We were dropped off at Woolridge Park on Friday afternoon, a downtown gathering spot for the homeless, and a nightly stop for the Mobile Loaves and Fishes truck, which delivers sandwiches, eggs, fruit and snacks for the homeless daily. We visited with some folks, got our sandwiches, ate and then walked to Guadalupe. A church there allows the homeless to sleep in the parking lot on Friday nights only, and serves breakfast in the morning. We scrounged a piece of cardboard from a dumpster to lay down on the pavement and slept there with about 30 other people. It was a pretty rowdy scene. Lots of talking, a little yelling and fighting, that went on till about 4 in the morning. It was quiet from 4-6 am, then people started getting up. I tossed and turned all night. Fortunately it didn't rain and it wasn't that cold (60 degrees) but it was a sleepless night. This is considered a safe place, on Friday nights at least. One of the hardest things for homeless people has to be finding where to sleep each night. Some of them have a hidden spot, where they can keep their stuff, keep their bedroll, go every night and be hidden away from cops and other homeless. Many of them just find a different place each night, a place that’s not on private property, where the cops and security guards won’t hassle you, and hopefully where other homeless will not find you and steal your shoes or other stuff, or worse, beat you up or hurt you while you’re asleep.
The homeless in general are not violent people, but they have to have an edge just to survive on the street, and occasionally this anger, bitterness, and violence comes out. They have to be able to put out a tough demeanor, when necessary, just to protect themselves on the street.
Saturday morning we went into the church for the free breakfast. I’d say there were around 100 homeless who came for the breakfast. Here we heard so many stories…..J, a talented musician who turned down a chance to play in the band with the Black Crowes and is now on the street after a bad accident and the onset of MS rendered him unable to work or even play much music. He did play on the piano in the church, but his hands, stiff, from MS, failed him. E, who is a computer programmer and computer fix-it man, is educated and well-spoken, obviously quite intelligent. He cannot get work because he has a drug conviction. J, who looks like a well-off college student, prides himself on not appearing homeless (he takes a shower every day at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, keeps all his stuff in a locker there, and works 2-3 days a week). Some of these people, you have to ask, why are they homeless?
The stories are haunting, but as you listen, you realize there is a level of lying inside many of the stories. One man said to me that those on the street are there because something went wrong (lost a job, foreclosed on their house, got divorced) and then they missed an opportunity to fix it. There is a lot of mental illness for sure, but there is also a lot of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Most of them are battling this at some level, but they don’t talk about this to us, except in wry, oblique, passing references. I asked one man who was panhandling, “Are you getting what you need today?” and he said “Somehow every day I get what I need. I don’t always get what I want, but what I want isn’t good for me.” There is much truth to their stories, but they are also very good at sugarcoating things, omitting the ugly details, and expert at garnering sympathy. This does not necessarily reduce our sympathy, but it is important to know that things are not always as simple as they might appear, and there are deep-seated problems simmering below the surface. Truthfulness is not a highly prized commodity on the street, history is fluid, when you are roaming and wandering, who is to question you and say what is or is not true? Truthfulness is not actually necessary for survival.
After breakfast we walked to the east side of Austin, to attend the Homeless Resource Fair (formerly called Stand Down). They were giving out free T-shirts, and one woman kept going back to get more free shirts, maybe 20 or 30 in total. She says she will share them with other homeless. Or will she sell them? It doesn’t matter……..it’s about survival. One thing you will find is that the homeless can be quite generous with each other. A homeless woman we didn’t know saw the bags we were carrying and identified us as homeless and offered us some of her extra sandwiches. There is a network of sharing and looking out for each other that we always don’t see in “normal” society. There is also instant recognition among the homeless, a community of people, that is, if they can ID you as homeless, they will immediately come up to you and start talking to you. You are one of us, therefore you are ok.
At the fair we met M, who went on the street in January. He has a really nice bike, nice clothes, and a very optimistic and unbelievably happy attitude. He says when he went on the street he randomly opened the Bible and came upon the verse where it says the Lord will provide (for the birds, for the flowers, for you – I can’t quote the verse). He says he has never hungered, he always has found enough to eat. A lady at the church asked him to paint her empty house, and he was able to live there for a few months. Why is this man homeless??? He has a tattooed tear under his eye, so we know he was in prison. He tells us he has a drug conviction, so he can’t be hired for a job, unless it is in cash, under the table. Are these people permanently barred from working? What is the matter with our system?
Walk back to the park to meet the MLF truck. It’s a lovely day, many homeless are lounging in the park, visiting, napping, sharing some food, reading the newspaper, playing dominoes. This is the best part of the day. When it is warm and sunny and you see the camaraderie. We see V, whom we have known for years on the MLF runs. He is a very small Mexican man, quite educated, he speaks Spanish, English and Greek. Every time I have seen him, he is so neat and clean, and his plaid cotton shirt is always miraculously pressed. He reads the newspaper every day and has vocal opinions about Obama, health care, immigration, and various other policies. We have heard bits of his story over the years. He worked in restaurants in the US for years, until he got laid off. He is a legal alien, and has a green card. He is homeless, but has a friend who drives him to San Marcos every day where he works in a convenience store from 9 pm-3 am. He had a place to live, but gave it up, he doesn’t want to pay rent and instead wants to save his money. He needs $10,000 to go home to Mexico and open a grocery there. I say to him, just go home, your family will help you. He says no. Surely there is much to the story I don’t know, but there is also pride, he is the one who came to America and succeeded, and he will go home with cash in his pocket and start the business and in turn employ his family.
We get our food from the MLF truck. Someone asked Alan Graham, our fearless leader and founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, if feeding the homeless like this is enabling them. Alan is a very peaceful person, but this is the closest to angry I have ever seen him. He says that is a perversion of the word “enabling.” Food is fundamental to survival. Food is at least one thing the homeless in Austin do not have to worry about.
The sun is setting and it is time to find another piece of cardboard and a place to sleep for the night. J invited us to sleep in a church parking lot he sleeps in, but we have mistaken the address and cannot find it. We scout along San Antonio street. There are little dark alleys and nooks, these seem like good places, but will rats or raccoons or possums come out of the darkness? We find what we think is a clever spot, a hidden ledge in a parking garage. The garage is for a law office and it is Saturday night, so it is completely deserted. We are quite hidden, but about 9 pm, a security guard pulls into the garage and asks us to leave. He is on the rounds and surely we are not the first people to find this spot. Good we didn’t get arrested, because that can happen too. Despite its friendliness to homeless, Austin has a no-camping ordinance.
So we leave and go to another church parking lot we have heard about. There we find C, who has been on the street for 21 years. He is Lakota Indian and “loco” as he says (he translates this as “nutjob”) which allows him to get disability every month and puts cash in his pocket. He has a Blackberry and is permanently wired and tapping away at it nonstop. He is a little guy with a big attitude. Actually a very sweet guy, but the attitude is clearly necessary to protect himself on the street. We run into him several times, and he acts like a big brother to us, gives us tips – for example, never ever take your shoes off, even when you are sleeping, or someone will steal them. And where would you be with no shoes? In deep trouble. He has a son and a wife in Kansas. He says he will go there to live with them in December. I pray I don’t see him on the MLF run in December and that he actually makes it to Kansas.
We sleep in the church parking lot, another restless night. My husband, Rusty, tells me later that a homeless man walked up to where we were sleeping in the middle of the night and stood there. I was asleep. Rusty wondered if he would try to take something or try to harm us. But he merely stood there and then walked away. This is the risk. The utter lack of security when you are sleeping on the street. You have to sleep, but how can you possibly protect yourself?
C rouses us as 5 am, because it is Sunday and soon people will be arriving at the church. The homeless respect these parameters (don’t pee near the church, leave at 5 am, take away the cardboard when you wake up) because this protects the place for future sleeping. They know if they abuse the privilege, the church will take it away.
So we wander. It is 5 am and still dark. We sit on a park bench downtown. The sheriff’s dept is having a shift change and about 10 sheriff dept employees pull out of the parking lot and pass by us. They regard us from the safety of their cars. I am nervous here, I don’t know if one of them will just stop and decide to harass us. Is it illegal to sit on a park bench at 5 am? I don’t know what the law is about loitering, which is clearly what we’re doing. Probably it is illegal, but not enforced. No one bothers us this morning.
I think the thing that would sap you most is the boredom. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no work, no purpose. Now the homeless do have to devote a certain part of each day to getting food, seeing their caseworker, finding a bathroom, finding clothing, seeking shelter for the night. That takes some time. But much of their day is vacant. This ennui will run anyone straight into the ground I think. The anger and depression will inevitably lead to alcohol and drugs for many, to soothe the pain. It is an endless, vicious cycle for some. Some retreat to the library and read all day long. These are the guys on the street who will quote Descartes to you. But these guys are few and far between.
Alan says we can help, but there is no solution to homelessness. We are not going to end homelessness, it’s not possible. But you will meet some people whom you believe really can get off the street. They will not get off the street until they are ready to. They have to take the initiative and do it. But when they are ready, with our help and the help of other organizations, it is possible and some of them will actually do it.