(Orginally published in the 3/20 issue)
I overstayed my time at the Homeless Hilton and figured to check out with my belongings.
However, a problem emerged from the corner of Market East Station’s lobby in full embodiment: a shifty homeless man was already checking out my stash. He staggered toward me like a creature from “Thriller,” calling me by my moniker – “Temple” – as I tightened the straps of my backpack.
“Let’s talk outside,” he suggested.
“Guy-to-guy.”Being in favor of crowds and light, I followed his slither outside and into dim daylight. It was not even 6:30 a.m. I listened to what he said, knowing all the while how the story would end, or so I thought. Turns out another woman was bleeding – “[his] woman” – however the cause was more menstrual than inflicted.
He needed sanitary pads bad and he came to the right guy – I didn’t know anything about tampons, especially the cost.
Somehow, though, his asking-price of $5 seemed excessive, partly because I had to make $7.14 last through six nights, but mostly due to my newfound cynicism. Sensing my doubt, he all but ensured it by promising to repay me $10 once he unloaded some trucks. Left with no viable recourse, I discovered my spine with the utterance of the four most acerbic words: “I don’t trust you.”
Leaving with a spring in my step, I glided down blocks, humming carelessly until arriving before a breadline of about 50 people outside the Sunday Breakfast Association, located at 302 N. 13th St. No credentials were required besides an iron stomach to keep down the instant scrambled
eggs and bruised baby bananas, the latter resembling the size, shade and smell of one’s big toe after hammering in a toenail.
After I left the Christian organization, I was inspired for more, but I got far, far less. It was 9 a.m. and I was out of good ideas. After walking Spring Garden Street to its end, I absently found myself before a clerk at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Donation Sunday, I remembered, contemplating the many ways I could say “Sorry.”
“Only a donation more than zero, please,” he said. More than zero?! That’s a little steep, I thought, as I dredged all the change from my pocket. Fourteen cents.
Sure, it’s more than zero, but not enough. And I couldn’t turn back now, not without everybody in the world watching, on the verge of laughter. I forked over a dollar and instantly regretted walking up those steps, feeling more incongruous with any setting than ever before.
I withstood almost an hour of highbrowed
gawking with the urbane crowd before descending the stairs as defeated as Rocky during his first run-through. In 25-degree weather headed down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I saw the stagnant homeless shrouded in layers of blankets, with passersby just as unmoving. I walked for hours until the City Hall clock rang 1 p.m., the opening of the Free Library of Philadelphia.Besides free heat and Internet, President and Director of the Free Library Elliot Shelkrot said crowds of up to 20 wait for the doors to open so they can wash up. He said this posed a big problem before partnering with Project H.O.M.E. in December.
“They’ll take off their clothes and have their naked bodies standing at the sink. They use the soap we provide or they may bring their own soap,” Shelkrot, 63, said. “But this was intimidating to other people who wanted to use the library’s restroom.”In fact, he said, they seemed to use the restrooms for everything they are not intended for. “There would be feces on and around the wall and sexual acts going on to the stalls,” he said. “We no longer have that.”
The problem became the solution, Shelkrot
found, once he employed several of the homeless as restroom attendants. He found this partnership to be so mutually benefiting that he plans to hire more homeless people to work at the Free Library’s new Internet Cafe. Once saddled online at one of its upstairs computers, I fell asleep at the keyboard, albeit temporarily.
“You cannot sleep [there],” Shelkrot said. “About five years ago, there was a tendency to come into library and not really want to read a library or book and want to find a place to sleep.” Now 5 p.m. and starving, I stepped outside to a mirage of people dining on free pizza, soda and Munchkins. Sometime during my second mouthful of sand, Bill Fahy, 23, a senior at Rowan University, introduced himself and invited me to have more pizza. I finished the slice and then tell him the truth – the part about not really being homeless.
Fahy suddenly reaches for me.
“Nice to meet you, Steve,” he said, shaking
my hand. Fahy and several others provide food for the homeless every Sunday afternoon, before welcoming them to Catholic mass at the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
“What has happened is many independent
church organizations believe it’s their responsibility to feed the poor,” Shelkrot said. “And the easiest way for them to do that is to get a truck with food in it and park in an area where there are a lot of homeless people. It also tends to encourage more and more people to come and get free food whether they’re homeless or not.”
Fahy doesn’t think he is enabling the homeless into complacency, but, rather, he is working to save them.
“Some people may say we’re keeping them content by handing them the blankets and the food, and for some people that may be true,” he said. “It’s also true people need to feel love . . . and if we show them love and show them, ‘Yes, we really do care about you and the world is good,’ that may be an inspiration to them and help them get back on their feet and fulfill God’s will.”
Tired and against better judgment, I left mass and trekked back to the Homeless Hilton at about 9 p.m. and reclined on a bench. Hustler Alex Geist emerged from the lobby and sat next to me. Admittedly drunk, he told me he didn’t trust me and thought I’m a cop. I sat silently and let him slander me some more.
A guy sleeping on the bench behind ours was awoken and irate. He circled the bench to spit in Geist’s face, challenging him to a fight. Even in his drunken stupor, Geist knew he was overmatched and outweighed by more than 40 pounds, and eventually headed upstairs to the lobby. I slouched a bit to the front, with the guy sitting directly behind me.
Somehow, I was able to sleep. I had no watch on me, but I still woke up to an alarm. It’s 1 a.m. and the fire alarm screeched. Nobody moved. Nobody cared.
I scurried out of Market East Station. Freezing, I crossed Filbert Street and found transient warmth in the Greyhound Bus Station.
As if facing all the extraneous chairs against the wall wasn’t enough of a harbinger, the security guard blocked entry into the lobby, and eventually showed me the door.
Outside it, I saw the red-and-blue police sirens dapple the walls as the police escorted dozens of the homeless back onto the streets, locking the doors of the Homeless Hilton behind them.
Shelter doors were already locked since the wind-chill stayed above 20 degrees, the standard of a Code Blue alert. It’s cold, but not cold enough for immediate shelter, the police said.
“They keep saying it’s not Code Blue almost
every night but if I’m talking and smoke is coming out of my mouth, it’s Code Blue,” Clifton Ware, 21, shouted in vain. “If it’s freezing rain to a point where your hands is numb and just frozen, it’s Code Blue.”
The next night, it really would be.
Steve Wood can be reached at email@example.com.