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We came back to our ordinary college life Tuesday afternoon, and already I’m taking the things I’ve got for granted: a microwave, a bicycle, a room to call my own.
(Sorry it took so long to post this; I spent a long time trying to eliminate the wind noise and eventually gave up.)
Our three days on the streets confirmed something a close friend told me before I left: We were stepping into a subculture.
When you’re homeless for a while, you develop a keen eye for fellow homeless people. And when someone new enters your community, you’re naturally curious. That’s why, within a few blocks of leaving our apartment, we were questioned by an older homeless man.
“You two running away from home?” he asked, stopping to lean on his cane as we passed him. Everyone wanted to know our story. It’s an icebreaker, like asking a college kid what his major is. The next question was usually a request for cigarettes. As I’ve said before, everyone smokes out there.
It’s a fairly tight-knit community, partly because everyone hangs out in the same areas downtown: Finlay Park, the Richland County Public Library, and the soup kitchens at Washington Street United Methodist and Ebenezer Lutheran. When I asked someone at the library how to get to the lunchtime soup kitchen, he told me, “Just follow the crowd.”
The homeless community is not just tightly knit, though. It’s isolated. In our three days, we never had a conversation with someone who was not homeless or involved with homeless services. We’d ask folks on the sidewalk for the time, but there was rarely so much as polite chit-chat afterward.
Ernest said he never speaks to people outside of this homeless circle. A soft-spoken man named Craig, whom we met while waiting for the library to open one morning, said that he’s started attending a church downtown, but that he hasn’t let any of the congregants know he’s homeless. He arrives clean-shaven in a collared shirt, and no one suspects a thing.
Being homeless in public was an experience I can only compare to traveling in a country where you don’t know the language. In the markets in India last winter, I could speak to other English-speakers, but I couldn’t get far beyond a nod or a cordial “As-Salamu Alaykum” with most of the natives. Here in Columbia, with several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag tied to my backpack, I was just as much an outsider. All the charm in the world wasn’t going to bring me back into the public’s good graces.
I never experienced any outright meanness from non-homeless people, just courteous distance. Occasionally, though, there are unabashed harassers, like the group of young troublemakers who drove by the bus stops in recent months peppering homeless people with their paintball guns. Or like the college students who confront homeless people in the winter night and settle the argument by dousing them with ice water. Or like the lady in the park who failed to correct her daughter when she walked by my friend Dawn and said, “Mommy, isn’t that a homeless piece of shit?”
I also became aware of two distinct approaches to being homeless. They’re essentially the same two approaches anyone can take in life. But when you’re homeless, they can mean the difference between life and death, or at least between a bed inside and a box on the street.
On the one hand, there are people like my friend Ernest, who talks about shelter life like prison life: “You back down from a fight, you’ll get punked.”
Ernest and I talked often about the very real threats that homeless people pose to each other. There are a few who will not hesitate to rob you in your sleep, and others who pick fights seemingly out of pure meanness. Is it worth fighting these people, though? Ernest seems to think so.
“People get angry at the world and take it out on each other,” he said.
On the other hand, there’s my friend Tommy, who believes so firmly in the virtue of keeping to himself that he stays out of the shelters except for the coldest nights. He camps out in the woods whenever possible, and when he does come inside, he lives by the same sort of maxims they preach at Oliver Gospel Mission.
“You go through the serving line and they give you one biscuit instead of two, be thankful for that,” the preacher said in his sermon Monday night.
There was certainly syncretism of these two approaches, but I learned which people leaned more to one side or the other. My friend John, for instance, stayed with Tommy and was almost always of the same conflict-avoidance mindset. But when he realized someone dangerous was following him to our sleeping spot, he sprung into action.
“The pen is mightier than the sword!” he bellowed, turning and brandishing a ballpoint pen like a shiv. He was banking on the tracker thinking he was crazy enough to do something, and it worked.
Surviving on the streets, though, is just as much about keeping yourself sane. Whether it’s through church or music or a cornball sense of humor (“I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention”), everyone out there needs to maintain a sense of normalcy. Maybe Tommy said it best:
“You’ve got to stay positive.”
Say you’re getting $200 per month on your Electronic Benefit Transfer card. How do you spend it?
You’ll want to stretch that money as far as you can, right? Get the 24-pack of Ramen, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, maybe some lunchmeat? But if you’re homeless — no pantry, no refrigerator — you buy what you can carry on your back.
I’ve always questioned the spending habits of my homeless friends. When you’ve got next to nothing, why are you spending it on Mountain Dew and cigarettes? Is Starbucks coffee really worth it?
Here in Columbia, you could go entirely without food expenses if you made it to the soup kitchens every day — which is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But that might be part of the reason why some people end up monetizing their food stamps, either by selling them to each other (in the case of people still receiving paper stamps) or by reselling their EBT-bought food at a marked-up price. As a disclaimer, I am almost certain that both of these activities are illegal. But they happen.
Here’s what you do: Use your EBT card to buy a twelve-pack of soda on sale for $3. Then go into a shelter, Finlay Park, or anywhere the homeless congregate, and sell those sodas individually for 50 cents a pop. Sell them all (not as hard as you’d think), and you turn a $3 profit. You’ve now got $6 in cash where you once had $3 that had to be spent on non-heated food items.
Today we’ll look at some of the decision-making processes that the homeless make around Columbia. What I’m learning is that, like anybody, the homeless rarely make decisions based on pure reason.
Off the streets, we do the same thing every day. We confuse wants and needs. I didn’t need that album I bought last week, and it would have been wiser to buy groceries than a taco at Moe’s. But I quietly told myself the enjoyment was worth the cost.
Ernest told me yesterday that a lot of people don’t take up smoking until they’re homeless. They willingly take on a nonessential expense — a $6 pack per day in some cases — because the nicotine helps them cope. A cigarette is soothing, and it gives you something to do. Smoking is a community-building activity; everyone bums smokes off of everyone. I have met almost no homeless people who don’t smoke.
The American public has a longstanding tradition of judging the ways in which homeless and poor folks spend their money. We see a picture of a man in a soup kitchen using a cell phone, and we question whether he’s in need at all. (On a side note, many homeless people do have cell phones. Everyone needs to stay in contact, and sometimes that’s the most efficient way to do it.)
There’s also the whole issue of savings. What that amounts to, in some cases, is a wad of cash stuffed in a sock that’s tied to your belt loop and tucked into your pants. When you carry all your money around with you, it gets gone pretty quickly. Either somebody finds a way to steal it or you find a way to spend it.
Savings accounts are not unheard of, though. Tommy has one, and he gets half his unemployment check sent to it automatically. I’ve seen men come up off the streets in Columbia, and if memory serves, they have all had savings accounts. Not a bad idea.
When it comes to actually earning money, there’s one logical question: Why don’t you go get a job?
I asked Tommy that question this morning, and he pulled out a sheet from the unemployment office. In order to extend your unemployment benefits, you’ve got to prove you’ve applied 25 different places by getting the potential employers’ signatures. Looking down the sheet, I saw 22 entries from electrical and heating/AC business owners, each with unpromising memos like “Awaiting results” or “Not hiring.”
Is Tommy looking in the wrong places? Doubtful. Electrical work is his specialty; he’s done it since high school. He’s sticking with what he knows, and he’s not afraid to work. Before his previous employer went out of business a year ago, Tommy would leave his sleeping spot at 4 a.m. to walk to work. But South Carolina’s jobless rate was 12.4 percent in December, and some industries are more vulnerable than others.
At what point do you stop trying?
At breakfast at the Oliver Gospel Mission this morning, a man named Claude told me about two important categories of homeless people.
There are the transients, who see their condition as temporary and are working to get out of it as soon as possible. These are the men who never refer to the Mission as “home.”
Then there are the doohinkles. The doohinkles have no intention of leaving the homeless life. To the extent that they can, they’ve gotten comfortable, and they’re no longer looking for jobs.
My guess is that no one is born a doohinkle. It’s a condition into which you let yourself slide after years of running into brick walls. Yes, it’s a choice. But it takes an awful lot to choose not to give up.
We were up before the birds and out with the runners this morning. I’ll not say where we stayed because I don’t want to compromise our friends’ safe spot, but suffice to say it was not the Marriott.
When you sleep on the streets, you are breaking the law. There are urban camping laws here in Columbia. What our friends tell us, though, is that the authorities won’t give you trouble as long as you lay low and clean up after yourself. Usually.
That’s the thing about being homeless: You’re living in a legal gray area, often with no permanent address or photo ID, and you can get picked up for any number of activities that constitute your daily life: loitering, panhandling, public urination, sleeping where you ought not.
Can you avoid these things? Yes, but it means you’re constantly moving, usually broke, spending money at restaurants just to use their restrooms, and sleeping in a shelter with hundreds of strangers.
I should introduce you to our friends.
Tommy, who turned 49 last week without realizing it was his birthday, is an 18-year veteran who served in Cambodia, a skilled electrician and AC worker, and one heck of a guitarist. He taught me Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” yesterday on Christine, the weathered Fender acoustic he named after his mother.
Ernest, 31, worked on the assembly and teardown crew for a carnival for years and is trying to get back up to Indiana where he can get a similar job. He grew up in Cincinnati, had a rocky relationship with his parents, stayed with a foster family for a while, and spent time in jail for shooting someone’s car with a BB gun. He is generous with what he has; he bought sandwiches for Matt and me yesterday and hands out cigarettes to all who ask.
Dawn, 33, is a mother of three and a gentle spirit. She went to celebrate her daughter’s eighth birthday yesterday and came back heartbroken, sick of the streets and wanting to be with her children more often. Still, she might accompany Ernest up north if the two can save up and get a bus ticket.
John is Tommy’s good friend. We haven’t gotten to know him very well yet, but he’s been helpful and has a disarming sense of humor.
It would take pages to sum up everything that happened yesterday, so I’ll instead share a few things I’ve learned:
- You sleep on cardboard boxes, not in them. Break them down and pile them three high, and you’ve got yourself a sidewalk Serta.
- Everyone loves an underdog – especially the homeless. Tommy, and several other people I’ve met, feed the strays of Columbia. “I could’ve used that $3 for more cigarettes, but it’ll do more good in a kitty’s belly,” Tommy told me.
- You really won’t starve here, but you might not get many vegetables. Here’s what I ate yesterday: one Chick-o-Stick, one roast beef and Swiss cold sub sandwich, half a Hershey bar, two beef tacos, one Now and Later (banana-flavored).
- One of the obstacles many homeless people face in getting a job is clothing. I asked some of the guys a blunt question last night outside of Starbucks: If you’ve got all this time during the day, what’s keeping you from applying for a job? Their answer was that potential employers can tell when you’re homeless. They said that if you’re wearing dirty clothes and carrying your world on your back, and if you bear the inevitable BO that comes with spending most of your day outside, they assume you’ll spend your first paycheck either on drugs or on a ticket out of town. So how about it, churches and service providers? A free laundry service? Seems like it could make a difference.
- Food stamps go for 50 cents to the dollar on the black market.
- Some homeless people sleep like I do during exam week. By the time the yellowshirts (jonquil-clad workers from City Center Partnership who will tell you to move along if you lie down downtown) had called it a night and we’d army-crawled our way to the safe spot, it was 11:30 p.m. Our alarm clock was the 4 a.m. bells at St. Peter’s, and we cleared off before we became a nuisance to the businessmen.
- Since you can’t bring sleeping bags into the Richland County Public Library, storage is a big deal. You can hide your pack in the bushes in Finlay, but, as Ernest learned yesterday, sometimes scavengers will find your stuff. Tommy pays a friend $15 a month to let him store his guitar during the day.
- “Sally” is the Salvation Army. The “Breezeway Inn” is where we stayed last night.
- It’s not panhandling if you don’t ask for money. Tommy was toting his guitar through a Bi-Lo parking lot Saturday night and got approached by a couple who wanted to dance the shag. He obliged with a reggae song, a crowd gathered to dance, and he made $100.