Heart of Gold and Determination of Steel

Roger Thompson’s Journey from Homelessness to Headstrong

HARRISONBURG, Va.— Homelessness is something that can happen to anyone. Without the right resources, it is extremely hard to escape. Roger Thompson, 63, fell victim to homelessness back in 2012. Forced out of his home because of ever-growing bills and debt, Thompson spent four years on the streets fighting for survival.   

   Born and raised in Harrisonburg, Roger Thompson is one of 11 children. Life was hard growing up with such a large family. Thompson found himself constantly competing for basic needs and attention. 

   At the age of 15, he developed a passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the era of the ‘Steel Curtains’ lineup, specifically Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene as mentors. Thompson used football as a means of escaping from his harsh reality by watching the Steelers play football on Sundays in the comfort of his home.

   Unfortunately, in 2012, Thompson lost his house. He spent a combination of his time on the streets or anywhere he could, including under bridges, in abandoned houses, or friends’ houses. Although being homeless was undoubtedly one of his lowest points, in 2013, he met Aaron Cook, a Harrisonburg City lawyer, who took him to his first Steelers football game—a memory he’d never forget.

  It was a cold, snowy football Sunday in December. The Steelers had the ball in the decreasing minutes of the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins. Thompson cheered for another win, but during the last few seconds of the game wide-receiver Antonio Brown foolishly failed to secure a game winning touchdown by stepping out of bounds.

   Although the Steelers lost the game, Thompson was happy to spend the day with good friends, food, and his favorite team. Homelessness has taught Thompson that the small joys in life and moments of opportunity are precious. He sees the good in any tough situation. He recalls the game.

   “We lost. But football is a sport just like anything else, you have to let it go. You win, you win; you lose, you lose,” Thompson said.  

   A few years later, still suffering homelessness, Thompson suffered a heart attack that left him in the hospital for seven nights.  

   “One night I was laying down trying to sleep, and my chest started hurting. I got real dizzy and couldn’t do anything. I told a friend to call 911 and that’s when the rescue squad came to the house,” Thompson said. 

   As a blessing in disguise, Thompson’s heart attack was the catalyst to him receiving help to attain stable housing. After the incident, Thompson’s nurse from the Suitcase Clinic for the Homeless knew that the consequences of returning to homelessness were too threatening. 

   “The nurse took me to where I now live and helped me do the paperwork,” Thompson said. “She would come see me about every week to make sure that I was alright,” he added. The Suitcase Clinic for the Homeless is an initiative designed by James Madison University to improve the health of people without homes in the community.

   Thompson went to live in Commerce Village, an apartment complex run by the housing authority for chronically homeless and medically vulnerable persons. He’s been there since 2016. According to Thompson, maintaining a roof above his head and keeping his heart healthy has been his biggest accomplishment. He couldn’t have done it without the help he received from the community. 

   “I hang out downtown during the day, but it feels so good to get to my apartment, open the door and go upstairs to my own home,” Thompson exclaimed. 

   Alongside the Suitcase Clinic, Our Community Place has given Thompson and other homeless individuals tremendous support and encouraging friendships. 

   Thompson has been volunteering for several years with Our Community Place, a nonprofit organization near downtown Harrisonburg. Helping out at OCP and watching football are part of his daily routine, but at one point in Thompson’s life, it was nearly impossible for him to do those things.

   “Roger is a hard worker for OCP. He takes out all the trash for us to the street on Monday, and cleans our dry goods shed each week,” said OCP’s Executive Director, Sam Nickels. OCP has given Thompson tremendous support and has allowed him to meet some amazing people. 

   Since April, OCP has placed 38 homeless community members into permanent housing. Our Community Place also provides services such as laundry, showers, storage lockers, hot meals and empowerment opportunities to homeless and marginalized persons from Harrisonburg, Rockingham and surrounding counties. The staff are always welcoming and bring a sense of community and belonging to those who are struggling. 

   “They always ask me if I need anything and if I have enough food,” Thompson said. He loves the routine that volunteering for OCP has brought to his life, as well as the surrounding community. 

   OCP’s Activities and Programming Coordinator, Leons Kabongo, has known Thompson for four years. “Roger Thompson is a kind, humorous and loving man who has exhibited so much volunteerism. We are grateful to have such a kind soul in our community,” Kabongo said. 

   Having a home again has brought Thompson an utmost amount of appreciation and faith. He spends most of his days volunteering, but on Sundays, Thompson watches the Pittsburgh Steelers. He can now enjoy watching football on the couch like he did as a young boy. Although he can’t spend this time with all of his friends due to COVID, Thompson says that he truly enjoys his alone time. 

   Roger Thompson faced some of life’s hardest obstacles head on. Using the Steelers and a positive mindset as means of motivation, he continued to trek forward until he had a place to call home. Every day, Thompson gives back to the community while putting a smile on everyone’s face. One might say that Thompson even has his own ‘steel curtain’ lineup.

   Although his story has a happy ending, not everyone receives the help that Roger Thompson did. There are still hundreds of Harrisonburg citizens suffering homelessness amid a global pandemic. To help, donations are accepted to OCP’s Homelessness to Housing program, the Salvation Army, Mercy House and many more organizations in the community. 

   For more information on Our Community Place and how to donate or volunteer, visit www.ourcommunityplace.org or call 540-442-7727. Additionally, you can visit www.themercyhouse.org, or call 540-432-1812. Just like Roger Thompson, you too can make a difference by volunteering in the community.

About Our Community Place

Our Community Place provides resources to homeless and marginalized persons in the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia. OCP provides services such as case management, housing, employment, and hot meals to anyone. OCP brings a sense of belongingness and purpose to community members who are struggling. OCP is open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Sundays.  For more information on volunteering or donating, call 540-442-7727 or visit OurCommunityPlace.org.

About Rachel Dennis

Rachel Dennis is from Herndon, Virginia and is a student at James Madison University. She is a SMAD and Communication double major with concentrations in advertising and public relations. Dennis will graduate in the spring of 2022. She is also a member of the JMU Dukettes Dance Team. Dennis heard about OCP from a friend and was inspired by their dedication to the community. To learn more about Rachel Dennis or see more of her work, visit