Though this year has been tough for many, it's ending on a high note for Michael Phillips, who has gone from being homeless to living in an apartment, landing a job and finding a mentor.
That good luck is due, in part, to a chance meeting with one man: Scot Johnston.
The two first met this fall when Johnston, 53, and his wife interviewed potential real estate agents to help sell their large Erie, Pennsylvania, home as they downsize.
Phillips, 22, was one of those agents. Johnston told him he was looking to work with someone with “hustle."
"I said, ‘If you want hustle, you're looking at it,’ “ Phillips says. “I told him I was homeless when I was studying for my [real estate] license."
Living out of his car
The young Phillips moved from his hometown of Philadelphia to Erie about 18 months ago to study accounting and finance at Gannon University. But he dropped out after a year. “I just felt that college was moving a little too slow for me,” Phillips says. “I realized that real estate was the life for me."
In the spring, Phillips decided to study for his real estate license. He took the exam in July and passed. In the interim, however, he lost his school housing. “I didn't have anywhere to stay, but I had a car,” Phillips says. So, he lived in his 2003 Chevrolet Tracker from late May through early August. He also worked, delivering pizzas to pay for gas, food and about $350 in real estate-course and related fees — and to save for a down payment on rent.
"I knew being homeless was temporary,” recalls Phillips, who is a first-generation American. “I planned to do it for a week or two, but that turned into a month or two. What I had to go through was better than what my family lived through in Liberia before coming here."
Meeting a generous friend
Then, life began to improve for Phillips. He saved enough money to rent an apartment in August and he began working as an independent contractor for Keller Williams Realty Inc. in September, but he still couldn't afford to look professional. He wore sneakers to Johnston's home for the interview.
"I asked him, ‘Do you have a suit?’ and he said, ‘No, I can't afford a suit,'” says Johnston, a health systems director for pharmaceutical company Indivior. “He was such a nice kid. There was something about him that touched us."
The next day, Johnston asked Phillips to meet him at the Men's Warehouse store. While trying on a suit there, Phillips teared up when he overheard Johnston tell the sales associate to make it two suits. “I was actually crying,” Phillips says. “One, he spent a lot of money. Two, he was a complete stranger. Nobody outside of my family had done anything to that extent."
Johnston, a father of three, also bought Phillips some dress shirts and gave him 10 of his own ties and two pairs of slightly used dress shoes from his brother-in-law. In talking by phone about the experience with a reporter, Johnston choked up himself.
For Phillips, the experience is cast with a bit of magic. “I got a listing while wearing those clothes the next day,” he says.
Fred Wienecke, Phillips’ team leader at Keller Williams in Erie, says Phillips definitely shows that hustle and determination that Johnston spotted.
"Michael has a big vision and tremendous drive as to what he wants to do,” Wienecke says. “There's not that many people of that age who have that drive and understanding."
Good news goes viral
Johnston shared the inspirational experience on LinkedIn for the holidays. The post went viral. By Christmas Eve, Johnston says his post had around 15 million views. Four days later, the post had over 38,000 comments and was “liked” more than 500,000 times.
Both Johnston and Phillips say they've been contacted by people across the globe — to connect with Phillips, mentor him or make offers of gift cards, cash and even a few job opportunities.
"I felt pretty good seeing all the support,” Phillips says.
Johnston and Phillips now talk or text regularly, and Johnston has introduced Phillips to another potential mentor in real estate. On Dec. 22, Johnston dropped off a Christmas gift at Phillips’ home.
Johnston likes to think he met Phillips for a reason. Is it serendipity that Johnston's mother also worked for Keller Williams for decades? Or that Phillips now lives down the street from Johnston's daughter?
"I just saw him as a kid who had potential,” Johnston says. “And I had so many people in my life who helped me."