Kenneth Smith was evicted from his apartment about four years ago and became homeless.
He spent his days panhandling in Fort Worth, Texas, hoping to collect enough money to get a motel room for about $55 a night. He often felt like giving up on life.
“I was feeling hopeless without a job,” said Smith, 50.
At the end of last year, he discovered comfortable outdoor seating at an Outback Steakhouse that was a short bus ride from his motel, and he started hanging out there. As customers came out of the restaurant, Smith would hold out his hand, asking for change or anything that would help him get something to eat.
One day, about two weeks after he’d found the comfortable chairs at Outback, Smith fell asleep in one of them. A woman woke him up with a tap on the shoulder.
“Are you all right?” he recalled her asking.
“I’m actually hungry,” Smith replied.
She went inside, bought a $100 gift card, and gave it to him. Right away, Smith walked in to sit down and get a hot meal. Laura Hodges, the restaurant’s managing partner, noticed him and struck up a conversation. He told her about the woman’s random act of kindness, and Hodges was moved.
“I said, ‘Hey listen, I’m so glad she did that, but I don’t ever want you to want for food,’ ” Hodges said. She told him to keep the gift card and made Smith an offer: If you’re in the area and need a hot meal, come on in.
Grateful, Smith took her up on it and stopped by to eat a few times a week.
Soon, Hodges had a better offer for her frequent guest: Would Smith, who had offered to do odd jobs like washing windows for $20, like to join the payroll and have a steady job?
She had an opening for a busser and offered it to Smith, who accepted.
“I said, ‘Hey, do you want a job?’ ” Hodges recalled. “He said, ‘Oh my God, do I?'”
Smith almost couldn’t believe it.
“I was overwhelmed — I was like really shocked,” Smith said.
Smith has been working at the Fort Worth Outback for about a month, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
“She hired me; I couldn’t believe it,” Smith said. “It was exciting. It’s an honor, it’s a privilege of me being there, and she’s a real nice lady.”
He was so glad to have a job rather than swallowing his pride and asking for change from strangers.
“It feels good not to just go out there and have my hand out,” he said.
Hodges learned that the small motel where Smith was staying raised the price, so she turned to an online group called Fort Worth Foodies to see if she could help him find affordable lodging.
Plenty of people in the group, which has almost 38,000 members, jumped in to help and raised more than $2,000 in 24 hours — enough to cover about five weeks at an extended-stay hotel across the street from the restaurant. People also offered clothing, food, household items and bikes.
Connie Bally, creator of Fort Worth Foodies, was thrilled by the outpouring of generosity.
She said homeless people are often invisible, but Hodges saw Smith “and she took care of him. I just thought it was a beautiful story.”
Dallas-Fort Worth media covered the story, and restaurant diners sometimes recognize Smith and greet him as he cleans tables.
“He is … a bit shy about all this attention, but he is eternally grateful for it,” Hodges said.
She said Smith has a strong work ethic, and he “goes above and beyond, for sure,” even volunteering for tasks outside his job description, like mopping the patio when he isn’t busy bussing.
“This is his foot in the door,” Hodges said. “And we want to work up to bigger things and better things.”
His past jobs, he said, have included working for fast-food restaurants.
Smith, who grew up in public housing in Fort Worth, said his parents and grandparents have all died, and he doesn’t have much contact with other family that would provide a safety net. He said after he was evicted from his apartment several years ago, he didn’t have anywhere to go.
Now, he said, he has ambitions to maybe open his own restaurant someday. But first he has to continue to stabilize. When the money covering his extended hotel stay runs out, Smith hopes to get an apartment. He is trying to save as much money as he can, though it is a challenge. He makes $6 an hour plus tips as a busser. Similar to restaurant servers, hourly wages are low for bussers because they earn tips.
“Right now, I’m on that first ladder step trying to make my way up,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
For now, he is enjoying his new job and co-workers.
“I love the things that I do there,” Smith said. “They are very respectful people. They respect me as well as I respect them. We get along really well with each other.”
He said working with the rest of the restaurant staff to keep the tables clean and the customers fed and happy feels like being part of a team.
“It’s like being on the football team,” he said. “Trying to make a home run – that’s what we do.”