Behind the Mask: The Songbird of Suburban Station
Behind his mask, Mr. Dennis is much more than what he seems
Mr. Dennis is a resident at VOADV’s Camden-based transitional housing program, Home for the Brave, where he is recognized by his colorful, patriotic star-spangled cap. He is a US veteran – one who proudly served in the United States Army for eleven years as a cryptographer. He is also a talented jazz musician, a master of many instruments. And because of his musical talents, Mr. Dennis has also become a local icon.
On a typical morning, you can find Mr. Dennis walking down JFK Boulevard in Philadelphia, humming Cat Steven’s “Good Morning Has Broken” with an old, leather music case strapped to his back. As he makes his way towards Penn Center, he is met by the occasional “Good morning, Mr. Dennis!” from passersby.
At Suburban Station, Mr. Dennis has made a name for himself performing on his jazz flute for hundreds of commuters each day. This has earned him the cleaver nickname, Songbird of Suburban Station, freely sharing his love of music with anyone willing to listen.
“A lot of the times when you’re going someplace, you share interests with the people you’re there with,” he explains. “That’s why I do what I do. I like people, and like making their days a little brighter.”
Mr. Dennis would tell you that life is good right now – but, that has not always been the case.
When Mr. Dennis returned home to Philadelphia after his deployment, his life was vastly different from the one he had left behind. He struggled to find sustainable employment, jumping from one job to another. Finding stable housing was also an issue, eventually forcing him to become homeless at the age of 67. Mr. Dennis moved from one veteran’s assistance program to another. He found shelter wherever he could, but oftentimes spent nights sleeping on the streets of Philadelphia.
“I’m a survivor though,” he explains. “I used my past experiences to get by.”
Like many individuals experiencing homelessness, Mr. Dennis developed type-2 diabetes and hypertension during his time on the streets. Managing medical treatment and affording the necessary copays for consultations and treatment became impossible, which sent him on a downward spiral. He desperately needed reliable support and housing, and finally found relief across the river – at VOADV’s Home for the Brave.
After almost one full year at Home for the Brave, Mr. Dennis’ health and well-being have drastically improved – he receives regular medical assessments, blood pressure testing, treatments and three nutritious meals per day.
“The doctor told me my blood pressure has been near perfect. Not two points above, not two points under!” he states proudly.
Throughout it all, music remained a source of comfort and much happiness for Mr. Dennis. Over the years, he would perform for local churches and bars as often as possible. Sometimes music provided him with much-needed supplemental income – but more so, it gave him purpose to share his love of music with others.
“When I was living on the streets, I met all different people. I really love playing music for them because some of them had been through some really tough times and my music comes from the heart. They really feel it, you know? That’s why I do it – for them.”
Over the past few months, safety protocols have kept Mr. Dennis inside Home of the Brave, isolated from the outside world and unable to perform for his commuters and fans.
“I really HATE not being able to go out,” he explains. “Typically, I’m out every day, 7 days a week. I just miss the people – I miss them all.”
Mr. Dennis cannot wait for the day he can return to Suburban Station and play his music once more.
“When this is over, I’m going straight down to Suburban Station. I’m going to bring my flute or saxophone and I’m just going to play,” he states emphatically. “I have a town and the people behind me – they are my people! I just can’t wait to play for them all again, do what I do best.”