- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007


Chris Gardner is still pursuing happiness.

Despite being a best-selling author and sought-after motivational speaker and having a bank account as big as his beaming smile, he says he’s unhappy — fed up, actually — with how the poor, homeless and veterans are treated in America.

Mr. Gardner, whose struggles as a homeless single parent and rags-to-riches journey were depicted by Will Smith in the film “The Pursuit of Happyness,” says he wants to use his “15 minutes of fame” to bring change.

“These folks are just folks,” he says. “Everybody that’s poor or homeless are not all alcoholics or drug addicts. These are poor people and, in many cases, working people.”

The film, to be released March 27 on DVD, has brought attention to a problem that affects every community and possibly offered hope to those who need it most. It also has introduced Mr. Gardner to millions of people.

Mr. Gardner, who did some advocacy for the homeless while on vacation in Hawaii last week, says he just finished a proposal for a second book, which is expected to be released this fall.

While in Honolulu, he met with Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, social workers, public housing officials and a few homeless people. He also addressed a national convention on homelessness in the District by videoconference on Wednesday.

Sharply dressed and sporting a well-trimmed, graying goatee, Mr. Gardner says wealth hasn’t changed who he is, even though he went from being driven out of filthy restrooms to driving a Ferrari.

“When you have an experience like this, not just being homeless, but homeless with a 2-year-old baby tied on your back — that becomes part of who you are forever,” he says.

Mr. Gardner is a millionaire who says “we” and “us” when referring to poor folks.

“You know [what] we’ve got to do with poor folks and working folks? We’ve got to market ourselves maybe a little better,” he says. “It might come down to something as simple as that.”

The most important survival skill Mr. Gardner learned when he was homeless in the early 1980s was to keep going forward.

“Baby steps count, too,” he says. “You add them all up, one day you’re living next door to Donald Trump.”

He speaks from experience.

The 53-year-old Milwaukee native owns multiple homes, including a condo in Trump Tower in New York. He is the chief executive officer of the Chicago-based brokerage firm Gardner Rich LLC.

Caroline Soaladaob, who has been homeless with her 10 children for nearly a year, was in tears while listening to Mr. Gardner’s stories of struggle and sacrifice.

“I get emotional because I see living proof of it every day,” says Miss Soaladaob, who lived on a Hawaii beach for months before moving into a new state-funded shelter in October. “Sometimes you have hard and rough days that you kind of think in the back of your head that you might not want to make it.”

Miss Soaladaob is among the many homeless in Hawaii who work but still can’t afford a place to live because of the high cost of housing. The median price for a single-family home on Oahu is more than $600,000, making homeownership virtually impossible on a low-paying job. Now, however, she has hope.

“He’s living proof that we can make it,” she says.

Mr. Gardner’s odds weren’t that good, either. He grew up with an abusive stepfather and never went to college. However, he says his mother provided him with “spiritual genetics.”

“The spirit of who you’re going to become as a person, I believe you can make a conscious decision,” he says. “I could’ve embraced the spirit of my stepdad, and I could’ve become another alcoholic, wife-beating, illiterate, child-abusing loser.”

He says the younger generation, including his own children, doesn’t truly appreciate parents or the lives they have.

“My kids are like the chocolate Kennedys,” he says. “They’ve got a highly evolved sense of entitlement. We’re working to adjust that.”

Mr. Gardner has a 21-year-old daughter, Jacintha. Christopher Jr., whose character was played in the film by Mr. Smith’s son, Jaden, is 26 and pursuing a music career.

During last month’s Oscar ceremony, it wasn’t Mr. Smith (a best-actor nominee) who was robbed of an Academy Award, but the actor’s young son, Mr. Gardner says.

“Jaden Smith kicked Will Smith’s butt every day,” Mr. Gardner says. “Will’s a funny guy. … Think about it: No. 1 movie star in the world. Two-time Oscar nominee. Third-best actor in his own house.”

Yet Mr. Gardner had doubts when he learned he would be played by Mr. Smith.

“We all think of Will as big, blockbuster, science-fiction, outer-space extravaganza,” Mr. Gardner says. “This movie is about inner space, not outer space.”

But Jacintha Gardner set her father straight.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Pop. Don’t worry about it. If he can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you,’ ” Mr. Gardner recalls.

He remembers taking Mr. Smith for a walk in the notorious Tenderloin area of San Francisco after midnight without any security guards, and he told Mr. Smith, “The cavalry is not coming, brother.”

“That’s part of the message I try to share with people everywhere I go. The cavalry isn’t coming. You got to do this yourself,” Mr. Gardner says.

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