In June 2020, Skip Johnson became an unexpected poster child about homelessness.
Union Leader photographer David Lane captured Johnson as he sat at a bench at the side of the Hillsborough County courthouse in downtown Manchester.
His pillows and blankets lay behind him. Beside him stood two prosthetic legs, white gauze material connected to high-tech metal posts anchored to running shoes.
He was trim. He sported a white goatee. He had a sun-baked, ruddy complexion. I suspect his picture may have given officials some pause.
But five months later — once the weather turned cold — Gov. Chris Sununu cleared the encampments beside the state-owned courthouse.
Now the courthouse bench where Johnson used to sleep is sequestered behind a locked, black fence, where no one, homeless or not, can steal a few minutes of downtime.
Johnson, meanwhile, is doing rather well.
He and his girlfriend live in a two-bedroom apartment in the Hallsville neighborhood of the city. He’s legless and 62, but that doesn’t stop him from running a car and small-engine repair shop in the rear of his apartment building. He’s a guy who takes things in stride.
“You have to,” he said. “It ain’t gonna get any different. I can’t sit here and whine about it.”
He has battled alcoholism for years, and one night in November 2019 he was outside and passed out.
He woke with frostbite on his toes. Infection set in, and the following month doctors removed both legs below his knees. He was just getting used to his prosthetics and a walker when the Union Leader ran his photograph.
Within a week, he was drinking with friends. He fell. His left femur landed on a tree root, and another round of hospitalization and rehab ensued. He has been sober ever since, about 15 months.
“I’ve had enough, too many injuries,” Johnson said. He speaks softly, barely modulating a voice that calmly answers all my questions.
When moving around the house, he’s most often on his prosthetics.
“There’s constant pain. You learn to live with it. You’ve got to build up the endurance,” he said.
Johnson gets $1,349 a month in Social Security disability, he’s on Section 8 housing and he receives food stamps. He can earn up to $1,330 a month before his disability payments are reduced.
With the coming cold weather, he will eventually fold the canopy that shelters his outdoor workshop. He hopes to land a job with a mechanic or body shop.
“He’s very friendly, very sociable and low-key. A great guy,” said Larry Nice, executive director of Helping Hands Outreach Ministry, which took in Johnson after doctors put a pin in his shattered thigh bone.
He had Johnson answering telephones right away, and his six-month stay was short for most people at the drug- and alcohol-free shelter.
“Most people here don’t have missing legs, but they have lots of other burdens,” Nice said. One of the biggest is broken relationships, but Johnson has a good support network, Nice said.
Johnson said he’s staying sober by staying busy. All summer, it’s been car repairs.
He prefers body work, front-end repairs and brake work. He works on the cars of friends and neighbors. This summer, he swapped out the interior of a neighbor’s Chevrolet Tahoe with a Cadillac Escalade interior. He was able to maneuver around by leaving his prosthetics outside the vehicle, he said.
He also works on scooters, motorized wheelchairs and other vehicles that provide mobility for disabled people.
For his former homeless colleagues, he said help is available. (Nice echoed that sentiment, but added that Johnson’s disability moved him higher up on eligibility lists.)
“People don’t want to be on the streets, but they don’t try to get off the streets,” Johnson said. He’s not sure what to do about it. There are jobs out there, but hardcore homeless don’t want to work, he said.
“They want you to be miserable (at the shelter) so you’ll do better for yourself,” he said, “but it doesn’t work.”