I’ve thought a lot about homelessness recently. I didn’t notice it as much growing up but now that I’m living in a larger city and see it more often it’s sort of mind-boggling to think that there are humans that don’t have a place to sleep, might not have food and could be dying or suffering from mental or physical illness without any help from anyone. Yet I, like most of us, drive by homeless people every day without giving it much second thought. Recently I decided to make some hygiene and snack bags and hit the streets to get to know people and try to understand some of the challenges they face that keep them from getting off the streets.
I was a bit nervous at first and didn’t know what to say. I have no problem approaching people on the street, I’ve been a door to door salesman, but this was different. I was trying to talk to people and get them to open up about their personal struggles without coming off as condescending or suspicious. How do you get a complete stranger, that's clearly in a bad situation, to open up, as you're trying to treat them like a normal human being and not act like some sort of prying, savior figure, but also keep yourself from getting into a potentially dangerous situation? I'm still not sure I have the answer but I did my best to play it cool.
-Food for talking
I started by scoping out different streets and purposefully walked by several groups to see if someone would initiate contact. One man called out and asked for money, I told him I had food if I could ask him a few questions. He agreed along with his friend. Thomas and Charles were their names. Both in their thirties and able-bodied, but they had that tired expression that is so common with people on the streets. Thomas had moved to Austin with his girlfriend, and when problems came up she kicked him out. Charles had moved for a job that never ended up working out. He mentioned that he sleeps on the street because the shelter has bed bugs and he can sleep better outside than in there. They both expressed interest in finding jobs and said that they have been applying, but with nowhere to clean up for interviews, no address and no transportation, their options are extremely limited. They both were really excited to get some food and drinks, mostly excited about Gatorade.
The next person I met was a woman in her late fifties or early sixties named Kristi. She had been a field worker for 10 years and homeless for two. Kristi was understandably reluctant to talk and told me that she'd been robbed three times in the shelter and lost her ID. The last time she tried staying there they asked her to do several hours of community service picking up trash. She got angry and left. Kristi had a case worker assigned to her that was helping her interview at Goodwill that coming week so she was in fairly good spirits and optimistic about her future. She was shy at first about taking food and drinks from me because she thought I needed it just at much as her. When she did accept she was overly gracious and called me her angel.
I moved on towards Seventh Street and stopped as a woman approached me. "Hey... you wanna do something for 10 bucks," she said in a hushed voice. I declined her thoughtful offer and her plea for a few dollars but offered to buy her something at the convenience store. A pack of cigarettes and a large soda later, we walked together back towards the shelter. Her name was Christine and according to her, she was unable to work. She was fairly unresponsive and seemed to be very focused on something that I couldn't quite pin down. Her feet were bare, wrapped in rags. As we walked she saw several friends and started handing out her newly acquired cigarettes.
I parted ways with Christine and actually ran into several other groups looking to talk to homeless people. Either Austin is full of zealous people looking to figure out homelessness or that was just a chance day where those of us concerned all happened to descend on the homeless community at once.
I tried to get away from the other homeless crusaders and sat down with a couple near Red River. Kevin and Maria were their names. Maria was a bit older than Kevin, they met working as truck drivers for the same company. She lost her job when she developed back problems and could no longer sit for long amounts of time. She also suffers from bi-polar disorder. She's tried many times to find work but can never find a job that pays enough to get off the streets. She can't qualify for disability because she hasn't worked for five years so she's in a bit of an impossible situation.
As we talked, Kevin pulled out what appeared to be a blunt and said it was time for his ten minutes of happiness. He lit up and began to smoke, passing it to Maria. Minutes later he had his eyes shut and couldn't sit up straight, he seemed to almost convulse with chest pain and kept knocking over his drink and things around him. By then, I realized that it definitely wasn't tobacco or weed but probably crack. I regrettably felt a bit encouraged that they were comfortable enough to consume right in front of me but I was also pretty concerned about his health. Luckily he snapped out of it after a bit. I tried to leave them with some snacks and drinks but found out that they're a bit picky, even when it comes to free things since they have to carry everything with them. Gatorade was once again a hit and some wet wipes.
I met another group below the underpass that has been there for weeks. Isaiah is a 57-year-old man who appeared remarkably clean and well groomed for someone on the street. I couldn't tell if he was pretending to be homeless or not but soon found out that he was there by choice. He had skills in just about every manual labor market but wasn't looking for a job. He said if he wanted a job he could get one, but he had been traveling across 13 states for the last 14 years looking for God and helping people along the way. He clearly had access to a shower and said that he attended a nearby church. When asked if he was hungry he said, "There's always food to eat, you don't have food, you lazy."
His friend Claire was in a wheelchair and probably in her sixties. She seemed perfectly content with her life beneath the underpass. She apparently received her social security check every month and that was enough for her. As we talked she was pretty preoccupied with watching for a certain gray car.
It was quite the adventure getting to know some people on the street. I naively went into it hoping that through talking to people some common patterns would emerge and I would come up with a great idea to fix all of their problems. I realized that the issue of homelessness is quite complex, everyone is in a unique situation, and everyone thinks differently about their situation.
The thought has crossed my mind that maybe it's those of us that live in the way society has prescribed with a job, a car and an apartment or house, are bothered by homelessness because it doesn't fit neatly into the picture we have in our minds of how someone should live. If people are fine living on the streets maybe some of us need to be more ok with it.
That being said I still believe that deep down no one wants to sleep beneath an underpass and beg for food. I believe everyone is entitled to have their basic needs met and that we should be doing much more than we currently are to provide food, shelter, healthcare, education, and an opportunity to all those who want it. There's no silver bullet for homelessness but no effort to help goes unnoticed. Sometimes even a simple conversation and a Gatorade can brighten someone's day.