Josh Kanary: An Intimate Portrait from a Co-Worker

Josh giving thumbs up with the activists helping to drive homeless people to vote in 2008

Anyone who met Josh Kanary would describe him as kind, but he was far more than a surface-level "nice person." He was a guy who devoted his life to helping people -- to fight for the underdog, to focus on the otherwise forgotten. He was a homeless advocate, a community organizer, a self-described "oddity in an American world" who was about to receive his master's degree in social work. I met Josh while working at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH). We both worked as AmeriCorps*VISTAs and quickly became good friends.

Originally from Toledo, Josh was already working at NEOCH before I arrived. I remember him in the office, quiet and very polite. We were both involved in civil rights and advocacy, and quickly began collaborating on projects. During this time (in 2007) homeless people were increasingly subjected to hate crimes. Stories came out, nationally and locally, of homeless people being randomly assaulted by young men, many from the suburbs, who took videos of their attacks in some sort of prank. Josh was, rightly so, sickened by all this.

As the attacks increased (and some guys were making money selling these videos), the mainstream media took notice -- even Dr. Phil, who was running an episode wherein he confronted a guy at the forefront of these assault videos. Josh didn't know me well at the time, but he really wanted to see the show and didn't have cable. I remember him asking, sheepishly, if he could maybe, possibly, if it wasn't any trouble come over to my place and watch the show. I said yes, of course, and this was the start of us not only becoming partners-in-advocacy, but good friends.

We decided to focus on documenting hate crimes committed against homeless people in Cleveland. Together we took calls and met with people attacked on the streets and were both deeply affected by the stories we heard -- ambush attacks, stolen dogs, a whole lot of confusion. It was heartbreaking. Josh listened to countless stories of hardships. He never judged or jumped to conclusions -- he just listened with sincerity, documented everything and encouraged people to make police reports.

He had the idea of collecting national news stories of hate crimes to track where they were occurring. This research became part of the National Coalition for the Homeless' annual hate crimes report. I can remember him dropping news clippings on my desk, saying, "Did you hear what just happened…?" and so would begin lots of sighing and seemingly endless discussions on how the world was so messed up.

Josh never stopped caring. Instead of doing menial tasks to bide his time, he pushed his responsibilities further -- he organized music shows at homeless shelters, joined outreach teams to meet people living on the streets, helped with re-entry issues and wanted to visit homeless coalitions all across Ohio -- not because he had to, but because he felt it was the right thing to do. He wanted to get at the root of why people became homeless and who, exactly, homeless people were. He made surveys and gave out voicemail numbers to people who didn't have a phone yet needed a number to give out to friends, family or potential employers. Josh was always so proud of this service, impressed that something so simple could make a big difference for someone. 

Working to alleviate homelessness in one of the poorest cities in the country was a draining endeavor, yet Josh's humor and quick wit helped me get by. Much time was spent quoting The Simpsons and reading headlines from The Onion. He often invited me to watch him play guitar/banjo/harmonica at open mic nights; I likened him to Woody Guthrie… a Woody Guthrie who was also a gamer.

We frequently traveled to Columbus to meet with other VISTAs and hold conferences. Josh played CDs of old-time Americana music like Memphis Minnie, or maybe some Liz Phair or even video game soundtracks along the way. We'd never drive straight back. Instead we made a day of it -- I'd insist we'd get vegan bakery at Patty Cake and check out a retro clothing store; he would get a snickerdoodle and stand patiently in the store, commenting that the clothes were way too trendy (and hipster) for him. We even found ourselves temporarily homeless when a hotel we had to stay at rejected our supervisor's credit card. Even though it was late and we were starving and tired, Josh was still so polite.

AmeriCorps*VISTA terms last a year, but Josh signed up for a second year, and, in the process, inspired me to serve a second year as well. Whenever there was a slump in my work and I was left wondering what to do, I would go to Josh and he'd inspire me with another project. He got me back on track. Before we became VISTAs we had to take a training session in Chicago, but since we started at different times we didn't have the same session. I told him how at my training I was in a group that had to create and sing a song. The group chose to sing "Lean on Me" but inserted "VISTA" into the verses, so it went "Lean on me when you're not strong / And I'll be your VISTA, I'll help you carry on…"  Josh and I thought that was completely lame and would often recite those lyrics for a laugh. "You just call on a VISTA when you need a hand…" Funny though how, cheesiness aside, he was that VISTA.

After his two VISTA terms, Josh was hired at NEOCH as a community organizer, and then worked at a variety of non-profits while taking classes to get his Masters of Social Work from Cleveland State University. He figured a social work degree would enable him to continue helping disadvantaged people at a time when non-profit organizations weren't in positions to hire community organizers. During that time he adopted two cats, Lenny and Carl, and met Julie, who became his beloved wife. Josh left a positive impact on this world and will be missed.

Submitted by Sarah Valek

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