Ben dropped out of high school, and at age 20 went into the Army. He was discharged after a fellow soldier knifed him in the back a dozen times, gripping him in a murderous hug.
Post-military, Ben held a good job for two years as a pipeline inspector. But one night he was fired for drinking and passing out at the work site after hours, and started hanging out with friends who committed small-scale burglaries while intoxicated.
Soon they were caught and Ben was jailed for the first time, in 1981. Upon release, he began a cycle of between homelessness and jail on various vagrancy-related charges.
In 1993 he was convicted as a felon after committing three misdemeanors in a nine-month period. During this prison stint he was found to be HIV positive. He was paroled Thanksgiving week 1999, and quickly returned to life on the streets. This broke his parole rules and he returned to prison in 2001. While there, a falling tree branch broke his neck during a work detail. It took four years before his broken neck received medical treatment, according to Ben, who bears a deep scar as evidence.
Through patience and the work of staffs at the NAACP, Houston AIDS Foundation and The Way Station, Ben has been able to receive Social Security Disability benefits, representing a huge shift in the cost of providing care for a person who lived almost his life in the shadow of trauma. He has spent 16 of the last 24 years in prison.
Ben yearns for a quiet and peaceful life and has a dream that at the end of his days,
he can be buried with his family in the cemetery in Willis, founded by his great, great grandmother, a freed slave.
Ben White neck scar, 2008
A scar related to a neck injury Ben White sustained while in prison. Ben is a miracle to be alive, surviving poverty stricken childhood and life lived between streets and prison.
Dr. David Buck, Healthcare for the Homeless Houston meets Ben White at a mobile clinic station at the Way Station, a morning resource center hosted by Palmer Episcopal Church, Houston Texas.
One of the great challenges for anyone is to find meaning for one’s life.
Ben White was born April 27, 1957, and grew up in Houston’s Fourth Ward (Freeman’s Town), Fifth Ward, and Sunny Side, all working-poor black neighborhoods.
His ancestors were slaves on a plantation in Willis, Texas (near where the Walden community on Lake Conroe is now located). He was originally named Elijah Frederick Davis Jr., after his father.
His mother was a “psych patient type,” Ben recounts, and she died from abortion medications administered by a relative when Ben was three years old.
After her death, his great aunt Ruth White raised Ben, and his name was changed to Ben White. He thought of his aunt as a mother, although she would tie Ben to a tree and whip him, or leave him bound outside in the elements for hours — disturbingly reminiscent of mistreatment inflicted on his slave ancestors.
Ben felt a calling to be a minister, but was also called by the comforts offered on the streets, drugs and sex, the self-salves to the invisible wounds of trauma. A quiet, gentle soul, somber and respectful, Ben’s placidity intermittently erupts into anger and impulsive actions.
Ben White image slideshow. More images can be found at