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Oklahoma City man is finding his way home after life on the streets

After a life of violence, drugs and homelessness, longtime Oklahoma City resident Ronnie Hardiman has a place he can call home.
by Juliana Keeping Modified: August 25, 2013 at 6:00 pm •  Published: August 25, 2013

The unnamed victim bled “profusely from the head. ... Barely conscious.”

The words on the police report paint a vague account of the Aug. 8, 1996, crime that was barely noted and never solved.

But the incident marked the apex of violence in Ronnie Hardiman's life.

Hardiman, 56, has hurt and he has been hurt. The longtime resident of northeast Oklahoma City carries with him a history of the streets.

Gang members beat him senseless that August day near NE 17 and Lottie. His family members visited city hospitals in a panic. His sister, Brenda Byrd, went room to room until she found her brother, listed as “John Doe,” at OU Medical Center. At the time of the beating, he carried no ID and had to be identified through fingerprinting.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Byrd said.

Hardiman, a drug dealer for most of his life, said he had no use for the Bloods and Crips who came to Oklahoma City in the 1980s, except to steal the gang members' drugs and money.

“When you get into drugs and things like that, ain't nothing ever go right,” he said.

The clashes spurred violence.

As Hardiman, his new wife and her baby walked through a park, gang members approached them. He told his wife to take the baby and run. He stayed to fight.

“I snatched an ounce of crack from one of them guys,” he said.

“She's running with the baby, and I'm fighting these guys long enough for her to run away. I looks up and somebody hits me with a tire iron right across the face, and my eye comes out the socket. But I'm still fighting.”

Beaten to a pulp, the bones in his face bashed and broken, Hardiman was taken to the hospital. Hardiman slipped into a coma, where he said he looked the devil in the face.

“I laid there in a coma,” he said. “I woke up in hell. I saw the gritting and grinding of his teeth. Screaming and hollering and whining. He's up there, looking like a magnificent beast. ‘Come on!' And I know I'm dead.

“And here He comes, a little bright light. ‘If you wish to live, call my name. If you wish to live, call my name,'” he said. “Before he got to the third ‘If you wish to live,' I was screaming ‘Jesus.' And my eyes opened up. And I was back. He said, ‘Get up, and go on.'”

Seventeen years after the beating, Hardiman said he has found peace. Sitting at a kitchen table at his one-bedroom apartment in a brick building, he spoke about his life moving from love and family to drugs, crime and eventually, homelessness.

Seven months ago, he had nowhere to live.

The early years

Hardiman was born into a family that would eventually grow to a dozen children on the northeast side.

“I was a paperboy,” he said.

He attended Culbertson Elementary School. The previously all-white school had begun to integrate black students in 1955, two years before Hardiman was born. By the time Hardiman attended, all the white students had left.

Issues like integration were a backdrop of Hardiman's childhood.

Brenda Byrd, his older sister, remembered the siblings “making their own fun,” spending most of their free time playing in Washington Park. Skipping school was not an option. Neighbors looked out for neighbors and kept children in line.

“Everybody's mama knew who your mama was, everybody knew everybody,” she said.

Hardiman described his mother as “a lovely woman,” and deeply religious.

“We'd meet her at the bus stop after work. Help her carry her food sacks and groceries,” Byrd said.

The siblings attended church almost every day of the week.

“But I had no father,” Hardiman said.

Their stepfather didn't care for them, he and his sister said.

1962 on: Drugs and violence

Hardiman first smoked marijuana at age 7.

His sister did not know he'd gotten involved with drugs.

“I didn't know what was going on with him,” she said. “I think he mixed with the wrong crowd.”

Most people in that crowd were extended family members.

Hardiman committed his first violent crime, robbery, at 13.

He said he turned to robbery because “I had to survive.”

“When I was a youngster, I had no support,” he said.

He was supposed to attend Douglass High School, but went to Helena State School for Boys instead and stayed there until age 18.

1975 on: The Army and prison

The state would shut down the school for boys eight years after Hardiman left. A late-1970s federal lawsuit and a later Senate committee inquiry detailed allegations of physical abuse there. The abuse included widespread use of mechanical restraints as punishment and leaving youngsters in solitary confinement.

Hardiman said he spent 30 days in solitary confinement, which youngsters called the “box house,” after getting in a fight, but says he didn't experience abuse. He wanted to get out, and understood he had to follow rules to do that.

“If you were a hard head, they'd whoop you down and beat you,” he said.

After solitary, he stayed out of trouble at Helena and earned his high school diploma.

Upon his release at 18, he joined the Army.

While stationed in Germany, Hardiman began using heroin.

He also fell in love.

The young woman's father tried to keep his daughter away from Hardiman, according to Hardiman's sister.

“She was wanting to leave and be with him. Her daddy wouldn't let him,” Byrd said.

Hardiman stabbed the man 27 times.

“He was just an emotional type of person. He let women overrule him. He's always looking for love. He was looking for it in the wrong places,” Byrd said.

Hardiman was kicked out of the Army and sent to military prison at Fort Leavenworth on a sentence for attempted murder. He worked in the kitchen as a cook, a job he didn't mind.

After his release, he became hooked on cocaine and a variety of other drugs.

“It held me for many years,” he said.

He traveled to California at one point to straighten out his life. He was homeless, at different points living under a bridge or in a car.

In California, he worked at a furniture store before deciding to deal drugs again.

“Before too long, they were trying to kill me,” he said. So he returned to Oklahoma.

In 1989, Hardiman met the woman who would become his wife.

Three years later, he was sent to LaTuna Federal Correctional Institution in El Paso, Texas, after being convicted of attempting to forge checks. He was released in October that year.

The time he spent locked up, on and off, for a host of offenses, eventually totaled 15 years, he said.

1996 on: Work and drugs

“In 1996 is when I had my own business going on,” he said. “I was a roofer-remodeler. I don't learn from school. I learned from hands-on.”

In the past, Hardiman had worked for an Oklahoma City construction company, renovating apartment buildings.

“These guys taught me well,” he said “I could rip something to pieces and put it back together and make it look like brand new.”

Throughout his adult life, he would deal drugs. He would get a job. Then he would return to dealing.

After the 1996 attack by gang members, Hardiman's recovery from his beating and coma was long and arduous. He spent time in a rehabilitation facility and a nursing home, Byrd said.

“He got hung up in the street life, and that's what happened to his body, period,” his sister said.

He wasn't supposed to survive. He was supposed to die, or to be a vegetable.

Hardiman said, “By God's grace, here I am.”

2009 on: Family issues

Hardiman and his wife moved into his mother's home to care for her. She was in her late 80s, blind and dying of cancer. Byrd took their mother to her home, but Hardiman and his wife stayed. His mother died in September.

In 2012, Hardiman and his wife were taking care of his stepfather, who was in his late 90s.

He said other relatives who had moved in were dealing drugs from the house, which led to a violent confrontation. An Oklahoma City police incident report from Dec. 2 stated a relative was locked out of the house and broke a window. Hardiman slashed her cheek with glass. She didn't want to press charges. Hardiman told police the relative didn't live there.

“Oh, we had a big ol' blowout,” he said.

2013: A new home

With Hardiman's stepfather living in a nursing home, he and his wife left his mother's house to avoid being around drug activity and getting into trouble with police.

“I'm an ex-felon. Who they gonna grab first? Me,” he said.

His wife left early in the year to live with her mother, who she cares for. Hardiman moved into the City Rescue Mission in downtown Oklahoma City.

His history with drugs, homelessness and medical problems qualified Hardiman for quicker access to public housing. He is one of more than 100 chronically homeless people who have gained housing through a program initiated by The Homeless Alliance.

Hardiman and his wife moved into a furnished, one-bedroom apartment on the northeast side in April.

“I've been clean and sober for the past six, seven months,” he said.

His case manager, Emon Chavers, with the nonprofit Be the Change, said he sees positive changes in his client, who has stayed away from drugs and alcohol.

“Knowing that he stopped doing that really feels like an accomplishment,” Chavers said.

After his beating 17 years ago, Hardiman suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left side. He has walked with a crutch ever since, his left side drooping and his speech vaguely slurred. He has arthritis, but is walking with less pain, Chavers said.

Hardiman's sister has also seen positive changes.

In the past, her brother frustrated her, because money he was supposed to use for housing would instead go to drugs or alcohol.

“He had an excuse for everybody,” she said. “Well, some things you have to get up and fix yourself.”

She is optimistic he's on the right track.

“I don't feel like he's going to get in any more trouble,” she said.

Hardiman said he has gone through life feeling alone. He sees the recent boost of help as meaningful.

“I've slowed down and thought about everything,” Hardiman said. “All I've had, all I've lost, but what I have is what counts. I can't believe people are still willing to help even an old man like me. I'm a felon, still crazy as a whip, but still, someone is willing to help me.”

He is on his ninth crutch. He has broken past crutches in confrontations with family members and on the streets. He has handed out beatings with his crutch. He has been beaten with it. This is a fact he finds both ridiculous and sad.

But he said he is done breaking crutches.

There is something he'd like people to know:

“Hey, there is help for you. Never quit. Never give in. There's always a way out, if you choose. You know?”

Contributing: News Research Editor Linda Lynn

by Juliana Keeping
Enterprise Reporter
Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award...
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