Evening walks along the boardwalk in Coney Island brought Keith Ford a modicum of peace when he was homeless. The dulcet sounds of crashing waves, he said, countered his anxiety during that turbulent time.
After his meditative ambling, Mr. Ford would board an F train and ride it back and forth for the remainder of the night. He stole sleep in one-hour spurts, waking when the subway cars reached the end of the line, then hopping aboard a train going the opposite direction.
Mr. Ford’s transience began in fall 2013 while he was a senior in high school. He and his mother were not getting along, Mr. Ford said recently, and he could no longer live in her home. Despite his precarious circumstances, he remained dedicated to his education.
“I knew I wanted to finish high school,” Mr. Ford, now 23, said. “That was a top priority — get my diploma, keep moving.”
One of his teachers at Voyages Preparatory High School in Queens took notice of his sullenness and encouraged him to open up about his troubles. Staff members at the school then helped Mr. Ford find housing. That November, he entered Safe Haven, now called Sheltering Arms, a transitional housing center in Queens.
Mr. Ford graduated from high school the following summer and began pursuing an associate degree in architectural technology, a subject that has always fascinated him, at Queensborough Community College.
In March 2015, he turned 21 and aged out of the shelter. Mr. Ford once again found himself unmoored. He resumed his erstwhile evening ritual, though not every night was spent by the ocean or in transit. He sometimes stayed with friends and lived briefly with his father. But the instability prompted him to drop out of college, Mr. Ford said.
Soon after, he learned about Green City Force, which prepares young people from low-income families for careers in the renewable energy industry. It is a partner of the Community Service Society, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
Green City Force is also an AmeriCorps program, which Mr. Ford said most appealed to him. “I thought that since it counted as national service, I could do something beyond myself,” he said.
He started the six-month job training program in early 2016. “It was just a phenomenal experience,” Mr. Ford said. “I managed to commit most of my time to service despite what I was going through.”
During this time, Mr. Ford was still without a permanent home. He decided during his job training that having a driver’s license would lead to better employment opportunities. His goal was to earn a salary that would allow him to afford a place of his own.
Community Service Society used $170 from the Neediest Cases Fund to pay for his driving lessons last year. Lacking access to a car to practice, he failed his road test but hopes to retake it soon.
When Mr. Ford finished his training at Green City Force, he began a six-month apprenticeship with the state program EmPower New York, conducting in-home energy audits.
In January, he landed a job as a business development associate at another energy efficiency company, BlocPower. That month, Community Service Society used $116.50 from the fund for a monthly MetroCard so he could commute for work.
Mr. Ford with a co-worker at BlocPower in Brooklyn. He began a new job last month. Credit Michael Noble Jr. for The New York Times
Mr. Ford continues to pursue work in energy efficiency. Late last month, he took a new job as a program coordinator at East New York Restoration Local Development Corporation.
His financial security is better than it has ever been, Mr. Ford said, but he still feels unsteady.
“Stable for me will be when I can turn a key into something that’s mine,” he said. “I can walk inside of it and lie down and not worry about anyone telling me to get out or that my time is up.”
He is confident that the pieces of his life will fall into place. When he first became homeless, he said, he made a vow never to succumb to cynicism.
“I believe that through hard work and dedication, I can be where I want to be,” Mr. Ford said. “I would never want to look at any situation of adversity as ‘I can’t make it through.’”
At Green City Force, he met his fiancée, Tanaeja Wright, and they plan to wed in 2020. The couple are living with her family in East New York, Brooklyn, while they search for their own apartment.
“I long for a space to call my own,” Mr. Ford said. “And I’m willing to accept the responsibly that comes with it.”
Mr. Ford said he would like to return to college someday. And his affinity for architecture has become more personal.
“This entire time, maybe I was always searching for a livable space to call home,” he said. “And why not be the one to make it?”