“MY bridge!”

Joe’s bridge, on Buford Highway, just north of Lenox Road in Atlanta.

This story is the second in a series from Atlanta Tech Blogs. We have adopted Atlanta Mission as our nonprofit, and we will tell the stories of their work and the fruits of their labor. This article originally appeared on Atlanta Tech Blogs.

“It was MY bridge. My rules. My people. If you wanted to come under that my bridge, you had to come through me.”

Like a Boss in a Mafia movie, Joe describes the power he held. “I had a baseball bat. That was all I needed. I could take them down by the legs if I had to. But everyone understood that I was in charge.” And like a Mob Boss, Joe didn’t tolerate any dissent. He also did not allow any drugs under his bridge. Only alcohol and cigarettes. No drugs and no violence.

“I tried crack once. I went nuts…ran out on the streets with my baseball bat all paranoid and wanting to just hit something. I had to drink a lot to come down from that. Never did that again.”

The power that Joe earned and then exhibited came from years of training. At home. From his father. “Dad was very successful. We lived well. But he was never there. Traveled every week from Monday to Friday, leaving us six boys and a girl for Mama to take care of. While he was traveling, he was running around on Mama, so she started drinking. If everything wasn’t just perfect when he got home on Friday, he’d beat the hell out of all of us, starting with Mama. She’d be drinking all week, so nothing was right when he got home, and he made sure we knew about it. It was a big relief for everyone when he left every Monday morning.”

Joe D’Anna (pronounced DE-Anna) left home at age 17 and became a truck driver, for the most part, and also worked in construction to support his two sons from two of his three ex-wives. The only example of a Dad he ever had was the man who beat him, his mother, and his brothers every week, and beat Joe all the more because Joe refused to ever cry. His dad’s only goal was to make him cry. Joe never cried.

That toughness got Joe the position that has no title, other than “the person to whom the bridge in the 2800 block of Buford Highway belongs”, and enabled him to witness the deaths of no fewer than ten people, including his nephew who overdosed on drugs.

That nephew was the son of Joe’s brother, the only brother that Joe has spoken to in more than 20 years. Joe went to stay with his brother for a few weeks back in 2012, but it didn’t last long. “He’s very difficult to get along with,” Joe told me. Joe’s brother is an alcoholic.

That instance in 2012 was one among a string of events that ultimately led to Joe’s unceremonious removal as the owner of the bridge in the 2800 block of Buford Highway, just north of Lenox Road. That string of events had started when someone tried to take Joe out by setting him on fire. Joe had given shelter to a friend, and he saved that friend’s life that night as well. Unfortunately, Joe lost all his earthly possessions in that fire.

Looking back, Joe recalled, “I was tough. When I was 4 or 5, I got run over by a car and dragged halfway down the street while holding on to the underside of the car.” Joe’s childhood had, unfortunately, prepared him well for his adulthood.

“I had to get a new ID, new clothes, blankets, everything.” But that was the least of Joe’s worries after the fire. He had been badly burned on his leg and upper right arm. The EMTs who responded to the fire took Joe to Northside Hospital, where he was given some cream for his burns and put back out on the street. After managing to get back to his bridge by bus, he couldn’t stand up on his own, so bad were his injuries, and infection was already beginning to set in.

While owning the bridge in the 2800 block of Buford Highway, just north of Lenox Road, Joe had become friends with a Police Officer named Jeremy Turner. Officer Turner realized quickly that Joe wasn’t going to be able to make it very long without proper treatment for his burns, so he took Joe to Grady Hospital. Grady is renown for its burn unit, and Joe still raves at the treatment he received. “All you can see is this little bitty scar where they sewed on the skin graft!”

Officer Turner, who started and still runs Contribute2America, a nonprofit created to help fill the void in current services for Atlanta’s homeless population, put Joe up in a hotel room for 3 weeks, using some of his own money and some contributions from C2A to pay for Joe’s room, food, water, and medical treatment. Officer Turner visited Joe every day for those three weeks to change his bandages.

“Police Officers don’t make a whole lot of money, and I couldn’t let him keep paying for that hotel room.” Joe then went out to Loganville to stay with his brother, the brother that is “difficult to get along with,” but that didn’t last very long, and Joe returned to his bridge.

A couple from Alpharetta had begun visiting Joe once a week, bringing him food, water, whatever he may need, and generally just being a friend to Joe. When Joe returned to his bridge, Al and Suzanne continued to visit him, while his condition from the burns worsened. The skin grafts had healed well, but the infection remained, and got steadily worse. Still, Al and Suzanne came to see Joe every week, faithfully, until the spring of 2013, when Suzanne could no longer bear the site that Joe had become.

“She’d just look at me and cry. Finally, just Al would come visit each week. I had given up. I had fluid draining out of my ears and nose from the infection. I was sick as I could be. I didn’t care. I just wanted to die. I gave up.”

But Al did had not given up on Joe. Al prodded, cajoled, pleaded, and finally begged Joe to get help. When Al explained to Joe how upsetting it was for Suzanne to see Joe this way after they had been visiting him under that bridge every Saturday for three years, that pushed Joe over the edge. He couldn’t fight Al anymore.

“But who’s gonna take me in?” Joe pleaded with Al.

“I think Emory will,” said Al.

Joe got a good laugh at that one as he recalled his earlier treatment at Northside Hospital, but Al was insistent, and he drove Joe to Emory Hospital.

They took him in. They treated him. They gave him a private room. They kept him there for 21 days, during which time Joe’s heart stopped beating from the DTs and they had to revive him and then he completely destroyed his room and doesn’t remember one second of it until he woke up fastened to his bed with Al at his side.

Joe, undergoing treatment at Emory University Hostpital

“What happened to my room?!?” Joe had asked. Al explained to him that Joe himself had simply gone completely wild and destroyed the room.

Joe received every medical attention he required at Emory Hospital for three weeks at no charge. For the first time in many, many years, Joe was sober.

During those 21 days that Joe was at Emory, Al had spoken to Atlanta Mission about Joe. They were not optimistic. Joe smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and had been drinking more than 5 bottles of liquor each day prior to his stay at Emory, and, despite the care he received at Emory, he still had a long way to go to heal and get rid of his infection. He was barely alive.

Living quarters at Atlanta Mission’s “The Shepherd’s Inn” in downtown Atlanta.

Again, to his and Al’s surprise, Atlanta Mission accepted him into their Personal Development Program (PDP), though nobody would speak to him, and he was later told that they had never let anyone join the program in the condition Joe was in when he arrived. Joe officially checked in to Atlanta Mission on June 5, 2013. A couple of weeks after Joe had received a haircut and shaved his beard, one of the Atlanta Mission staff had to stop and apologize for not talking to Joe, simply because he hadn’t recognized him.

Two week’s ago, on June 4, 2015, Joe graduated from Atlanta Mission, and is now an employee there, as well as at his church in downtown Atlanta.

“God made it clear that my time under the bridge was over, and it was time to start a new chapter.” Joe has not picked up another cigarette and has not had a drink in more than two years. “I think God allowed me to live like I did so He could heal me like He did, so I would know that it was His doing and nothing that I did. I had given up, but God never gave up on me. God was with me the entire time. I had turned by back on Him.”

Joe D’Anna in the clothing supply room at Atlanta Mission.

I was blessed to see Joe graduate from Atlanta Mission two weeks ago, and even more blessed to spend a few hours getting to know him this past Saturday afternoon. As our time came to a close, I asked Joe the question that had been burning in my mind since I first heard the name “Joe D’Anna”:

“How did you end up living under a bridge?”

To my great surprise and shock, he answered without so much as a blink. “I had inherited some money when my Dad died, and some more when my Mother passed away. I gave it all to my two sons. I had some more money saved up. I gave that to my sons as well. I parked my semi truck in the parking lot near that bridge, bought a 12-pack of beer, went up under the bridge, and quit. Living under the bridge, I got comfortable. It grew on me. I was tough, and I knew I could survive. The beatings my Dad gave me became my example, and I owned that bridge. It was my bridge, and I got to where I liked it. I chose to live under that bridge.”

Today, Joe D’Anna answers to “Uncle Joe” when he visits Al and Suzanne and their kids and grandkids. He visits often with his friend, Officer Jeremy Turner. God never gave up on Joe, and neither did Al, Suzanne, or Officer Turner.

“Every day for sixteen years, I woke up under a bridge and had to have cigarettes and alcohol first thing in the morning. I looked forward to it. Now I look forward to reading my Bible and helping my brothers who are where I used to be.”

Joe with one of his friends, under the bridge that Joe used to run.

Joe is still very well known under the bridge in the 2800 block of Buford Highway, just north of Lenox Road, 3 1/2 miles from the heart of Buckhead, and he visits his friends there every week or so.

“God didn’t give up on me. I’m not giving up on them.”

We make choices every day, good and bad. Please share this story if someone has never given up on you.