Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Words and Images by Al Griffin
When I found the couple standing in front of a boarded-up storefront, I thought I recognized him and her. As it turned out I was wrong, but we shook hands and chatted for a moment.
Turns out they were waiting to board a bus to another part of town where a shelter was located. Obviously living on the street, they still exhibited a pride and did not want to appear in need. He seemed earnestly engaged in some discussion with her while she was clearly preoccupied with her cell phone.
Living in desperate circumstances does not change our basic human nature. In the finest houses of our cities, in the fine cars, and in the fine and exquisite neighborhoods, some of us ignore others in favor of our devices, some of us don’t notice we’re being ignored and just rattle on. Or so I’m told sometimes.
I recently interviewed the Executive Director of a homeless shelter serving several counties. I learned that among the homeless, the down and out and truly desperate, there is a stigma associated with going to the shelter. It becomes the last choice, the last resort of those in the most need. Many make the choice to avoid the shelter at all costs, and in many cases the cost is too high.
Even those who utilize the shelters seem to deny their affiliation sometimes. As I sit here, I wonder what decision I would make in that circumstance, what story I would tell others about my lodging choices.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
I found George moving back and forth on a sidewalk in downtown Springfield, Missouri, working the joystick of his electric chair, but not able to go anywhere. The sidewalks in many U. S. cities do not provide easy access for mobility devices in use. Sure there are curb cuts and ramps at the intersections; there are sidewalks made wide and flat for those dependent on wheels to walk. But disrepair, crowds, delivery trucks, and construction barricades block the mechanical aids completely and often. Where we step off the curb and walk around the crane lifting materials to the workmen on the roof, the wheel chair does an about face and rolls back up the street to the intersection where the ramp allows it to cross the street. The wheel chair must cover a lot more distance than we do when we skirt the edge of a temporary blockage.
George, driving the chair containing a bag with all his worldly possessions on the back, wearing soiled and worn clothing, unshaven and unkempt and unable to walk, seemed stymied. I spoke and shook hands, and he seemed happy enough to stop toiling with transportation issues and just sitting for a moment.
When I asked George if he was living on the streets, he said “no” and jerked a thumb over his shoulder, saying, “I live up that way in a high-rise.” It seemed like a well-worn reply, perhaps an attempt to dull the pain or offer humor or just deflect others’ attempts to help or hinder.
George’s morning seemed confusing and troubling on many levels, but his dependence on a mechanical device clearly weighed heavily on him that morning. I wished him well and told him to be careful on the streets, and he thanked me sincerely as he motored off the way he had come--so far back to the ramp he needed. His orange flag flying behind his chair, his orange ball cap pulled down tightly on his head, George motored off up the street as I watched his reflection disappear in a broken storefront window.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Downtown Springfield is a vibrant and charming place of 150,000 or so citizens where some are on the way up, some are on the way down, some are on the way in, and some are on the way out. Springfield’s city center around the square has the usual mix of social circumstances: ups and downs, in and outs.
But on this day, I encountered Billy on a hot sidewalk just before noon. A pleasant smile and firm handshake accompanied the “hello” when I approached him. Outgoing and thoughtful, Billy said he had lived on the street for a couple of years after losing work and home. Billy worked a variety of different jobs before finding himself unable to land any job. He has no car and no prospects. He lives out of a small satchel he carries.
After talking for a while about his travels from city to city looking for opportunities, it was clear he blamed no one for his circumstances. He suffered no ill will toward anyone and wishes others the best of luck. Even though I doubt he had eaten much in the last twenty-four hours, he refused any offer of money to help him on his way. He smiled and shook his head, saying, “give it to someone that needs it more.”
I wonder how many of us in similar circumstances would be so giving and so forgiving. He soldiers on with nothing but hope and perseverance and will. And good cheer. Could I have the same things to offer? I wonder.
I wish good luck to Billy. He deserves it more than most I think.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
I walked into an old industrial area of Springfield midmorning in September while Summer’s heat was still upon us. Around the edges of overgrown empty lots and abandoned industrial buildings, the only shade lived under scrubby bushes along with rusted cans and homeless people in makeshift day camps. Some scattered at the sight of a stranger, probably conditioned to being run off private property by those who worry about such things.
A dog left behind barked to warn me off his piece of ground. On the opposite edge, under cool leafy trees, a blanket held two people. A woman, mid thirties, sat cross-legged on the blanket looking at me as I walked slowly through the ankle high grass toward her shade. The man lay on the blanket and appeared to be asleep with his head on a very small backpack.
I carried a camera in one hand at my side and a cup of coffee in the other hand. She looked at the coffee mostly, but seemed unsure and apprehensive. I just said hello and stopped about ten feet away so she wouldn’t feel threatened or have to look up at an uncomfortable angle. She kept looking away and fidgeting with her long hair. She hadn’t been awake very long and her companion seemed to be deeply asleep from fatigue or substance.
I asked how she was doing and she mumbled “OK” looking down. When she looked up at the coffee again, I asked if she wanted a cup of coffee. She seemed very happy and said thanks over and over. After a few minutes, I asked if she minded if I sat down. She agreed, more relaxed with the coffee and conversation.
She called herself Bella and said her friend was Ying Ying and poked him asking if he was awake. He did not stir much. On the street for a few months, Bella said she used to work at local day care centers, but got into some “trouble’ and lost her job and ended up on the street. Ying Ying, she told me, has been on the street for a couple of years.
Bella kept saying she had a small cut on her eye and touching it with her hand to cover the place that appeared to be the result of a blow to the face. I could offer conjecture about the cause or circumstances, but that’s pointless. The vulnerability a woman on the street must feel, the fear about predators in her social circle, are powerful forces and would cause someone to rationalize that the occasional blow from her “protector” is a small price to pay for the safety he offers. But the other version may be the true one. This man of hers may have ridden in on his white horse and saved her from savages in her jungle; he may be the knight that rescued her from her fate.
What I know is that Bella warmed to the simple offer of hot coffee and conversation the same way any stranger does at Starbucks on any given morning. We all want the same thing. We all respond to the same stimuli. We all are alike in so many ways.
I got to bathe this morning and put on clean clothes and face the day with a bright and eager companion and a cup of hot coffee. I hope the Bellas and Ying Yings of the world have a shot at that in their near future.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
I often frequent a local restaurant based upon a theme of honoring those who serve society as members of police and fire and military units. Last night I noticed a sign on the wall with a simple message: All gave some, and some gave all.
Among those living on our streets in America, homeless veterans occupy a special place. No matter how much they gave to us in whatever conflict we dispatched them to, they are still giving.
Their lives, ripped apart for the short term of months or long years, were never made whole when they were allowed to return. We may have given them a parade and a plaque and a spot on the nightly news. We may have given them a medal or new arm or new leg or a few dollars. But what we took will never be returned.
The mental and emotional traumas are not patched together with the wonders of modern medicine and modern technology. The bond these guys formed with their brothers in arms, the bond of a dangerous job in a dangerous place, should be offered here at home. My thank you should not be the end. It should be the beginning. The bond of humanity and brotherly love should be offered first and foremost.
It is too easy to think of homelessness as the product of bad life choices and bad decisions, and ultimately the fault of the homeless person. Serving our country in a war zone, losing a buddy in a bloody battle, losing a leg in an IED explosion are not bad choices and bad life decisions.
What did I give today to those who have given so much to us? Did I pass a few dollars out the window of my car? Did I drop some coins into a hat on the sidewalk? Or did I give of myself, my spirit, my heart?
Sometimes a smile and a handshake can make a difference to another human being in ways we may not be able to fathom. Freedom Isn’t Free is just a slogan we toss around until we remember some of those men and women are still making payments.