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  • Tara Crutchfield

RussellMania

Twenty-nine-year-old Russell was born in Fort Lauderdale. He was an only child for nine years before his little brother came along. The siblings didn’t exactly get along, but that’s changing now. “It was good at first, then it got bad, and it’s slowly working itself to where we’re starting to get along again,” he said.


As a kid, he was into Hot Wheels, sports cards, and the WWE. As he got older, things got harder. Life no longer revolved around toy cars and favorite wrestlers. “I’ve went through a lot,” he said.


In his early twenties, Russell, his mother, and his brother were homeless, staying in someone else’s house. After a disagreement at the home, Russell was dropped off at Lighthouse Ministries. He’s been homeless on and off since April 2017. “It really hurt knowing that I had nobody there for me at that time,” he said. “But the City of Lakeland is so great. I’ve had a small community around me.”


Russell had a few jobs that didn’t pay well, but “I was trying to find my way,” he said. Eventually, he moved to the Talbot House. “There were nights that I couldn’t sleep, or when I’d try to go check in, they were full,” he said. “It was hard on me, being autistic and having nowhere to lay my head down at night sometimes.”


“It was rough,” he said of his experience. When he stopped working, he could finally get a bed and a shower each day at Talbot House. From there, he found his way to New Life, an outreach ministry that helped him get off the streets. He was there for 18 months. “Once I started living with them, I started getting better. I felt like I was climbing the ladder to get out of homelessness.”


Russell was eventually kicked out of the program after an incident he didn’t want to discuss. He leaned on his good friend, Travis Doodles, YouTuber and founder of Worth and Purpose ministries. His friend put him up at the Paramount for six months until Russell expressed an interest in a home of his own. Travis helped Russell get into Gospel Village. “I literally found out two months ago that I was moving in,” Russell said. He’d only been there for six weeks when we spoke.


He described the feeling of having his own space. “Good. I’m like, ‘Finally, I can just be myself and not have to worry about what’s going on with other people. I can just focus on myself.’”


“I can lay in my bed all day without having to get up,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty nice bed in there.”


Russell helps out around Gospel Village whenever he can and attends classes at the Peace River Center. According to Russell, they discuss topics like emotions, stress, and disability. “I can learn from them as much as possible,” he said. Now, at a steady place in life, Russell regularly talks to his mom and brother, who are no longer homeless.


The Gospel Village resident dreams of becoming a YouTuber. He often appears in Travis Doodles’ videos and says he’s trying to build his fan base. Russell pulled out his phone to show us the latest video he’d made with Travis Doodles. “We entered into the Slim Jim competition to go to WrestleMania,” he said excitedly.


He said his videos would focus on autism awareness. “Seeing people on the spectrum, like myself, I’m a lot smarter than people give me credit for,” he said in a YouTube interview with Travis Doodles. “Don’t let your disability get the best of you. If you have a dream – chase it!”


Mainly, Russell wishes people would be more upfront with him as a person with autism. “Yes, we may be autistic, but we’re people too,” he said. “Autistic people don’t get treated the greatest. [...] We may be different in a lot of ways, but if there’s a way that we can share what we like with other people in the world, maybe they’ll understand you need to treat these people better.”


Along with dreams of YouTube stardom, home ownership may be in Russell’s future. “I’ve got to save up money to buy my own place,” he said.


The young man had advice for other people experiencing homelessness. “Be in God, keep praying. Don’t give up because if I would have given up, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today,” he said. “I’ve been one of His for 15 years. […] Because of Him, I got to do probably some of the coolest stuff that other people don’t get to do.” Some of that ‘cool stuff’ includes attending a Miami Heat game the season they won the NBA championship. He’s been to Orlando Magic games, Monster Jam, and the WWE Royal Rumble. “If you don’t experience it in person, you won’t know what it’s like,” he said.


“We’re humans, and we do make mistakes, but don’t judge us for the mistakes we made,” Russell said of being unsheltered. “Don’t treat us like we’re nothing. They have a life, too. It’s just that life for them is different from everybody else’s.”


Following the interview, Russell invited us to see his place. A smile spread across his face as he retrieved the Championship Belt that Logan Paul sent him. He even had a wrestling-themed bedspread. The Serenity Prayer is posted on the door of his home.


God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


It’s a celebration of his recovery journey. “It means so much,” he said.


Photograph by Amy Sexson

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