“Walter, what do you feel when you see a homeless person?” I was asked by someone who suddenly found themselves homeless and spent eight months sleeping outside in the courtyard of the Midnight Mission. In so many ways the question was profoundly poignant. It was a few days before Thanksgiving and I had been reviewing the last few years, revisited the path that I took from the day I was arrested until now. It was a terrifying time for the most part. There were many challenges ahead of me and each had its unique set of emotions with a Kaleidoscope of pain, fear, anxiety, and heartache that was specific to each one. Sure, I was thankful that I was not out in the cold but I feared that I would have no place to go. I feared that when I had someplace to go that my benefits would expire before I found a job. If that would have happened, after going from shelter bed to my own room, I would have been on the streets. No one gets points for being clean and sober if you cannot pay the rent. Skid Row is like any other place. One must pay to play particularly in your own rescue. Life is not free on Skid Row. Those who believe otherwise are naïve. Would I win or would time run out. It was a constant worry keeping me awake at night while roaches around me in my former room danced the night away.
Occasionally I would look out of the window, in the middle of the night, and see someone standing in the light or sitting on the ground. During rainy nights I could see plastic sheets crumpled on the ground knowing that beneath them was a person tucked inside trying to keep dry. I would not allow myself to feel too much. I was not as sorry for them as I was grateful I was not out there with them. Each morning I would wake up and begin the task anew of trying to find a job, trying to maintain the faith. Trying to take one more step in the tunnel of doom where it was dark and I could not see any light.
Finally, through the grace of God, I had a job. It was in the nick of time as my General Relief had expired. I was working and over a period of time as I became more confident that my job was not a dream, I began to feel, to believe that there was distant light at the end of the dark tunnel and a bright new day was emerging. As each day came and went, I believed more and more the lessons I was taught on Skid Row—to be positive and to have faith and that I would get through it.
I noticed more and more that all that I had to face was disappearing behind me and the burden of gloom and worry was being replaced by a peace and confidence. What was lost was being regained and there were things I was gaining that I had never before felt, or it had been so long ago that the antecedent experience of feeling no longer applied. It was a new day, a new time. I found it funny that I used to wear a business suit every day and had no confidence and lived every moment with an uneasiness that left a feeling similar to that when fingernails scratched a chalkboard. Now, on Skid Row, there is this growing fascination of experiencing self love while learning new things and gaining insights that I would not have acquired if Skid Row were not in my life.
I state in my profile that this journal is the thoughts and experiences while I am in the University of Skid Row. I am proud to be a student of this fine university. There is much to learn here and so few understand the broadband of its curriculum. One thing for certain is if one has spent any time here at this University, one understands pain. Whether one lives or works here, Skid Row allows you to understand pain(of course the flip side of joy as well). Whatever pain you felt before you arrived here is nothing compared to what you experience as you review your life. It is a healing process, if of course, the process itself does not kill you. It can do that is so many ways. From one’s own experience you become adept at recognizing it in body language and so many other ways. The eyes alone are a concentration of study in and of themselves. It is said that they are the eyes to the soul. True. But one must understand the language, the syntax of the meaning. Each variation is a font with its own accent and texture of story.
I thought of all of these things over the last few months as my confidence allowed me to thaw out my emotions and examine the condition of my homeless neighbors on Skid Row. Homelessness has many meanings. It creates different feelings when you look at each person. A person is homeless. There story is not homogenous. The feelings you get from talking to one is different when you talk to another. Each has their own brand of pain. It tastes differently from another. Being homeless within the boundaries of the Skid Row district is different than when one walks down Broadway or or the streets further west. People respond to homeless people differently. In Skid Row, though there is a social hierarchy, stratification, and in some cases a caste social order, respect is given to all while experiencing the common areas of the sidewalks and streets. As you leave Skid Row, the level of respect diminishes for those who are deemed to be from Skid Row, let alone concluded to be homeless. A level of distrainment surfaces as well as an abstract distrainment, respect taken away and to regain it only comes when paying the price of having a home.
I have said that Skid Row is a reflect of our society. And through the homeless we have the eyes of society’s soul. It is not pretty. It is replete with viruses.
I thought of these things over the last few months while wondering about a woman. I saw her one day. She was on Seventh St and Broadway. Bare footed, layers dirt embedded into the souls of her feet served as cushions as she navigated her way from trash can to trash can in search of food. I watched her as she had a striking presence. People avoided her. She was invisible to them. She was not a person. She was nothing to them-- less than an animal. She smelled, I am sure but nothing compared to the stench left by the people who walked by her not accepting her into the human family.
The lady was the lens into the souls of our society and its superficiality. And this occurred while many people across the country were edging toward homelessness themselves, losing homes, as the nation sank deeper into financial chaos. Perhaps it was the fear of being like her that made people ignore her. I understand that. That is a process one goes through when they first arrive on Skid Row, not wanting to be like the homeless instead of helping them.
On Thanksgiving Day I got off the bus at 7th and Broadway. There she was, the queen of 7th street. I wondered what her story was. Where is her family? What is her pain? I wondered if anyone cared. It was clear that no one had any use for her. I went into a store and bought something to get change. I walked out and gave her a couple of dollars. I had given her dollars in the past. Yet this time, I wanted to see her eyes. I wanted to connect with her. I wanted her to know me. I wanted to see her eyes. I wanted to understand her pain and translate that into her probable story.
Instead I received a lesson I did not count on. She sensed the money and reached out and grabbed the dollars. Her focus was on the means to survival, not her benefactor. She was supposed to be mentally ill, not capable of understanding anything—deranged. She understood one thing and made it clear as her eyes beamed into me with a fierceness I have not felt from anyone in quite some time. She knew that my giving her a couple of dollars did more for my soul than it did to help her survive a day. In the scheme of things, those dollars did nothing for her. They only served to prove that society did not understand. No matter what my level of sincerity, she saw through it and found the virus that was embedded in me, allowing me to identify where it was localized in my being.
Society has no use for her. Let me tell you something. She has no use for society. She knows what it is. She knows that those that those that spit on her are one paycheck away from being thrown from their high and mighty homes into the streets where they will join her. More importantly, she understands what it is not. She sees people for what they are and experiences every day what they are not. She has no use for us. She expects nothing from our spurious society.
It is Homeless Connect day across America, where social services make themselves visible and accessible in mass to the public. I felt compelled to reach out to society and have it connect to the homeless.
What do I feel when I see a homeless person? I feel this sums it up. To borrow the words of one to convey a concept I feel this way:
“ASK NOT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR THE HOMELESS. ASK WHAT KNOWING, HELPING , OR UNDERSTANDING THE HOMELESS CAN DO FOR YOU?