By Laura Nott, Live Well San Diego Support Team, on behalf of Uplift San Diego.
Jexsi Grey has lived the kind of life he would not wish upon anyone.
The Air Force veteran was sleeping in his car on the streets of San Francisco, scrounging for food and using heroin, meth and a “slew” of other substances. He sensed death was on his trail, and it was gaining on him.
But in a turnaround story made for the movies, Grey has found a new purpose in helping others in need. Today, the 34-year-old is sought out as a respected advocate for the homeless, a popular public speaker and an advisor to San Diego’s community leaders.
His road to redemption began with a return to his family home in Missouri, followed by a yearlong recovery program, a move back out West in 2021 and, finally, a fateful encounter with Uplift San Diego. Uplift, which has provided free services to low-income students and people experiencing homelessness since 1987, quickly put a roof over his head. That’s what Uplift San Diego does. The community services organization first aims to provide shelter, but also offers job training, credit repair, and help with medical needs for those who are ready to cross the bridge that separates homelessness from a place in society.
For Grey, Uplift San Diego didn’t only lead him across that bridge. It became his calling.
“I wanted to work directly with clients to help them navigate the system because I knew how difficult it was,” he said. “I also meet with construction companies that focus on affordable housing and faith-based organizations. A lot of the churches have properties that would be a great fit with Uplift. It’s kind of hard to articulate exactly what I do because I work under all of these different umbrellas.”
Humanizing the Homeless
There are many faces of homelessness. It is a diverse population, who for a host of reasons can no longer afford the cost of housing. Unfortunately, homelessness carries with it stereotypes that lead us away from feelings of compassion and empathy for those experiencing homelessness.
“I’m hoping I can be impactful and help make a difference,” Grey said. “I want to change the perception of people who are struggling. I’ve been there, I’ve lived it, I get it.”
Grey was a nuclear munitions expert in the Air Force, has an associate’s degree in computer science, and recently received his real estate license. But because of his struggle with substance use disorder, he ended up having to live in his car. When speaking before policymakers, his goal is to humanize those experiencing homelessness by sharing his own lived experience.
Grey’s ascendance began when he crossed paths with Uplift during a
visit to church shortly after he arrived in San Diego. Soon he was
moving into subsidized housing for veterans arranged by Uplift. Then
he began counseling others in need of help, matching the formerly
homeless with necessary services. Today, Grey has joined Uplift’s
board, dedicated to guiding people on the road he once traveled
through the process of becoming housed.
Grey also serves as a consultant for Lived Experience Advisors, a group of currently or formerly unhoused people who advocate for the homeless. He has lobbied for legislation as a member of the Residents United Network, been featured on a KPBS panel discussion and worked with San Diego Taxpayers Educational Foundations board on streamlining funding allocation.
Grey recently sat down with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria to discuss solutions for homeless veterans. San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said it was an honor to meet him.
“I had the privilege of first hearing Jexsi's story this past November, and was so inspired by his strength,” Supervisor Fletcher recently wrote on Twitter. “I’m grateful for his support in our work together to end veteran homelessness here in SD.”
On this day, he’s working with Humble Design, an organization with a unique role when it comes to helping the unhoused – and a partner of Uplift, one of about 20 local agencies who refer clients to them. Professional interior designers and movers, Humble Design staff and their army of volunteers choose donated furniture and decorations for those who are moving into an apartment or house -- many for the first time. Clients are asked about their favorite colors, preference in furniture, their hobbies or interests and what their children like. Each home design is unique to the client being served. One of the only rules at Humble Design is that whenever they serve clients with children, the kids get their names or initials framed and hung beside their beds -- many of whom have never had a bed before.
“There are so many people in the system who haven’t felt like real people for so long,” said Humble Design City Director Laura Lavoie. “They’ve been treated like a number – a problem to be solved. So when someone asks them, ‘What do you like,’ ‘What’s important to you,’ ‘What makes your children’s eyes light up,’ it’s profound. Our Humble team does everything that we can for our clients because they are beautiful people who deserve dignity, respect, and beauty.”
Grey spent the day at Humble Design with a T-square, cutting a rug pad for the next day’s delivery, and loading a truck with lamps, furniture and other home goods. As he was volunteering, he was also mulling the opportunity to interview for the organization’s Advisory Board. He felt compelled, and wondered aloud if he could fit “The Humbleverse,” as they call themselves, into his schedule.
Before he found Uplift, the days were dragging. Grey took a trip to the mountains and was driving around aimlessly near Lake Isabella in the southern Sierra Nevada when his turning point came.
“I remember the sky looked ominous,” he said. “I felt like I’d seen a hand that was coming down over me and it was like I was pinned in my car seat. It ended up feeling like Jesus Christ, even though I was agnostic at the time. Whatever it was, a spiritual encounter or psychosis, it scared me straight.”
Grey was soon on his way back home to Missouri where he entered an intense veteran’s rehab program. After a year of treatment and free from the grips of his addiction, he planned to return to San Francisco. But in a fateful decision, he began his trip to California on the southern end of the state, encountered Uplift San Diego and his new life as a counselor and advocate was underway.
When asked how it feels to move from the streets to standing shoulder to shoulder with local policymakers, Grey pauses, smiles, and says he feels like it’s a case of “impostor syndrome.”
“Things have gone really quickly for me,” he said.
Then he heads back to supplies at the Humble warehouse for another heavy load to fill the truck.
Contact Uplift or Humble Design if you or someone you know could benefit from their services. If you’d like to volunteer, both organizations are always looking for people to help serve the community.