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Annette Karnes: “Optimism is a primary tool for us.” Photo by Madeleina Gorman.

Annette’s story of winding up at Cenikor is very different from Stephen’s. While he brought trouble on himself, Annette had hers thrust on her. Born in Richmond, Texas, she says her childhood was tortured. She describes her father as a controlling man and a drinker and her mom as someone who did not like to be controlled. Her father, she said, began disappearing for months at a stretch when she was five or six, “leaving the bills unpaid, leaving my mother hanging. He wanted her to beg him to come home, but instead she got a job and started paying the bills.

“One time,” she continued, “when he came home and they were arguing, I remember he picked me up and slammed me against the wall like a rag doll. My mother told him she’d kill him if he ever did that again. He didn’t.”

But the fights continued, and her mother finally left, promising Annette she would be back for her and her younger brother. But she never returned.

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Annette said that when she was 8 she began to be sexually abused by a family member and that the abuse continued until she was 10 or 11. She was warned, she said, that she and her brother would be killed if she told anyone, so she kept silent. “The way I got through it was that I started to drink a little alcohol. I was just a little kid but didn’t have a childhood. I was just trying to keep the pain and fear and shame away.”

With her mother gone, Annette became the woman of the house. “I was taking care of my dad, my brother, doing the cooking, the cleaning, the washing. And then my dad started leaving on the weekends, every weekend, and I’d call [my grandmother] and have her pick me and my brother up.”

When her parents divorced a couple of years later, the judge gave custody to her father and ordered her mother to pay child support. Her father, Annette said, claimed that her mother was often short on payments or entirely missed them. “And when she was short, he would deny us things. But he still had money to go out every weekend.”

Annette got an abrupt wake-up call one day when she was putting some of her dad’s things away. “There was a shoebox I’d never seen before, and I was a kid and curious, so I looked inside. And inside were all of the records of my mother’s child support payments. She was never short, never late. He was just telling us the lie that she was, and I was pissed. When he came home, I followed him around, yelling at him, asking how he could lie to use like that. He finally got so red-faced angry, he threw a glass at me. He missed, but my brother got scared. He’d never seen dad act like that. I took my brother to his room and locked the door. [Dad] stormed around for what seemed like forever. When it was finally quiet, I left the room and called my mom and told her what happened.”

Her mother made arrangements for her brother and Annette to live with her and her new husband, and on the last day of school that year — the end of Annette’s eighth grade in 1980 — Mom picked them up, had them collect all of their things from their dad’s house, and left.

Unfortunately, things weren’t always great with her mother, Annette recalled. “So long as I was compliant, they were OK, but when I challenged her, things went bad. She wasn’t the same woman I remembered at 5 or 6.”

Annette started drinking “to keep the pain of the sexual abuse at bay. Well, by 14, I started smoking pot, too, and by 18, I was doing coke and pills. By 19, I was a full-blown addict to coke, alcohol, pills, pot. I had just given up on myself. I didn’t know why I wanted to care. I felt like I was damaged goods, that no one would want me, and so I burned the candle at both ends very hard. And then I wound up in counseling.”

The first exercise she was given by a therapist was to stand in front of a mirror, look into her own eyes, and say 10 nice things about herself.

“It took me months to look into my eyes and say just one thing,” Annette remembered. “It took a year to get up to a few things and even longer than that to get to the point where I could actually say 10 nice things to myself about myself.”

She had hidden so much from herself, she said, that when she first started dating Stephen, and even after they married, she could not even cuddle. “I just did not trust anyone,” she said, “even Stephen.”

She did finally break through, and they married in April 1994.

“We were both completely clean for 10 years,” Stephen said. “I worked at Cenikor and then for a seafood place. I had good jobs. We had a house, car, a good life. And then I started using again, and Annette joined me, and a couple of years later we lost the house, the car, the money, and wound up living under a bridge on I-45 in Houston for about two-and-one-half-years, 2006 to 2008. We were smoking crack as often as we could get it.”

Annette said the first year of living homeless was wild and free. “But after that,” she said, “it got tiring. I just got tired and tried to figure out how to get off the street.”

She cut back on crack use from daily to once every three or four days before finally leaving. “I had to leave Stephen,” she recalled. “I knew if I didn’t, we were going to die.”

She moved to Spring, Texas, and into her mother and step-father’s house, an arrangement that lasted only from August 2008 until February 2009, when her mother caught her talking with Stephen on the phone. “That was the one rule that they made for me staying there,” Annette said. “No contact with Stephen. And when I broke it, that was it. They kicked me out.”

With nowhere to go and with health issues becoming serious, Annette entered a residential rehabilitation facility, despite having been completely clean since moving out from under the bridge. “I just needed a place to stay, and they let me stay there for several months.”

Stephen, tired of being alone under the bridge, had moved to Fort Worth by the end of 2008 –– his sister worked in a Fort Worth rehab facility and could have him admitted quickly. He spent 30 days at the facility (whose leaders requested anonymity) before becoming a resident at the Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County, a nonprofit that has been providing food, overnight shelter, and permanent residency for the homeless in Fort Worth for 128 years, since 1888. While there he found a job matching seniors with work and landed an apartment on the East Side. Annette moved in with him following her rehab stint.

In 2010, Stephen was diagnosed with COPD, a chronic lung disease that makes breathing very difficult. He retired on Social Security Disability Insurance. It wasn’t long after that, Annette remembered, when “Stephen came up with the idea of starting the newspaper. It’s about homelessness, or rather, about giving hope to the homeless and hopeless. He really just wanted to give something back, to do something to help people who were down.”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. The next time the Weekly presents an article defending recreational marijuana, remind yourselves of the Karnses. They have in all likelihood taken much more from society than they’ve given, and to portray them as heroes wanting to “give back” is a little rich.

    • You certainly place yourself in a position to judge others. Apparently you don’t subscribe to the notion that someone can turn their life around and become something better than they were. I’ve worked with Stephen and Annette and, just from your comment, it’s obvious they’re better human beings than you. Thing is, you too can change. Good luck. I feel sorry for you.

      • Kenneth: You criticize me for judging; then you judge me. Sweet hypocrisy. It’s certainly a good thing if the Karneses have turned their lives around, but a taxpayer always has standing to inquire into the use of his money. And my original supposition has not been rebutted. You know the couple so perhaps you can answer. Did they or not receive more in government benefits than they gave?

        • Robert: You’re very tough, man. A person might take, or make a mistake, and then change. You want to count your tax dollars on that? You want to know how many kids got through their respective grades based on the school tax you paid, or whether the sheriff actually gave the inmates good tuna sandwiches or lousy tuna sandwiches for which he billed you and me $1 each?
          You sound like the father I’m glad I never had. My dad just beat me with a spoon 100 times, or left me in a room for three days with no food or water. That was easy. You sound difficult to please. I’m probably 15 years older than you but glad you were not my dad with all your judgements!!!!!!

          • Sorry, Peter Gorman, I was born before Feb. 1951, which makes me older than you and the Karneses. And how could you know my age anyway?

            Mr. Karnes says 1968-70 were “crazy times” as if dealing pot, dropping acid, and robbing stores was the norm. They weren’t crazy times for me. See, I had a job. When I needed to make a change, I returned to and finished college at age 39. In the following 3 years, I obtained my doctorate, riding a bicycle 6 miles a day roundtrip to save money and keep me fit. Student loans helped; and there was no whining about paying them off. Rather, I paid them off early, ever grateful to taxpayers who financed my degree.

            Now I regularly bicycle 4 miles each way to work, not to save money as in the lean years, but to stay fit. Which brings up the Karneses’ health problems. Your article says they are to blame for some of their health problems. Really? Which problems did they not bring upon themselves? It’s obvious that they’re morbidly obese. During your interview, you might have told them that regular exercise and a healthy diet might alleviate some of their problems.

            Personal responsibility is what I’m talking about. It’s great that the Karneses are clean now; but pretending that their newsletter repays society for all they’ve taken and continue to take, is a stretch.

          • Hey Bobby…you taking responsibility for the earth-quakes and rotten air we breathe, and damaged roads and highways you’ve screwed up, and lies you and your butt-wipe buddies told us squares about your gas-drilling racket? The State Pens are full of folks more honorable, humble, and I expect that smell better than you. You dug it, lay down in it. Decent folks don’t want to live on the same street as you. You can put your personal responsibility in your ear. You are a pure loser as a citizen and example for our youth. Our asylums are slam-packed with less deviant souls. Good grief. Fool. Get a life.

  2. This was a nice story about two people keeping good attitudes about life. I found it inspiring. I doubt that recreational marijuana use had anything to do with leading them to pills and crack and other hard drugs that ruined their health but I guess someone could reasonably make that claim. Either way, Robert K. seems kind of heartless in his attitude about them.

    • Robert K. is the boss of the gas-drilling rats here in Tarrant County and nearby counties. Our Texas jails and asylums are packed with more honorable citizens. My bird-dog Roxy has a much bigger heart, smells better, is smarter, and probably will get to Heaven ( at least has a shot at it… Bobby is a pure looser in that regard). Bobby boy is a black-hearted, Tea-Bagging loser…put him on your Prayer List.

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