Research shows that public opinion about the homeless is that of laziness, drug use and serious mental illness. The homeless however report to outreach that domestic violence, high rents and parent breakdown (with young people) is what launches them to the streets where they then develop drug use and mental instability as coping mechanisms. It's chicken and egg. The truth is each person's story is unique and not cut and dry in any bucket. I personally have known several average middle class loving families with someone unwell with addiction that ends up on the streets. I have also seen financial ruin and physical illness bring someone to brushes with the streets. When you trace back histories and stories there is always the struggle of not just that person but the people around them too. There are hardly ever any villains. People choose potentially dangerous streets over certifiably dangerous boarding houses, just one example that the best decision at the time often contributes to a funnel of decline that takes more energy than one's lifestyle can support them to summon to dig out of.
Hi, My name is Jill, what is yours. I extend my hand. Lovingly sprinkled with a dash of OCD I make a note that the hand is off limits for any future activities until disinfected. He responds JACK, with a chuckle. He takes my hand and then quickly follows up his joke with a proper introduction….my name is Tim. I say you remind of someone so I wanted to say hi and hear more about your daughter (I gesture to his whiteboard). He jokes again, ah, so you are going to ask if you can sit on my lap now…I get it all the time. I am taken off guard then realize he does look a bit like Santa and he is joking again. I laugh but tell him no, it is someone else.
Tim jumps right into his pitch. He points to his sign and tells me about his stepdaughter and her liver and how she has fallen through the cracks of the system. He clearly knows he has just 2 to set the hook. I listen intently and ask questions at appropriate places. He begins to get that I am giving him more than the 2- am not going anywhere soon. I notice his eyes are pretty swollen still perhaps from sleep. The light seems to bother them. One of his eyes has a purple half moon under it. He shifts focus. Have I detected a North American accent? Where are you from? I tell him Pennsylvania and he has some facts to share about William Penn and Philadelphia cream cheese. He digs into his pile of things and after a minute stops, frustrated he can't find something. Rats. I have something I want to show you to let you know I know something about where you are from. It comes across as an extremely thoughtful courtesy.
I venture into another level of dialogue and ask him, how are you doing? It must be a challenge sometimes to be here on this corner. His face and voice change to a softened place and he shares in a very un-salesman-like pitch, it's hard. He shows me his black eye and tells me someone 25 years younger than he attacked him the night before last. The beating continued until the camera across the street alerted the police and they came and immediately incarcerated his attacker without any due process because he was a known felon and menace. He educated me that the record heat has brought an accompanying record level of alcohol consumption to the city. I didn't catch it all but something about the guy knowing him from sometime ago and starting with prison talk even calling him a pedophile. He told me that often others come in the night while he is sleeping and feel around his domain looking under his crate and in his pile of papers trying to find and take his money. He then returns to levity a bit losing the vulnerability and becomes entertaining and informed. He talks at length about problems in cities and countries and goes on to compare Sydney with say a New York. He quotes things he has read. He is very lucid.
I tell him I admire his choice in corners acknowledging his intellect in choosing well. He appreciates I recognize his smarts and tells me about how a corner either way is not as prime and lists the reasons. He adds that it's such a challenge to be on the streets in this record heat. I ask if he has anywhere to go if things get really tough. His voice changes again and he looks down responding, I have nowhere. The government has places he says. I quickly reply I had heard they are often less safe than the streets. His eyes got wide and he says with emphasis, you're damn right. He continues, they are overrun with mental instability, which he quickly adds is the polite term for mental illness, and drug use and crime. He says they are loaded with aboriginals and located in the most horrific places with no air-conditioning and wildlife unbecoming of cohabitation. He talks about how the heat is such that even a budgie couldn't survive. He follows up with a dissertation about budgies- a form of parrot- and how they fly in groups for safety and how just 1 budgie would surely die in the heat. I asked if that's how he felt, like a budgie. He says no, he is lucky because the Jacobs store AC wafts out on him. It's hard in winter though. I make a note to ponder the budgie analogy later for clues of how he feels.
He tells me he has been there years now. I already knew this from the salon clerk I interviewed revealing she has seen him the entire 4 years of her employ. He shares he actually has a pension but gives it to his stepdaughter and continues with pride that he is trying to do the right thing. I wonder if it is some sort of confabulation to make his world make sense. The stepdaughter, the ultimate sacrifice, the swiftness of the justice system instantly incarcerating his attacker- good versus evil. I quickly stop that thought stream. So what if he is, I don't dare take away any of his life-maintaining defense. That would be a robbery worse than any night stalker could perform. It is clear to me that people do not subject themselves to being beat up and living this way as a preferred "easy" choice. I trust there was a path that led him here and that he is doing the best he can to survive in ways I probably cant imagine. I am not qualified to judge his techniques or choice of tools in his belt. My mind flashes to someone dear. Sometimes when you are in a place where you are losing or have lost so much, there is simple dignity to be found in maintaining an ounce of control and choosing your own path- no matter how undignified the result seems. The gift is in the preservation of choice, and that can be more sustenance than a hot shower and regular meal. Living your own life rather than one someone else wants you to live is a line for battle history knows well. I get it.
I tell him I can tell he is well read. He shows me a wired magazine from the UK. Somehow we get on the near to decommission monorail and he talks about how it doesn't make any money and has low value because it connects so few places. Perhaps at an awkward spot I get out $20 and tell him just a little something to go towards his cause again gesturing to his whiteboard supporting his good deed or confabulation- whatever the case may be. He says thank you and handles it with grace. He does not look at the amount and holds it gingerly rather than hungrily- like he may return it at any moment. We both realize the real gift in our midst isn't the $20 and don't want to cheapen the real gift by shifting focus to cash.
There is an unnamed deficit that the evidence-based paper did not report about- the lack of basic human contact. I understand the risks inherent with making contact with the likely populations of the homeless and don't suggest it is wise. But I cannot understate the sacredness of this instance of doing so. There was mutual gifting going on.
As if he was mortified he had acted in poor manners, he said you know so much about me. I don't know anything about Jill from Pennsylvania. I tell him I am traveling in Asia and have 3 kids and am a writer. I ask if I can write about him, and if I can, what he would want me to say. He says I don't know if you are talking about a short paper (and hold his hands up to show about 1 page length) or an essay. He goes on, if you write a short paper I want it to say I died trying to do the right thing and help someone out. If it is a long essay, then I want it to include a message to the world that if people don't start caring and getting uncomfortable with walking by someone suffering then the world is headed to an awful place. He gets into human nature and his observations from his near ground level perch. He sees people walking by with their illusions and he names a few of them. He doesn't sound victimized by it, just like someone who has a lot of time to think and observe human nature.
It's been an hour and I extend that I hope when I next walk by that we can call each other by name and say hello. I thank him for the chat and tell him I hope we can chat more later but need to get back to my family. He says I will probably be here half joking about his homeless condition. He adds I am welcome to his corner anytime. We shake hands again.