Mike Austin doesn’t quite match the stereotype of a homeless person. He doesn’t wear rags or disheveled attire. He doesn’t carry a bag full of personal items and other belongings. He doesn’t even sit on a mound of old newspapers and collect his change in a paper cup.
Instead, in the intense winter cold, Austin keeps warm in a Ralph Lauren winter coat, a thermal sweater, and dark, heavy sweatpants. And he doesn’t carry anything with him “except the clothes on [his] back and maybe some gloves and an extra shirt,” because, to him, it’s just not practical.
On this day, Austin sits outside of the Wawa on 17th and Arch streets, imploring the occasional passerby for spare change.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he politely asks a woman about to enter through the store’s front double doors, “could you please spare some change on your way out?” The woman ignores him, but that doesn’t stop Austin from repeating the question to the next customer about to step inside.
“Most of them are nicer than you’d think,” Austin states, even after the second customer barely acknowledges his query. “They don’t judge us. They don’t look down on us.”
For Austin, life on the streets makes it difficult to establish a set schedule. He isn’t expected to be at a certain place at a certain time and has no choice but to take each day as it comes. Most often, Austin decidedly asks for change when he’s hungry, but he never makes plans ahead of time in order to do so.
“Sometimes I start my day between seven and eight in the morning,” he says in an effort to outline a typical day. “I usually stay in one place for an hour, and then get something to eat. I do this two to three times a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Once he has enough money, Austin goes into the Wawa and buys his food. Some nights, when he has little to no money, he goes through Wawa’s garbage in hopes of recovering discarded meats and day-old sandwiches. Other days, his source of food comes from the people who offer to buy it for him.
When it rains, Austin seeks refuge under bridges and inside gas stations. At night, Austin sleeps by himself in an abandoned house in North Philly. “But I don’t sleep with any other homeless people there. I’m kind of a … ” He breaks off his dialogue a moment to laugh self-consciously. “I’m a bit of a loner.” The distance between the abandoned house and the Center City Wawa is approximately three miles, but he doesn’t complain about the long trek. Instead, he views it merely as a means of survival. “Sometimes, I go to the Wawa, but sometimes I go to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Austin has been a Philadelphian his whole life. After losing one job after another, he decided to seek employment in the Poconos. “I had a couple of jobs up there, but got fired from them. Came back to Philly, got a job at Kmart, but lost that one too.” He has been back in Philly for two years now, and at the age of forty-four, has yet to find another job.
Austin is the adoptive son of a father who passed away when Austin was in his twenties, and a mother with whom he has lost contact. His 21-year-old son lives in California with his ex-wife, but he has very little contact with both of them.
The gusty winds and blustery conditions of the winter are not the only factors that make Austin’s situation difficult. “Out here, it’s all about survival instincts and wanting to get back to living life. I hate asking people for money,” he admits, acknowledging the brutal realities that have nothing at all to do with the weather. “I just hate it.”
Having graduated high school and taken a few college courses, his advice to college students today is to “Stay in school. Whatever you do, don’t drop out.” Austin would like to become a nurse or a nursing assistant to help others in need. But until then, he is determined to make it through the days solely on his survival instincts and, of course, the kindness of strangers .
Catrina Brewton can be reached at email@example.com.