Discovering what Willie McKinney ‘didn’t know’

It was one month ago today that I was lucky enough to join the AID Atlanta Board of Directors.  That day the AID Atlanta staff asked four clients to share their personal journeys. Each one told a heart-breaking story. Despite living with a life-threatening disease, each person shared their hope, love and joy.

I was particularly struck — nearly to the point of tears — by Willie McKinney. Less than six months ago, Mr. McKinney was homeless and standing on the ledge of a bridge. He said he had walked past that bridge many times before and each time thought about jumping. But this day was different. He knew he finally had the courage to do it so he took a step up and looked down.

Mr. McKinney, an alcoholic, didn’t intend to end up homeless. He didn’t lock the door one day and forget to call home. He didn’t walk out on his family and disappear into a life on the edge of society.  Mr. McKinney ended up homeless the same way many people and many families do — gradually, one crisis after another.

For Mr. McKinney, it started when his wife died. She had been sick for a long time and Mr. McKinney stuck by her side for all of it. On one particular visit to the hospital, the doctor seemed surprised to learn that Mr. McKinney “didn’t know.”

After a private conversation with his patient, the doctor invited Mr. McKinney back into the room and disclosed that his wife had AIDS. He directed Mr. McKinney to a clinic across the street. Before the afternoon was over, Mr. McKinney learned that he was HIV-positive, too.

Mr. McKinney’s wife eventually died. He was heartbroken. He was also scared. And soon enough, he found himself sleeping in the shadows of Turner Field. His home was just a stack of blankets in an empty parking lot across from a BP station.

I don’t remember the exact details but I believe Mr. McKinney said he spent three years without a home. That led him to the highway overpass and his decision to end the emotional pain he could find no other way to escape.

For Mr. McKinney, fate stepped in. A police officer coaxed him off the bridge with the lure of a free beer. What happened next isn’t nearly as simple as it seems or as easy as Mr. McKinney tells it. He was directed to AID Atlanta where Shabaura Cobb, a medical case manager, coordinated a complex web of services that changed her client’s life.

Tonight, Mr. McKinney graduates from Positive Impact, which provides HIV risk-reduction and prevention programs for thousands of men and women just like Mr. McKinney.

I’m honored to be invited by Mr. McKinney to the ceremony. And I’m sharing his story at his request. I’m proud of his achievements and understand how hard-fought they are.

Congratulations, Mr. McKinney.


  1. Very nice, Bryan.

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