper’s daughter, Ti-Annah, from his custody out of concern for her safety.
“For me it was one of those self-check moments,” Piper said recently. “I don’t think any father would want their daughter to be in that situation, let alone not knowing where she was.”
From that moment on, Piper, who is now 41, was determined to get his daughter back.
He had not been raised by his father, and did not want his own daughter to go through what he had. But in order to regain custody of his daughter, he would need to overcome a serious meth addiction that had left him homeless for years.
“People don’t realize that this is a man-made substance and it’s stronger than any flesh,” he now says of the drug.
It wasn’t be easy, but eight months after his daughter was taken away, Piper got her back.
He got something else as well.
Newly sober, Piper said he has found his true calling. He works as a substance abuse counselor at Aspire Counseling Services, while taking classes at Cal State Bakersfield.
He hopes to one day work in a school setting to prevent young people from developing substance abuse disorders that force them to end up on the street.
Working full time while attending school may be tough, but Piper is confident he will graduate next spring.
“I’m overwhelmed, I’m busy, I’m tired,” he said.
Still, he keeps things in perspective.
“I thank the lord every day for not giving up on me.”
Living the struggle
Despite the challenges he would face later in life, Piper says he had a typical childhood.
Raised by his mother, Piper became interested in sports from an early age, and dreamed of being a coach one day.
He played football and ran track at South High School, eventually graduating. He went on to earn a spot on the Tabor College football team in Kansas as a cornerback.
But before he could graduate college, Piper moved to Salt Lake City after meeting a woman who would eventually become his wife.
“Those were my partying days,” he says of the time period.
Piper had begun experimenting with drugs in high school as a way of having a good time. He said he liked going to clubs and ignoring the responsibilities he faced outside.
His habits followed him to Utah, where he began to smoke meth on the weekends. He’d stay up Friday and Saturday to party, and try and get some sleep on Sunday before showing up to work as a substitute teacher and debt resolutions collector for Comcast on Monday morning.
“It’s easy to hide at first because nobody knows,” he said. “You’re trying to act normal but you’re not really normal.”
At the age of 33, Piper was arrested for possession of a controlled substance after trying to purchase drugs outside a store during a blizzard.
His marriage eventually fell apart and Piper left his wife and two children. He became homeless, sleeping with different friends every few days as his meth use became a daily occurrence.
“It’s a very demoralizing experience,” he said. “Because if you’ve never been homeless, it’s like ‘I’ve failed, I’ve just really failed. Everything that I’m doing is failure.’”
Piper’s mother eventually convinced him to move back to Bakersfield, but he kept up his old habits, ending up homeless again shortly after arriving in town.
To make ends meet, he found recyclable material, learned how to return items to stores that shouldn’t have been returned and sold scrap metal.
He did anything he could to survive, but at that point in his life, he felt he had no one he could really rely on.
“I had isolated myself from any real friends,” he said. “My friend was meth.”
After his daughter’s birth, Piper entered into a family reunification program run by the Kern County Department of Human Services.
He went to counseling and checked into the Bakersfield Homeless Center.
About a month after losing his daughter, he got clean by forcing himself to stay in a room at the house of a friend.
Eight months after he lost his daughter, he got her back.
“She was the catalyst toward change,” Piper said. “It’s just a situation where I look back and think, ‘there is a God.’ And God didn’t give up on me.”
But Piper wasn’t finished.
Determined to get his life back on track, he joined the Bakersfield Homeless Center’s Job Development Program, eventually finding a position as a driver with Kern County Public Health Department’s Waste Hunger, Not Food initiative.
“He and another driver helped us launch our program, and his work ethic and positive attitude just truly made an impact,” said Health Department Spokesperson Michelle Corson. “All of our vendors that we were rescuing food from would always compliment him on his positive attitude and his joy in being at work.”
Waste Hunger, Not Food takes surplus food from local restaurants, markets and schools and distributes it to sites throughout the city.
Piper said that after being homeless for so many years, it felt good to give back.
Aside from his professional endeavors, he also remains in contact with his two other children.
He now hopes his story will inspire others to kick their addiction, and he hopes to devote the rest of his life toward preventing bad habits.
“It starts with a thought. If you have a thought that ‘I want to change,’ then you can believe that you can change,” he said.
So, while his life may be a little hectic at the moment – what with raising a 2-year-old daughter along with school and work – Piper looks to the future with optimism.
“I never knew what I wanted to be,” he said. “Today, I know what I want to be.”