Rome pilgrimage gives homeless man a new perspective on life

Elise Harris

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Derrick Yearout, far left, on a recent pilgrimage to Rome. Photo courtesy of Tanya Cangelosi.

Derrick Yearout has come a long way from his homeless, drug-addicted days. After changing his life and getting off the streets he made a pilgrimage to Rome, which he says has given him a new outlook on life.

“Do I feel that the trip to Rome made a difference in my life? Yes, it has. It has allowed me to look at how I used to be and how I am now by opening my eyes to the world as it is, and not how I thought it was,” Yearout told CNA Oct. 27, shortly after returning from Rome.

Yearout – known as “Tree” on the streets – is the second homeless person selected to go on pilgrimage to Rome through Denver Homeless Ministries (DHM). The first was Clarissa “Glitterbear” Salazar in 2014.

As an organization committed to providing awareness of homeless persons in the Denver community and providing opportunities to serve them as both equals and friends, DHM offers the pilgrimage as a way to inspire those committed to changing their lives.

This year’s pilgrimage lasted from Oct. 19-22 and consisted of Yearout, trip organizer Tanya Cangelosi, and Fr. Michael O'Loughlin, a Ruthenian priest of the Eparchy of Holy Protection of Mary of Phoenix.

In a brief bio before the trip, Yearout said he wanted to go because “it’s a once in a lifetime thing for me to do, I would love to see what's it like there. It might make a difference in my life, I don't know.”

The verdict from Yearout after the trip – it definitely has.

Prior to getting involved with DHM, Yearout spent his youth making the rounds in different foster care houses and group homes before landing on the streets at 18, where he live the remainder of his life until now.

In 1970 both of his parents were patients at Pueblo Psychiatric Hospital, where they met, fell in love and – due to a lack of security – got pregnant.

After becoming pregnant with him, Yearout’s mother tried to abort him, but the doctors prevented her. Instead, he was given up to social services, but not before spending a few years with his abusive father.

“He beat me the whole time and used me, it was just a painful experience,” Yearout said in his biography. It was also through his dad that he first came into contact with meth.

In his comments to CNA, Yearout said that he was stuck on meth “for a long time,” and that his dad got him hooked by convincing him to work for free, getting paid in drugs.

As a painter, his dad would at times make $1,200 on one job, and although Yearout never saw a dime, he got “all the free meth” he wanted.

It wasn’t until Yearout met a girl on the streets named “Stump” that he was able to get clean and stay that way. She told him to stop using and made him sit in a tent for four days smoking only marijuana. He’s been off meth ever since.

After he was sent to foster care, Yearout said he “acted up,” and was placed in the children’s unit of Fort Logan State Hospital.

“It was like hell, I was 5 years old. I stayed there until I was 7 years old,” he said. It was after that that he ran away, and was picked up again only to be put in a lock down unit until he was 10.

He was then transferred to Colorado Christian Home, where he stayed until he was 14. That’s when he first came downtown on the run and met the “Gutterpunks” (street kids), who soon became the family he never had.

Yearout told CNA that he found life on the streets safer, because “in the group homes they would beat me and hurt me in ways that are hard for me to talk about.”

Though he rose up the street ranks fast by stealing food to feed himself and his street family, Yearout said that it hasn’t been easy, and that he was never given a real chance in life, and has never been to school.

On the streets, “there are no safe places to sleep. Some nights I would sleep in a dumper to stay warm along with all the trash. And trying to find food was just as hard; no one would just give me food, I had to earn it by pan-handling – that means I had to beg for money to feed myself.”

However, with the help of Cangelosi, DHM and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, he is off the streets, and got an apartment roughly three months before coming to Rome. Yearout – who had been toothless – was also able to get a full set of dentures when he returned.

Cangelosi told CNA Oct. 27 that she first met Tree (Yearout’s street name) about six years ago, and was amazed by how the street kids trusted and looked up to him, since they “usually shy away from older street people.”

When asked why she thought Yearout would be a good candidate to go to Rome, Cangelosi said she believes that God is the one who chose him.

“Somebody came up behind me and gave me a hug. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that person was to go to Rome. Until I turned around, I didn't even know it was Tree,” she said.

Although it’s too early to see what the fruits of the trip will be in Yearout’s life, Cangelosi said for Clarissa Salazar – the first homeless person to make DHM’s pilgrimage to Rome – her whole life has turned around.

“She regained full custody of both of her children two days after we returned. Within a few months she was able to land a job and has been working at the same place since,” and attends a Christian Church every week.

Cangelosi said Salazar has also given up most of her street friends in order to “be a mom and raise her children in the path that they should go.”

“She is an amazing woman that I look up to…I believe she has broken cycle of homelessness for herself and her family.”

As for Yearout, Cangelosi believes that the bond he formed with the priest who accompanied them, Fr. Michael, will play an important role in the months ahead.

“This trip Tree questioned Father Michael over and over and over again about becoming Catholic,” whereas prior to the trip “all he talked about, to us, was the Catholic conspiracy theory. So all in all, the Lord knows what he's doing.”

Yearout told CNA that one of the things he wants to do now that he’s back in Denver is “learn more from the Catholics and see how to make my life more like the time I spent in Rome!”

While in Rome the group attended one of Pope Francis’ Wednesday general audiences. Yearout said that what struck him about the Pope is the way he helped the homeless.

“He did not turn anyone away. It was like a warm feeling inside when I was near him.”

Other highlights of the trip for him were meeting new people, and visiting the Colosseum. A favorite for everyone, though, was being able to work alongside the Missionaries of Charity, washing sheets and dishes while praying the rosary.

Cangelosi said that while she expects Yearout to stay off the streets, he will also most likely continue helping those who still live there, “especially by his example of improving his life.”

Although she is eager for a break, Cangelosi said that if the Lord asks her to lead another pilgrimage next year, she wouldn’t hesitate to do it.

“If the Lord says go, I will go. I have no question about the finances as He always takes care of the details,” she said, adding that “my love for the Lord grows deeper and deeper with each step I take.”

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