Dennis Brown recounts homeless experience

Don’t let pride prevent you from accepting the help you need.

That was the message presented by former San Francisco 49ers defensive end Dennis Brown, who recently appeared at InnVision Shelter Network’s annual fundraising breakfast at the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame to talk about his experience of homelessness.

“My story is unique to me, but I don’t think it’s unique to how people become homeless,” Brown told the attentive audience.

InnVision Shelter Network is a private nonprofit providing emergency and transitional housing for about 1,000 people per night in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, with an emphasis on helping residents break the cycle of homelessness by securing permanent long-term housing and employment.

Brown, who played for the 49ers from 1990 to 1996, chatted onstage during the event with NBC sportscaster and “Voice of the 49ers” Ted Robinson.

A frequent InnVision volunteer, Brown said he became aware of the organization when a friend sought refuge in the shelter network while escaping an abusive relationship.

Brown said his early childhood was spent in a home in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, but when his father, who worked as a roofer, became unable to work after a back injury, the small family soon found themselves living in their car.

Brown, his sister and father lived in that car too long, he said, because his father was too proud to accept help and kept hoping his back would get better.

“We stayed homeless for quite a while as my father kept hoping his back would get better — it never did,” he explained.

The turning point came when Brown’s father had to switch to sleeping on the car’s hood, because the rear seat had become so soft that sleeping on it exacerbated his back pain, Brown said.

At that point, Brown’s father took the family to a church shelter, whose support eventually enabled the elder Brown to become a pharmacist. He later earned a master’s degree in theology, ultimately becoming a professor.

“If you isolate yourself, if you disappear, you shut yourself off from great miracles,” Brown said.

Speaking with the San Francisco Examiner after the fundraising event, Brown said he also experienced homelessness in his adult life. He explained sports injuries had forced him to stop playing football, and feeling like he could not provide for his family led to a period of depression.

Brown had been living in Seattle at the time, but said he fled to the Bay Area to protect his children, Darienne and Derrick, and his ex-wife, Danielle, from his “self-destruction.”

Around 2007-08, Brown said there were some nights he slept in his car.

Remembering how his father redefined himself helped him bounce back from depression and homelessness, Brown said. And 49ers Foundation Executive Director Joanne Pasternack was there to help.

“I spent two-and-a-half years saying ‘yes’ to everything,” Brown noted, “If I was told by Joanne to do something, I did it.”

Brown said Pasternack suggested some things that forced him to move outside his comfort zone, including speaking engagements where he had to overcome his fear of public speaking.

Pasternack also got Brown to audition with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, where he has been an on-air personality for more than three years.

During the event InnVision CEO Bruce Ives addressed an audience of supporters and acknowledged the organization’s current full name is a bit of a mouthful.

“Stay tuned,” the CEO said, because InnVision will be changing its name soon.

Other highlights included a testimonial by America, a domestic violence survivor who did not give her last name. She said InnVision’s transitional program helped her find a full-time job, learn to manage her finances, save over $4,000, enroll her daughter in preschool and deal with her depression.

“I felt like a human being again,” America noted.

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