A new face of homelessness is emerging in the U.S., downtrodden from today’s economic climate.

Christopher Gardner knows all too well how the events in one’s life can topple down in a domino-effect. Gardner, CEO and founder of the Chicago-based brokerage firm Gardner Rich LLC, was homeless just 25 years ago. His autobiography was portrayed in the 2006 movie The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith.

The keynote speaker for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® 2009 Leadership Summit on Tuesday, Aug. 25, Gardner shed light on the group of people he referred to as “white-collar homeless,” and shared his own remarkable story.

How does someone become homeless? Well, it’s not always a result of drugs or alcohol, Gardner explains. The cause is more universally relatable. “It’s called life. Life happens,” says Gardner.

Gardner, whose second book, Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, was published in May, addressed more than 1,800 real estate executives with a speech that painted a very personal picture of homelessness.

Approximately 12 percent of homeless were fully employed back in 2007 (prior to the official start of the current recession), according to Gardner. And statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that over a five-year period, roughly 5-8 million people (about 2-3 percent of the U.S. population) will experience at least one night of homelessness.

“All that running you saw Will Smith do in the film–all that was true,” Gardner says, recalling his days of finance training when he and his young son had no where to live.

Born in Milwaukee among poverty and abuse, Gardner never knew his father. But he credits his mother for providing him the motivation to never give up. She told him he could be anything he wanted to be. The life obstacles Gardner overcame reflect that drive.

When Gardner was 5 years old, he promised himself that when he grew up and had children, he would be a stable and permanent part of their lives.

After serving in the Navy, Gardner moved to San Francisco at the age of 23 to work as a medical research associate for a medical supply distributor. Four years later he met someone, they moved in together, and had a child, Chris. During the time frame the movie portrays, Gardner’s son was actually between 1 and 2 years old (younger than the 5-year-old Jaden Smith played).

Gardner went into medical supply sales, but was unfulfilled. One day Gardner saw a man, who he described as one of the sharpest he’d seen in his life, parking a gorgeous car. “What do you do and how do you do that?” Gardner asked him. The man was a stockbroker.

Gardner knew finance was his calling and began applying for training programs at brokerages. But while he collected rejection letters, Gardner also collected a number of parking tickets. As his sales income dwindled, he simply couldn’t afford to pay the tickets off.

After being offered a job with an investment firm, Gardner’s circumstances took another turn for the worse. The person who hired him was fired a day later and no one else knew of Gardner’s position. It was too late for Gardner, who had quit his sales job. Soon Gardner was cutting grass to put food on the table. Then his unpaid parking tickets caught up with him, and he ended up in jail for 10 days.

When he was released from jail, he went home to find his girlfriend had left and taken everything–including their son. Gardner had no choice but to show up to an interview at Dean Witter Reynolds in his street clothes. He told the truth about his situation, which was the best thing he could have done, Gardner says. Gardner passed the exam and entered the training program. He set a hefty goal for himself of cold-calling 200 numbers a day.

His ex-girlfriend later brought back their son Chris, and left him with Gardner to raise. However, they soon became homeless, unable to make ends meet on his trainee salary. Gardner and his son slept in hotels when they could, but often resorted to a homeless shelter, the airport, or the bathroom of an Oakland train station.

It took an entire year for Gardner to save enough money for rent, which is chronicled in his autobiography. The rose bush outside the home set it apart from the hard poverty of the Oakland neighborhood. The first night they slept on the floor.

Luckily, Gardner’s son never really realized they were homeless. But the 2-year-old had become so accustomed to Gardner carrying all their belonging with them, that he was startled when they could leave their bags at home. “We got a key now. We’re home,” Gardner told his son. “We don’t have to carry stuff no more.” Much of Gardner’s salary continued to go to childcare. But life started to turn around.

Gardner was hired at Bear Stearns in 1983, where became a top earner. In 1987 he founded his own firm, Gardner Rich. But he never forgets where he came from.

“Movie, great. Book, great. Money, great. But the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life is break the cycle of men who are not there for their children,” says Gardner.

Christopher Gardner Talks About ‘White-Collar Homelessness’ at Leadership Summit. (Posted on 08/26/09)