(Orginally published in the 2/27 issue)
I’ve heard the joke before – the one about the communications major, the homeless magpie and – punch line – the remarkable
lack of differences.
It wasn’t funny then, and it’s about to get a whole lot less funny.
While I may encounter memorable, sleepless nights and witness topless boozers, my upcoming spring break promises to be unlike most others.
For one week I will tour Philadelphia, scratching the underbelly of homelessness with the help of some 4,000 indigent tour guides scattered throughout the city’s doorways, subways and shelters.
“You’re going to be living on the streets down there?” asked Capt. Eileen Bradley of Temple’s Campus Safety Services.
Yup. “You’re not going to a shelter?” Possibly.”I just think you should think this through a little bit,” Bradley said. Too late.
Just like any interview, I won’t withhold the fact that I’m a reporter from anyone. Since homelessness is as prevalent as it is vague, I first have to know what I’m after. From those who put the ‘park’ in park benches, to those living in vans down by the river, to even permanent house guests, homelessness includes anyone without “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” according to Projecthome.org.
Sam Hall has fallen under that definition intermittently for about five years. Months after Sept. 11, 2001, the former mailman “ran into a depression and lost the will to live,” he said, after losing his mother and his son’s mother to cancer. Since then, Hall, 46, said he has been fired and imprisoned for threatening an employer
“Now I found that I have a record and now I can’t fight through the red and say, ‘OK, let’s start over,'” he said. “No, that’s a mistake and now it’s causing repercussions down the road that I never foreseen.”
Panhandling in front of the 7 Eleven located on Liacouras Walk, Hall told me he has a deadline of 9 p.m., the curfew at the Emergency Shelter Intake for Men, located at 1360 Ridge Ave., to collect enough money for a subway token.
“I really don’t like asking a lot of people, but I’d rather do that than to be out there dishonestly trying to earn this or earn that,” he said, referring to how other homeless people rely on theft to survive.
In past years, Hall said he would walk everywhere; however this caused him to develop gangrene and diabetes, both for which he is medically treated through public health insurance.
“I have more wear and tear on my body than I should have,” Hall said.And I will have less suntan lotion on my body than I should have. Albeit foretelling only half of my week, Weather.com’s 10-day forecast is sunny.
Limiting my items to meet the standards of most express-lane checkouts, I am bringing only the necessities: a backpack, one outfit, a notebook, pencils, a voice recorder, AAA batteries, my driver’s license, a hat, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a pair of socks, a pair of gloves and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
“Having a little literature with you keeps those little things with you that will occupy your time positively and keep your mind working so you just won’t be existing,” said Hall, who finished his college education as a junior at Kutztown University.
To allow some time for my beard to grow to grizzly proportions, I will ease myself into this project with $10, the cost of one of your fancy drinks in Cancun. After I spend it, I’m going to test how deep Philly’s brotherly love can go, and then hit the curb begging.
“People say they’re just doing it to get drugs,” said freshman theater major Katie Nearpass, referring to panhandlers. “I don’t know what they’re doing it for, but it’s my money and I’m not going to give it to them.”
If not from the hands of others, Hall gave me some pointers on where to eat out.”If you can get to areas that feed, that’s one thing,” Hall said. “And sometimes where you can’t get no where and nobody helps you, you eat out of a dumpster or wherever you can see some food that you can get. That’s how it is.”
While asking for change is legal, continuing to do so is not, Bradley said. That’s when an officer could take it into their own hands.
“Of course we tell them that’s harassment
… ‘Just move on, you’re harassing the students,'” Bradley said. “If someone becomes very aggressive toward the students, you got to take action, but arrest is the last thing you want to do.”
That’s not the only way you could wind up in the back of a police car. Bradley said when the wind-chill factor plummets below 20, or when precipitation is combined with sub-freezing temperatures, Philadelphia issues “Code Blue,” a new city-wide alert that calls upon officers into transporting
the homeless off the streets and into shelters. However, as per law, none of Philadelphia’s 6,624 officers can force them into safety.
Before “Code Blue” and his sheltered living, Hall said life was a lot colder.
“Even during these real cold days, I’ve had times where I’ve had to sleep outside. You just try to find a place where all the wind isn’t hitting you,” Hall continued, “and sometimes you just grab every piece of garment that you can.
“Just put it on your body and hopefully somewhere you might run into a blanket or something and just try to find someplace that’s blocking the air – and deal with it.”
Even without gloves?
“If you have them, you do. If you don’t you …,” Hall said, pausing, “you will find out how resourceful you can be.”
Steve Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.