Part Six: A night at the Ridge Avenue shelter

(Originally published in the 4/24 issue) I jerked up from the 7-Eleven table and looked at my situation, temporarily blurred from sleeping in drool: for three frozen nights I escaped the cold, risking my life

(Originally published in the 4/24 issue)

I jerked up from the 7-Eleven table and looked at my situation, temporarily blurred from sleeping in drool: for three frozen nights I escaped the cold, risking my life – or at the least, proper function of my extremities – and all I could think about was my hair.

Nestled under a navy University of North Carolina knit cap, my hair demanded to be scratched as if it were a puppy. A puppy with lice, I thought.

I suppressed such ideas by rationalizing that lice couldn’t survive the nightly 20 degree temperatures and, even if they had, why would they hang out in my sleeping quarters – the subway floor or a bench from the Market East Station – on the weekend of Spring Break? Have they no life?

Carrying such a false sense of comfort was better than carrying lice. I lifted my head and shoulders from the booth of the 7-Eleven, located at Liacouras Walk, and left.

Once holding $10, 77 cents was all that kept me from being broke. The only thing louder than this clanging of change was my stomach.

Perhaps another case of rationalizing, I spent about three hours transcribing notes from my recorder in “The Temple News” news room. And I would’ve stayed longer, too, if the Student Center didn’t close at 6 p.m.

Just as well, I needed to get dinner.

Since I spotted no deer or antelopes roaming south on Broad Street, I searched for alternatives, or, in other words, loose change on the street and in the payphone slots.

In the course of confusing soda-can rings for quarters, it occurred to me that these sidewalks were scoured a couple-thousand
times already. Of course, this passive activity was in lieu of begging, something I thought I never could bring myself to do. Going without food for more than 36 continuous hours changed that; I would learn to swallow my pride for dinner.In my travels, I found a quarter, bringing my total to $1.02, good enough for a trip to Checkers. The interior of the dirty fast food restaurant was graced with the sign “Ya Gotta Eat!” and an old homeless man who I had no plans on questioning, that is until I saw the clerk hand him what appeared to be a combo meal.

He said he earned it by sweeping the restaurant’s floors and Windexing its windows, all part of the chores he would perform nightly in order to get a free meal. Curious, I asked how he snagged such a deal.

“Ya gotta ask!” he said before leaving me alone to place my order.

Behind a thin film of quasi-Plexiglas, I looked at the twenty-something man behind the counter and searched for some sense of empathy. I ordered a chicken sandwich and then tried something new.

“This will be the last time I eat tonight and maybe even tomorrow,” I said, “so … .”

It may have surprised the man to see someone my age already resigned to begging, but he responded kindly.

“I got you,” he said.

With mounting anticipation similar to that of Christmas morning, I reached into the sandwich bag and pulled out a warm, cinnamon apple pie. Only the Plexiglass stopped me from hugging the man. As warm and fulfilling that moment left me, it also had a sinister quality akin to that of catching something after a day’s worth of fishing; I felt I had reeled him in just like all the homeless people had done before me.

Harsh thoughts like these were only compounded by the whispering cold. I found shelter four blocks later at 1360 Ridge Ave., or specifically, Ridge Avenue Center.

I entered the building like I would any other. However, reactions such as the one offered by Rogelio Soto, 46, center coordinator of Committee to END Homelessness, now lead me to think differently.

“No. 1, you’re crazy because you’re going
to stay at Ridge Center and you’re white,” said Soto, a former resident of Cuba. “Ridge Center is not recommended to nobody. It’s really dangerous. They look at you like you are white right now and say, ‘Oh, he may have some money.’ They might even search you and beat the crap out of you for no reason, thinking that you have money. What they care?”

This coming from a guy who would collect
and bundle scraps from the garbage of the New York City subways and place it on one side of the subway tracks to distract mice from approaching the side of the tracks he slept on.

Once inside the tiled building, I was immediately frisked and told to relinquish all weapons, including my can of pepper spray. Before even being able to sign in, I had to step over two homeless “consumers,” as they were considered. Once inside the living area, I sat down in one of the 40 or so folding chairs and proceeded to act nervous. A BET showing of “Next Friday” was almost loud enough to deafen this comment, lilted a man over his or, more likely, the communal cell phone.

“It wouldn’t be the first time I killed, mother f—er.”

Fecal matter wafted throughout the room as if one of the 30 people behind me had done more than just sit in their chairs.

The base of the chairs seemed smaller than normal, especially when trying to recline in the hopes of sleeping. Of the 400 people it housed during the winter, the last would be assigned to these “sit-ups,” said Joel Ford, the shelter’s director. At 1 a.m., in the midst of a “College Hill” marathon, we were told to get up – some off the ground – and get back in line. A small, but constant flow of people filtered through the doorway even at this hour and joined the homeless line.

Since the beds were already awarded to the early birds with the most tenure, the rest of us stood and hoped to be one of the 70 assigned a cot. Otherwise, we would be sent back to the chair. For the first time in three nights, I slept recumbently, albeit on a cot and with my hands tucked within my sneakers so I wouldn’t lose them.

This magic moment didn’t last long. “Rise and shine,” a worker shouted at 5 a.m. For those few unfazed deep dreamers, a few bangs to a pot brought them back to reality.

Steve Wood can be reached at

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