The seated figures filling the darkened Centennial Hall couldn’t take their eyes off the speaker dressed in a tailored suit with slicked-back hair. Tony Hoffman, a former top-ranked BMX amateur who now speaks to audiences countrywide about the dangers of addiction, is used to this kind of attention.
However, the Californian remembers a time in his life when he was lucky if he could get even one person to show him a sign of respect.
“The worst part of being homeless isn’t not having a roof over your head, that’s actually pretty easy,” Hoffman, the second of three inspirational speakers to headline this year’s Pillars of America Speakers Series, said to a packed convention center audience on Wednesday. “It’s the stuff people throw at you when they drive by you. That’s what makes being homeless hard.”
The cold details that Hoffman shared about living on the streets fit with the larger tone and urgency of the message he delivered to the attendees, many of whom were middle and high school students, about how hard it is to retreat back through the “doorway” of drugs.
“I’ve only seen two ways that you can walk through the door and get back through the other side,” Hoffman said. “One is the way 11 of my friends got back to the other side of that door — in a casket. Eleven of my friends, by name, by phone number, childhood friends, some of the best athletes in the country, left the doorway in a casket. Every single year, another one leaves in a casket. The only other way that you can get back through the other side of that door is to change six things, six really, really simple things.”
Hoffman listed his six things as the ways in which one thinks, talks, walks, the places they go, the friends they chose and the activities they engage in.
Hoffman’s talk began with his sobering tales of his childhood, when he suffered from depression, low self-esteem and suicidal ideation. The former BMX rider said his adolescent was was defined by how others viewed him — a gifted athlete — and how he viewed himself — someone rarely comfortable in his own skin who struggled to get out of bed in the morning.
“That was the biggest war for me my senior year, was every time I opened my eyes I wished I could just close them really tight and life would just stop again like it did when I was asleep,” Hoffman said.
Help was just right around around the corner for Hoffman. However, the antidote he sought for for his troubled existence — prescription pain killers — would provide short-term relief in exchange for life-long dependency on illicit substances.
With great care, persistence and effort, Hoffman would turn around in life, starting when he was still in prison for his addiction-fueled crimes.
Hoffman counts himself lucky to have survived his addiction, and implored the audience to never look the same at the next homeless person they see who may be struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction.
Coming up next
A week earlier, Ketchikan born and raised underdog Jesse LeBeau spoke about embracing ones struggles as this year’s first Pillars speaker. Next Wednesday, Anchorage Olympian cross-country skier Kikkan Randall will likely have a similar message in mind. Randall was diagnosed with breast cancer just months after retiring from skiing.
Tickets for the Randall’s talk and luncheon are $35 and available at Hearthside Books. Doors open at 11:15 a.m. and lunch is served at 11:30 a.m. There is no seating after 11:50 a.m.