Brotherly Love: NoLibs Neighbor Gives a Man and His Dog a Second Chance
Sekou greets me at the front door of a modest row home on Cantrell Street in South Philadelphia. He’s dressed in gray sweats and red du-rag. He looks tired, but welcomes me with a warm smile. It’s a smile I’ll see often over the next two hours.
After we shake hands, his seven-year-old pitbull, Purpose, noses around to greet me. Sekou explains that she needs to check me out. After a few sniffs, I pet her on the head behind the ears. I’ve passed the test.
“Back, back, back,” Sekou tells her firmly. She backs up into the doorway, lumbering a bit with each step. Her frame isn’t quite used to the extra weight. She’s pregnant. “She’s due on March 17th,” Sekou says, flashing that signature smile.
We take a seat on an orange sectional and Sekou silently holds up four fingers to Purpose. She knows what that means. With a heavy sigh, she lies down at Sekou’s feet. She’s snoring within minutes.
I glance around the small, dimly lit living room. Since moving in two days earlier, Sekou has done his best to make the house feel like home. There’s a large mirror above the couch and a canvas to my left that reads, “Keep Calm and Love a Dog.”
It’s a far cry from where Sekou and Purpose have spent the last three months: living under an overpass at 5th and Callowhill Streets in Northern Liberties. That’s where they were staying when they met Charles Bowles, the man who would change their lives forever.
Sekou said he had a good feeling when he first met Charles. Recalling their first encounter, he talked about the positive energy he felt.
“I felt like he was a good person. I know positive energy,” Sekou said. “He looked at me like a human. A lot of people don’t do that.”
Sekou doesn’t necessarily fit society’s description of homelessness. His stubble is neatly trimmed. He carries himself with confidence and looks you in the eye when he speaks. There’s a constant air of positivity around him. And then there’s the dog at his side; exceedingly obedient and always well fed.
Sekou’s unwillingness to part with Purpose played a part in his homelessness. “A couple family members, a couple friends — at least a half dozen — offered me a place to stay, but either they couldn’t have dogs or they had dogs [already] and didn’t want conflicts,” he told me.
Sekou stressed throughout our conversation that he doesn’t like handouts. Even when he was on the street, he avoided panhandling and always worked to make a buck. Recently, he’d been selling pretzels and water outside the Electric Factory after concerts. He previously sold custom T-shirts at events and online through a website he promoted heavily on social media. His Facebook page shows him posing in his shirts with Governor Wolf and local celebrities like Ukee Washington.
Though he enjoys an occasional beer, he doesn’t touch hard drugs. His time on the street exposed him to people who would blow through hundreds of dollars a week on booze or drugs.
“That was never me,” Sekou said. Instead, the money he made went to feeding Purpose and toward paying for a handful of storage lockers where he kept most of his things.
Charles first met Sekou while walking his dog, Chase, through the neighborhood. The two men shared friendly chats three or four times before Charles found out from a neighbor that Sekou was homeless.
“I was shocked,” Bowles said. “He was always smiling, always in a great mood. I complain when my food delivery isn’t a perfect temperature, but he has such a positive attitude, even though there’s so much for him to complain about. I knew I needed to help him.“
Charles is in a better place to help than most. He makes a comfortable living managing a commercial real estate hedge fund. I gathered from our conversations that this is not the first time he’s helped someone in Sekou’s position. It’s clear that he’s connected with Sekou on a deeper and more personal level, however, in part because of his devotion to Purpose.
“He loves that dog so much that he was willing to turn down help to stay with her. How many people would do that?” he said. “Look, his attitude and his dog are the reason he’s off the street now. If he was just some mean guy who walked by me, I probably wouldn’t have paid him any mind.”
With help from neighbor Margot Woolley O’Neil, Charles was able to put Sekou and Purpose up in a motel while he looked for a more permanent home for them. He used his connections in real estate to find the place on Cantrell Street quickly. He paid six months of rent up front and gave Sekou some spending money to help make the place his own. It was not a small investment by any means, but it’s one that Charles hopes pays off in the end — not for himself, but for Sekou.
Charles posted about his plan to help on the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association Facebook page. Within hours, people were pitching in, offering to donate furniture, clothes and dog food. Charles brushed aside a few negative comments from neighbors who didn’t agree with his plan to help Sekou in such a personal and focused way.
“Don’t give him a house, give him a home,” Charles told me, responding to a few neighbors who took issue with his decision to buy Sekou a television, for instance.
“I want him to feel normal again. For the next six months, he’s going to know what it’s like to live as a normal human being again and I’m hoping that he doesn’t want to give it up. He seems to have a work ethic. He seems to have a drive,” Bowles said.
The next step is getting Purpose and her puppies healthy post-pregnancy. Charles has arranged for Don’t Bully Us, a pitbull rescue shelter based in Wenonah, NJ, to take the puppies and adopt them out when they’re ready to leave their mother. Three volunteers from the rescue shelter – Colleen, Mark and Judy – have been making regular house calls to check on the pups.
After things settle down, the plan is to get Sekou back to work by mid-April. Sekou has kept his driver’s license current and has aspirations to be an Uber driver. To that end, Charles has set up a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $5,000 toward a car.
This is a lot of change very quickly for Sekou, something that Charles acknowledged in our last meeting. It’s an ongoing process and one that the two men are taking day by day.
Charles told Sekou, “By May 1st, I want you back to work. By August 1st, though I’ll never leave your side, I want to know that I’m able to.”
You can follow Sekou and Purpose’s story on Facebook at “Sekou and Purpose,” or contribute to the GoFundMe campaign at https://www.gofundme.com/sekou-and-purpose. •