- Associated Press - Saturday, July 19, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - He doesn’t know when he’ll next take a shower, sleep in a bed or eat a warm meal, but Joel Hartman is content.

“I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” he said.

Hartman, 37, is no longer a heroin addict and was recently reunited with family, some of whom he hadn’t seen in a decade. And it’s all because he found a wallet and returned it, an act that propelled him to instant hero status he never wanted but in retrospect desperately needed.

Last November Hartman was sifting through a trash can in downtown Atlanta, looking for something to eat, when he found the wallet. He could have kept it, but he wasn’t raised that way. He saw the identification inside indicating it belonged to a woman from France; he assumed the owner was staying in one of the big hotels nearby.

The first two hotels he tried had no guests by the woman’s name. His third stop was at the Omni at CNN Center, and that’s where he found her registered. Hartman left the wallet with security guards; when asked his name, he said “Josh Crabber,” thinking no one needed his real name. He didn’t leave a phone number. He simply went back to the streets, lugging a 90-pound bag of his possessions.

Two weeks later, the hotel’s managing director, Scott Stuckey, hit the streets searching for the “homeless hero.” In the spirit of the holiday season, Stuckey wanted to reward the man for his act of kindness.

Hartman’s image had been captured on a hotel security camera. With only a blurry picture and a name he wasn’t sure was correct, Stuckey decided to ask The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for help. He started with an email to the AJC.

“When you have a moment, would you please give me a call at the number below as I have a possible story that you may want to cover,” Stuckey wrote.

On Nov. 21 the picture and a story was published on ajc.com. By the following night, Hartman was in the hotel’s lobby, receiving a gift of $500 cash and the offer of a 12th-floor guestroom through Thanksgiving.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Hartman said. “I would hope someone would’ve done the same thing for me. I had no intention of anything like this ever happening.”

As a hotel guest, Hartman was treated to restaurant meals, new clothes and a salon makeover. Outside the hotel, Hartman’s story made national headlines, leading to offers of help from all over.

On Thanksgiving Day, Hartman was reunited with family he hadn’t seen in 10 years, including his father’s girlfriend and two half brothers. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Hartman said he’s been on his own since he was 15 or 16.

When he left the hotel, Hartman acknowledged he needed help for drug addiction. He’d struggled with mental illness since childhood that had never been adequately treated, he said. Heroin and booze eased the pain. An AJC photographer drove Hartman to the hospital.

Hartman entered a detox program and afterward moved in with his mother in South Carolina. But for Hartman, life isn’t about staying in one place. He had to move on and returned to Atlanta.

More than once, he’s ended up in jail, including a week in late March at the Fulton County jail after he allegedly violated probation on a prior shoplifting charge. A couple months later, he and some traveling companions from Atlanta had hopped trains to the Pittsburgh area and were arrested for camping on private property.

Story Continues →