Posts Tagged ‘Finlay Park’

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.”

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Even when I am living on the streets, I will be far from homeless.

As several people have pointed out in the past week — some more subtly than others — I’m just some privileged white kid who thinks he can urban-camp for a week and understand what it’s like to be homeless.  Point taken.

There is a lot more to being homeless than not having a bed to call your own, and I realize that.  The things I’ll be experiencing during my homeless week are only the basic, physical privations.

I met a woman named Dawn last weekend in Finlay Park.  She’d been out on the streets for a month, and she was getting around on crutches with a sprained foot.  She had experienced the cruelty of strangers and the cold of our city in the dead of winter.  But in the midst of all those things, here’s what she said was the worst part:

I have no children, so I won’t experience the anguish of being unable to provide for them.  In a way, I’m being spared the worst.

Another important shortcoming of my homeless week: I’m planning this out.  I’ll have some warm clothes, a rough itinerary for each day, and a definite ending date.  This is not how homelessness works.  Here’s how Mike, whom I also met in Finlay Park that day, explained his homeless experience:

“Homelessness is just something that happens to you.  It’s not something you plan on.  Five years ago, being homeless was the last thing I thought I was gonna be.  I had a good family, my wife worked for a senator, and you know, I have a problem with alcoholism, and it just led from one thing to another and it kept getting worse and worse, and then the next thing I knew it was I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I had to try to find places to sleep.”

A far cry from my situation, to be sure.  I’ve met recovering drug addicts who can’t even piece together a narrative of how they got where they are.  The sheer uncertainty of circumstances can take a toll on people’s minds.  To know neither where you are going nor where you have been is a deeply troubling thing.

What’s more, I* have no handicaps.  I was reminded of this today by a homeless man named Albert.  Albert is an older black man with a ready smile and a penchant for talking about God, and he has no legs.  He told me he lost them in an accident involving a bulldozer.

I was driving up Gregg Street when Albert approached me in a manual wheelchair.  He was having trouble getting up the hill, and he said he would appreciate a lift.

I asked him if he’d like me to push him or help him into the passenger seat, but he shook his head and said, “Just roll down one of your windows for me.”

He gripped the back edge of a window frame as I slowly ski-lifted him all the way up the hill, and then he thanked me and rolled on.

I am not mentally disabled.  I am not heartbroken.  I am not an Army veteran with PTSD.  But these are key elements of so many homeless stories I have heard already.

That’s the thing: I’m not just heading out on the streets to tell my story.  I’m doing this to hear others’ stories.

As far as the personal experience, my expectations go about as far as this description, given to me by a man named John whom I met on the steps behind Richland County Public Library:

“When you’re on the streets, this is your pillow,” John said as he set his backpack down.

“This is your blanket,” he said, patting his camouflage fatigue jacket.

“And this is your bed,” he said, lowering himself onto the concrete, staring straight at me.

* I should here note that “I” has become “we.”  My roommate Matt will be accompanying me on the streets for reasons of safety and perspective.  So all you moms out there can breathe a little easier.