Posts Tagged ‘family’

Among my glaring character flaws: I’m terrible at keeping up with friends.

Matt and I made some close friends during our three days on the streets, and I want to do a better job than usual of not losing track of them. This post is about that.

Ernest, Dawn, Tommy, and John were our indispensable Sherpa guides. They showed us where to sleep, taught us how to walk and talk and argue, and introduced us to kind souls while steering us clear of the crooks and mouthwash drinkers.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when I’ve been more dependent on someone for safety. Maybe that’s why homeless people are often so choosy with their friends: Befriend the wrong person and you’re endangering yourself. Friendships among homeless people seem to be less based on common interests and more based on the idea that a person will protect and stick up for you, maybe even lay down his life for you.

I sat down with Tommy for dinner Monday night, and he got all emotional with me, talking about the serendipity of our paths having crossed and the firmness of his conviction that we would always be linked. It was the sort of conversation that men rarely share, and when we shook hands goodbye, I knew it was something sacred.

The next evening, I got a call from Ernest, who had me on speakerphone so I could hear Dawn as she thrashed him in a game of rummy.

Back on March 31, the day before the Winter Shelter closed, I gave the two of them a ride to the Greyhound station and sent them on their way with a bag full of sandwiches and apples and a calling card — all the things I thought my mom would have handed me. Ernest had secured jobs for both of them, along with a friend, in a traveling carnival based out of Indiana. As we pulled into the parking lot, someone was singing Leonard Cohen on the radio:

“Love is not a victory march;

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

It was a tough departure for Dawn, and while some of this had to do with the fact that she’d never left the state before, it was mainly because she was leaving her children behind.

Dawn’s got three kids, and she knows that no court will award her custody while she’s homeless. The plan is to save up her money until the carnival ends in October and then come back to collect her children. She said she hopes they’ll understand one day why she has to do this.

As for Tommy and John, they cleared out of their downtown sleeping spots once the Winter Shelter closed, hoping to avoid confrontations by setting up camp in the woods. So far so good, but tensions are high. John’s been talking about some bad blood among their group of friends, and Tommy, a recovering alcoholic, has decided he can’t be around his longtime friends who drink liquor every night.

Still, Tommy was in higher spirits Monday night than I’d ever seen him. He’d spent some considerable time sitting by the river alone, playing his guitar and watching the water pass, and he spoke euphorically about Heaven and the promise that all things will be made new. I could tell he’d been praying a lot, and he said he’d been praying for me.

Tommy talked plans: He wants to start a homeless Bible study, and he said he’s got around 25 people interested in it on either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday nights. He asked me to see if any college ministries wanted to help out.

He told me that, once he finally gets things straight with Veterans Affairs and receives his five years’ worth of checks in arrears, he’ll put most of the money in the bank, buy some good boots and a tent, and hike the Appalachian Trail, living off the land and the kindness of strangers. Upon returning, he’ll find a place of his own and continue the job hunt.

I asked if I could tag along once again, and he said that would be fine.

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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:

  1. You sleep on cardboard boxes, not in them. Break them down and pile them three high, and you’ve got yourself a sidewalk Serta.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. Food stamps go for 50 cents to the dollar on the black market.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. “Sally” is the Salvation Army. The “Breezeway Inn” is where we stayed last night.
  9. 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.

The things that will soon be my only possessions are at the foot of my bed. As you can see from the video, those things don’t amount to much.*

It’s Saturday night, and, come Sunday morning, we’re heading out. Never before have the words “heading out” carried so much weight.

We’re not just going outside. We’re leaving behind a lifestyle of privilege and security, albeit only briefly. We’re going out into a world where nothing is certain and precious few rules can be enforced.

The people who will be showing us the city over the next three days have a subculture all their own, and I’m bracing myself for a sort of cultural whiplash. Yesterday, I took notes in class and bought my dad a vinyl album at Papa Jazz; tomorrow, I’ll make mental notes on the streets and have nothing to spend at the stores.

You could say I’m anxious, but I’m not afraid anymore. I believe we’re in capable hands.

There are a lot of people back home who — through no merit of my own — love me, and I know they’ll be pacing the floor a lot while we’re out there. I’m beginning to understand the mindset of the homeless people who never give out their real names for fear their families will find out what’s become of them. Who would want to put their loved ones through this stress?

I’m anxious because I know we’ll run into homeless people who want no part of this naïve schoolboy project. Some of them, when they find out what we’re doing, will find it intrusive and obnoxious. Such is journalism, I suppose.

Wayne Fields, who directs the Oliver Gospel Mission downtown, told me that he once considered doing something along the lines of this project while he was working with the homeless in Pennsylvania. But he said he ran into the same problem we did: His anonymity was shot.

“Everyone on the streets there knew who I was,” he said.

Initially, Matt and I had considered going out there anonymously, living and speaking as if we were two newly homeless people who’d just arrived in town. But that would have been dishonest and a hard sell. Besides, we’ve been around Columbia too long, and, thanks especially to the local news coverage of our project, the word is already out.

If anybody knows what’s going on in Columbia, it’s the homeless people. Some guys I know will spend hours at the library every day poring over newspapers from around the state and reading news online. And when you’ve got little to entertain yourself at night but talk, word spreads fast. Odds are there are homeless people reading this right now.

As for the safety issue: I know we are putting ourselves in harm’s way. I’ve received plenty of sobering warnings and one jolting wakeup call. But I believe that the potential for good to come out of this project is well worth the risk.

Earlier today, I gave the keynote speech at a convention for high school journalists and advisers. I got a little grandiose toward the end about the power of good journalism, and I’d like to end this entry with a paraphrase of something I said at the end — something that I hope will hold true about this project:

“As journalists, you have a chance to do something incredible. What you can do is you can grab your reader by the collar, pull him down to the level of the people you’re writing about, and say, ‘Look this man in the eyes. This is your neighbor, out here digging through the trash for his dinner. This is your sister who got raped downtown and left out in the cold. This is somebody’s brother, somebody’s friend, somebody’s daughter. What are you going to do about it?’”

* In addition to what I listed in the video, I will also bring a can of pepper spray (at the request of my mother) and a toothbrush (at the persistent, twice-a-year request of my dental hygienist).

Here’s the new plan: On March 7, my roommate and I will head outside in Columbia, S.C. But we won’t be out there alone.

Partly due to our much-publicized run-in a couple of weeks ago, and partly due to a lot of soul-searching and heavy thinking on my part, we’re going about this homeless project differently. We’ll be accompanying some close friends who’ve been living on the streets awhile, and we’ll only spend Sunday through Tuesday on the streets.

Does this mean we’re wimping out? Sure. I’m fine with saying that. Living homeless is dangerous, and I lack the courage to stick it out for even one week. This was never about bravery, anyway.

So what will we do with the rest of our Spring Break after Tuesday? We’ll still be bringing you stories about homelessness in Columbia. Since we’ll be able to come back to the comforts of home at the end of the day, we’ll shoot video and dig deeper in a more straightforward journalistic sense.

We want to look, for instance, at the process of obtaining a photo ID (and maybe also a voter registration) when you start with nothing. We’ll talk to some families about the impact of homelessness on the home front.

This was a tough decision to make — we’ve been agonizing over it since Feb. 19 — but I think it will make this project safer and more effective.

Soon after our test-run holdup, friends and experts started flooding my inbox with advice. We learned that the homeless shelters had been full to capacity recently, and we certainly didn’t want to kick someone else out on our account. Some people who had initially raised their eyebrows when I consulted them about the project now voiced their objections more firmly. Here’s what one homeless case worker wrote in an e-mail:

“I was hesitant in helping you before and was tempted to tell you not to do it but failed to act on it. That was my mistake. I would advise you with the current situation as it stands that you not try to experience homeless culture, because it is a safety issue.”

Others put it more bluntly, telling me in essence that the original plan — to spend a week out there on our own — was a good way to get stabbed. I’ve learned that homeless people aren’t just vulnerable to hunger or the elements. Perhaps more than anyone, they’re exposed to our city’s criminal elements.

While doubts waxed and waned in my mind, something remarkable happened: Independently, four different homeless people offered to stick with my roommate and me during the project.

I’ll not give out their names just yet because we’ve not established how they want to be identified, but they are all steadfast friends. We’ve shared meals, celebrated birthdays, written songs, prayed together, and helped each other out when possible. Their kind offers reminded me why I wanted to do this project in the first place: to highlight the struggles and common dignity of our homeless neighbors. Anyone who thinks all homeless people are lazy, dangerous, or addicted to drugs would do well to meet my friends.

We’ll still be doing this with next to nothing: sleeping bags, flashlights, notebook, pen. But we’ll be much smarter about where we go and how we conduct ourselves at night. My friends and I will have each other’s backs. Still interested? Read on.

What’s my angle? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately.

My simple answer is that I want to learn as much as possible about the homeless experience in my city. The best I can hope for is to paint a realistic portrait of life on Columbia’s streets.

My complicated answer is an ever-expanding list of questions. I’ve heard a lot of outlandish and unsettling things from the homeless people I know in Columbia, and I want to check them out. Here are a few for starters. Feel free to let me know what you know on these topics, and by all means suggest more topics I should investigate.

1. Is there really homeless prostitution downtown? I’ve heard about this on several occasions, and the story usually goes something like this: Upper-middle-class men cruise the main strips in their cars, slowing when they approach clusters of homeless men. They roll down their windows and offer money for sex, and if one of the homeless men is desperate enough — often for a drug fix — he gets in the car.

Here’s Lightfoot, who chose not to use his real name for this interview, talking about the prostitution he said he has witnessed in his months living on Columbia’s streets:

Does this really happen in our city? I’ll be asking around and keeping my eyes peeled to find out.

2. What’s it like in the shelters? I’m involved with a homeless ministry that takes dinner to the bus stops once a week, and we occasionally run into people who say they won’t go to the shelters, even when it’s below freezing. Some have been banned for behavioral or drug issues, but others tell us they’re avoiding either the spread of germs or the nightly potential for fights to break out. What are conditions really like in there? What does it take to keep the peace and to keep people clean and healthy?

3. How common is it for homeless people in Columbia to have savings accounts? Some have said that helping people open accounts is one of the keys to ending poverty.

4. What do homeless people think about the welfare services and public institutions around Columbia? What are they saying, for instance, about MIRCI or the Salvation Army? Do they see CMRTA as a reliable way to get around town? Do they take advantage of free health care when they need it?

5. Can families stick together on the streets? Many shelters are for men or women exclusively, and I hear stories from time to time of couples who have to part ways while they’re homeless.

6. Are the day labor agencies viable places to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? Is it possible to find steady enough work there with good enough pay when you’re trying to get off the streets?

7. How effective are faith-based aid groups at helping the homeless? One encouraging thing I’ve heard from several homeless people is that, thanks to the churches, nobody starves to death in Columbia. But are there cases where you have to sit through a sermon just to get lunch? What is a homeless person’s spiritual life like? When you’re trying to get some help and you’re living in the Bible Belt, does it behoove you to talk about Jesus — even if you don’t really believe?