(Orginally published in the 5/1 issue)
The first few days living on the streets are the toughest, several homeless people told me during the more challenging times of my weeklong homeless excursion.
Meant as encouragement, these words also reveal a person’s ability to adapt to any condition, no matter how unfit they may be. However, the maxim also shows a sense of complacency, the kind easily slipped into without the need of warm milk, requiring only the lowering of expectations so as to get by, not to get ahead.
I suppose this lessens the impact of hitting rock bottom.
Emptied dope bags rested on top of a newly emptied waste basket inside the men’s restroom at the McDonald’s located at Broad Street and Girard Avenue. Moments after changing the garbage bag, the restroom attendant already had to pick up after one of the 30 patrons huddled out in the lobby.
I zipped up and moseyed over to an empty booth nearest to the door. Being completely broke, this was the only business I came to do.
While businessmen entered with change and exited with cheap coffee, the band of broken dreamers sat and watched a thin veil of snow hit the pavement and benches.
Through the glass windows, I saw bundled children frolicking in the wet stuff, some preferring to walk in the footprints of the schoolboys and schoolgirls ahead.
Instead of following this group years ago, many of the individuals around me instead zagged, veering off into a different, sometimes criminal, path. Of the more than two dozen homeless people questioned, only two told me they had graduated from high school. One continued with college before
dropping out to pursue a less costly living as a mail man, before stumbling into a hard-knock life. It led Sam Hall to jail and then – upon release – onto the streets with a smeared resume in hand.
While searching for someone to look past his criminal record, Hall spends his nights at the Ridge Avenue Center. There he keeps to himself and rests his feet, specifically his right foot, which is infected
with gangrene. Since first meeting Hall, 48, roughly two months ago, the gangrene has spread up his leg despite taking nine prescriptions worth about $1,000. Public health insurance covered all but $17 of the monthly tab, an amount he was still unable to pay.
“I told them to hold the medication until I was able to gather up the money,” he said in late February. “They told me, ‘Well, this is the first time, so you can have ’em and you’re just going to pay your co-pay when you come to refill them. And I just thank them for that.”
Since the treatment ultimately proved ineffective, Hall is considering amputation. Albeit from the plastic booths of McDonald’s, other homeless joined Hall in his wait. It was the 7 a.m. on Wednesday, March 7, or as I called it, “Day Four.”
The smell from one of the more unkempt patrons overrode that of any egg McMuffin and gave me a reason to leave the warm comfort of the house of fries for the crisp outdoors. In the most refreshing moment since my last shower – taken on the morning of my departure, March 3 – I grabbed a handful of snow and rubbed it down my neck and across my cheeks as if it were facial soap.
I felt that dirty.
Just to keep warm and kill time, I walked northbound toward Temple’s Main Campus, passing Checkers along the way. Although the rumblings of my stomach foreshadowed it, seeing the building reminded me of what the mooching homeless man said the night before: “Ya Gotta Ask.”
My reluctance to panhandle was mainly a pride issue, but the concept also suddenly felt ridiculous: I was to expect people to fork over their hard-earned cash because I wanted something to eat?
This wasn’t going well; I couldn’t even convince myself to give me the benefit of the doubt. But since I am not a registered Pennsylvania resident and consequently was unable to earn $20 selling blood (Yeah, I inquired), I had little choice.
I mustered enough courage to ask money
from old ladies, old men and anyone with his or her head down. I targeted the most unsuspecting people, however, even they could sense I was up to no good. Speaking the honest truth, I asked, “Would you have anything to give? Please? I’m really hungry,” but nobody had anything. It was a struggle just for them to eye me.
“The funny thing about panhandling is the more you look like you need it, the less you’re going to get,” said Louis Edinger, 38, a junior sociology major who once was homeless.
I even tried to makeover my image by removing my knitted cap and placing it by my stomach while popping the question, like the street version of Richie Cunningham. Still, each passerby was the equivalent of every cute girl to reject one of my dance offers.
“You find people like you and me who are one step from homelessness should our circumstances change, so that’s why you should always treat the person with dignity and respect,” said Virginia Lederman, the associate university counsel.
“Acknowledge they’re a person. At least look them in the eyes and say, ‘No, I can’t help you.'”
Now at Main Campus with nothing to show for my efforts but a thicker layer of skin, and nothing to lose but my reputation, I had to drop my quest for the dollar, slap on some journalism suspenders and find out people’s policy toward giving money to beggars.
“I usually say, ‘I don’t have any money on me,’ which most likely is the truth,” said Ashante Carr, a sophomore education major. “I feel bad so I give them money. Any change I have in my wallet, I’ll give to them.”
Carr later said she thought I was homeless when I approached her.
“But then I saw the recorder, but at first I would’ve thought so,” she said.
Rather than feeding the homeless with our charity, city officer Joe Jacobs said we are feeding their drug addictions.
“I don’t give them money. I consider them to spend it on drugs or alcohol,” Jacobs said. “If I was inclined to give money, I’d give it to the charity.”
After leaving a two-hour Narcotics Anonymous meeting on campus with a hunger for something more substantial than a packet of cheese crackers I had previously bought, I headed back toward Center City.
In one of my more embarrassing moments,
I hauled a ragged square of carpet off the curb and walked with it for about eight blocks before coming to my senses and dropping the load; I’d rather sleep underground than on that mop. Although I pretended otherwise, I knew where I was headed.
The Homeless Hilton, as the Market East Station is referred to by its ilk, was draftier than usual and had fewer homeless people to boot. With the wind-chill temperature stuck in single digits, it marked the third straight night a Cold Blue alert was issued. This fact may explain why only four people showed at 10 p.m., down from the normal showing of about 20 people.
I laid on the bench, ever still, when Gerald approached me. He didn’t take the hint and asked me for money. Noticing a big gash near his eye similar to that of Pacino’s Scarface or the Lion King’s Scarr, I sat up carefully and spoke softly of the situation I leveled upon myself for journalistic purposes. Compelled by fear alone, I gave him a package of cheese crackers as a peace offering. His eyes, one of which looked as if somebody
had tried to gouge it out, were engorged upon hearing my mission.
“What do you want to know?” he said.
I asked him how he learned to panhandle. He brushed off the question like dandruff and told me to get real, later questioning the seriousness of my studies.
“You ain’t street, man. You never sleep in no abandoned house,” he said.
I asked him about it and he replied with a challenge: spend a night laying around syringes and feces in his broken crib. As nice as the offer was, I passed, especially
after noting the flaring of his nostrils and one eye.
“What, you think you’re too good for that, huh?” he asked.
I spoke up, defending myself and my mission before being told that the whole room didn’t need to hear me. All four other people, that is, until a fifth emerged. The transit cops weren’t going to let this midnight society continue, I figured, since having gotten the heave the last two attempts staying there.
A cop with a clipboard in hand was wrangling up everyone who needed a place to stay for the night (meaning me) Gerald and three other people.
We surfaced the station and boarded the van that took me to the real Homeless Hilton. While confined to the bus, Gerald led an onslaught of taunts in my direction before hopping off to his abandoned location. We were dropped off at 315 South Cafe, a drop-in center located at 315 S. Broad St. Since these centers are only open to outsiders during Code Blue nights, I needed to say more than needing a place to stay. I was going to need to lie to get in: I was now suddenly homeless in the eyes of those who judged me.
I was too cold and too tired to care about what I learned in journalism 55. Unlike my night at the Ridge Avenue Center, I wasn’t frisked.
During my last night, a man named Jimmy
Mac, who was lurching in the corner of a subway station, trying to get me to light his crack pipe and feigning as a cripple, said he would take advantaged of this lax security and smoke in the bathroom, among other things with the female tenants.
Once inside, I could have mistaken the center for a Starbucks, if not for the 50 or so homeless people, the altar and, well, the soup. A handful of workers waited on my every whim, doing all but spoonfed me. Within minutes I was eating a bowl of soup, a fluffy roll and a cup of tea, while watching a DVD of “The Rock.” A bootleg of another Nicolas Cage movie, “Ghost Rider”, would follow. I sat myself at the best-dressed table, an honor befitting one stylish twenty-something, garbed in a blue blazer, chic glasses and trimmed sideburns – and three unkempt derelicts.
The young fellow introduced himself before
I could even wrestle off my gloves. Being a new face, I attracted the attention of many: the ladies, of course, and the liking of my strange gentleman friend.
“So Steve, what you doing here?” he asked.
I never encountered this question at the Ridge shelter and I knew the truth, reporting on homelessness firsthand, would set me free – free out into the cold. That’s why I continued lying, albeit slightly. I told them that I was from Temple, but I couldn’t afford a way back home and was stuck on the streets since Temple evicts its residents for Spring Break. Never mind that, as a senior, I haven’t lived in a dorm for two years or that I basically stole the character of Chris O’Donnell in “Scent Of A Woman.”
As sly as thought I was, an admitted crack user sniffed out my bluff, refusing to believe Temple would do that.
Believe it, I said, bringing a smile to the face of the fashionista, who tried to rub my leg that night.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” the user said, “You mean to tell me that Temple forced you on the streets? What about your other Spring Breaks?”
That was different, I sputtered, lies freefalling out my mouth and pointed to my North Carolina hat, hoping that this would somehow clear up any discrepancies.The man stopped badgering me and let me sleep upright in my chair, not much better
than the people sleeping on the floor with nothing more than just a sheet.
Unfortunately, however, during this week, this night was nothing out of the ordinary.
Steve Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.