I’ve never known how to interact with people on the streets: how to say no, politely, to pleas for change; how to strike up a conversation after I’ve already closed off, walked away.
I’ve written before about “the homeless,” and especially about how they constitute A Big Problem. Last winter break, I had similar Big Plans: I wanted to travel around a few East Coast cities with major homeless populations before coming back to Yale to write about them. I wanted to know why the homeless lived where they lived, if the people we saw in New Haven year-round were there by choice or necessity. Was it possible that even without a roof, places may be more “home” to some people than to others?
But these were intellectual questions that got lost in the fray. I realized that before asking the homeless questions, I first needed to learn how to talk to them.
My high school friend David traveled with me because he was curious about journalism, we were both on break, my mother was worried, he’s male, and he’s impressively bearded, in approximately that order. Unlike me with my abstract musings, David was interested in the practical questions: how do we approach the people who call these streets home? What can we offer them?
Where do we begin?
They know right away we’re different. We have the college-student air about us, as if our puffy coats and hesitancy tell the world we are educated, eager and unsure. It is the day after New Year’s, and David and I have walked unannounced into Cathedral Community Cares, a soup kitchen in the basement of St. John’s Church in uptown Manhattan. The underground room, with its tangerine stools and basketball-court floors, looks like an elementary school cafeteria that has been plopped into the same school’s gym. We stand awkwardly apart from the line of people waiting to get food until someone says the magic words: “You here to help?”
Sure, we nod, we might as well volunteer, right? And immediately, we are set to work crafting mashed potatoes. I look over to David, brow furrowed with concentration as he mixes our concoction with an egg beater, looking a little silly as one hairnet covers his longish hair, another his beard. We meet eyes; I shrug. In the back of the kitchen, we are separated from everyone except our fellow volunteers. Later that evening, we mix lemonade and iced tea and cut bread pudding at another church uptown, but we can’t bring ourselves to talk to the people we serve with more than a generic “how are you doing tonight?” All day, it has been like this: David and I rushing about trying to find places the homeless inhabit, but even now with them all around us, we can only smile, give them helpings of salad, chat idly. How can we ever find deeper answers to our questions this way? We go back to our hostel resolved to have “real interactions” with the people in our next location: Washington, D.C., a Megabus ride away.
The McDonald’s near D.C.’s Chinatown is open 24 hours a day and is a homeless hot spot. Holding our trays of unhealthy but immensely shareable items (French fries, nuggets, two kinds of cookies), we decide to scout out people with whom we can talk. Couple in the corner, talking animatedly. Man with daughter. Not homeless. Not homeless.
Then we spy a guy sitting sullenly by himself in the middle of the second floor. He has two backpacks and tassels of plastic bags hanging from his baggy pants. Despite the paper cup of coffee in front of him, he looks as if he were falling asleep right at the table. We go over and offer him some cookies without explanation. He eats one, silently chewing, answering our show of enthusiasm with one-word grunts. We wish he would talk to us, but instead he leaves. Some pang hits me: did we make him uncomfortable enough to go away? We wanted to be friendly, but our idle chatter only drove him from us.
Exiting McDonald’s and walking on the block back to the hostel, we pass this same man standing next to a pile of things, looking for all the world as if he were waiting for something but also, as he shuffles his feet, as if he has nowhere to go. He doesn’t seem to recognize us; we walk on. Tomorrow, we think: tomorrow we’ll find people to talk to. We’ll actually ask questions.
In the morning, we venture to the Georgetown Ministries Center, a homeless organization we had heard about from another volunteer. A couple people are waiting outside the brick alleyway building; it is 9:50 a.m., approximately 10 minutes before they open. A man sticks his head out the door when he sees David and me approaching and asks what we want. “Oh, look, they’re real people,” one of the men waiting outside says. “Let the REAL people in. Georgetown doesn’t want to see us. Hide us!”
This is sarcasm characteristic of Larry, we learn. The people there waiting to be let in, especially Larry, certainly don’t look homeless. Larry is well-shaven with a red polo shirt stretched taut over his belly, light blue jeans, and a grey Columbia fleece; everything about him is clean. Among other services, Georgetown Ministries allows the homeless who register with them to take showers multiple times a week as well as do their laundry, things worth the wait. Larry looks behind my shoulder. “Harry!” he cries. “Harry, where’ve you been?” Harry just smiles and says, “Around.” He is wearing a tweed sweater and has twinkling eyes behind glasses with detachable sunglass frames that he has decided to flip up and away from the lens for the moment, retro-style.
As the doors to the center opens, the crowd grows. Altogether, we fit into most of the ten or so chairs, with some spaces in between. I sit next to Larry, who, I find out, used to be a car salesman and is now homeless by choice. Some winters he decides to brave it out in the cold; this year, though, he’s staying indoors with some friends at night until the spring arrives. The rest of the day, he’s on his own. With Larry’s immaculate appearance and articulateness, no one stops him from entering D.C.’s many libraries and museums. But by being clean, he also doesn’t get soup kitchen hand-outs and most homeless shelters won’t accept him.
Harry, meanwhile, refuses to sleep in shelters and has been spending his nights in the woods surrounding D.C. Some days he’ll wake up to raccoons, but he says he’d rather trust animals than people anyway. He launches into a detailed story about fighting — naked, primal — with dogs, against the sunset in Kazakhstan or Tajikistan … one of the stan’s, he says. And I wonder if he is reliving a dream, telling stories about his multiple girlfriends and wives in Libya, how he once had a credit card for buying plane tickets, how he got beat up in Australia and Thailand and was left to die. Bill, another man sitting next to Larry, tells me how the homeless have to watch out for themselves locally, too: he was simply sleeping outside one night and got attacked. He shows me the pink scars on his head and face by his beard.
David and I are nodding and nodding, incredulous at these scenes unfolding before us. We both think at this point: finally, this is the gold mine! This is the sort of interaction we have been looking for, with people who are so naturally open with us.
Suddenly, a towering figure with arms crossed steps out into the sitting room, and with a slight upward flick of the chin, asks us, “Can I see you two for a minute?”
“Ooh, they’re in troubleee,” says Larry, chuckling.
In the back of the center in a small office space crammed with knit items — old ladies love to donate to Georgetown Ministries, and the center has more scarves, gloves, and hats than they can manage — we sit across from Roy Witherspoon, who is the Outreach Director of the Georgetown Ministries Center.
“Now what are you here for?” he asks us. He wants to know our exact purpose, and slowly it comes out. I’m writing an article for school on the homeless, I say. What exactly it’s about, I’m not sure. The focus keeps changing.
“That’s fine,” Roy says, “But you have to be clear when you’re talking to people. Otherwise, all kinds of things could be going on in their minds. Be honest.”
David and I had always felt awkward to say, “Hi, we’re writing something. Can we interview you?” We wanted organic conversations, like the ones happening just moments ago, and were afraid of how people would judge us otherwise.
But we weren’t thinking that people might not want their stories told. We just expected them to tell their stories to two strangers who wouldn’t even state their agenda. Unlike the man in McDonald’s, they were willing to talk. But why weren’t we?
Often the homeless have no protector, and Roy is looking out for them. And when he says all kinds of things are going on in their minds, he doesn’t just mean the regular paranoia people face in exposing their lives to journalists. After the 1970’s, an era when wide-sweeping changes shut down mental institutions across the country, and for good reason, what happened to the people inside them? Many of them are now on the streets, and the Center cares for homeless who are mentally ill. While predictions for mentally ill homeless populations vary from 15% (according to a UCSD study) to 20% (the National Coalition for Homelessness) to 40 or 50% (Psychiatric News), Gunther Stern, the director of the Center, who has been working with the homeless population for close to 30 years, says almost all the homeless he’s encountered, even those who do not seek help at the Center, have been mentally ill.
Among them are certainly the people we’ve already talked to in the sitting room — for example, Harry, we are told, has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He is currently on medication but often doesn’t take it. So while we were only wishing to hide our identities to appear more friendly, they could have been sizing us up, wondering about our motives.
When we come out again, David and I explain to the group exactly what we’re up to. “So the truth comes out,” says Larry. “You’re using us.” And even as I try not to take his sarcasm personally — even as Bill and Larry continue to joke with us and Harry goes on about his world adventures, as if our newly revealed agenda hadn’t changed anything — I wonder how much truth Larry’s statement has.
Darkness falls on D.C., and David and I separate for the first time this trip. He meets up with some friends while I go on a neighborhood walk with Gunther and Ron Koshes, the Center’s consulting psychiatrist. They take this evening walk every week to keep track of the homeless who are staying out at night.
We approach a man standing outside a convenience store with his hands in his pockets. “Do you want to go in tonight?” Ron asks.
“I’m fine,” he answers.
“Do you know where the nearest shelter is?”
“Where is it?” he asks, almost absently. Gunther tells him the directions — two blocks away — and gives him a card with the hypothermia hot-line number. (This number can actually be useful since many of the homeless have and use cell phones with pre-paid minutes, to keep track of their buddies.)
The man thanks him monosyllabically; Ron and Gunther can do no more. Ron records the man and his location on a small yellow pad. Sometimes, the familiar names disappear when the homeless have shifted neighborhoods. Other times, they may find or hear news of folks dead from the cold. Ron is there because Gunther alone is legally powerless. Only a psychiatrist can file the paperwork for deeming someone enough of a hazard to himself or to others to forcibly take him to a shelter. These cases are rare: “like when someone’s out wearing a T-shirt in this weather,” Ron explains.
“Don’t you feel frustrated?” I ask them, feeling guilty that they — we — cannot do more. I think, what is even the point of taking these walks, reaching out, if it doesn’t lead to tangible change? But they tell me the whole point of Georgetown Ministries is to build a relationship with people so that when — if — they are ready, they know who to turn to, who to trust.
We stop by the West End Library — a public space the homeless use to stay warm. Libraries everywhere have their rules — being quiet and no eating or drinking are the most common — but here, one is also not allowed to fall asleep under any circumstances (meaning the homeless cannot snooze in the daytime in a warm space), and furthermore, a crate by the checkout counter specifies the maximum bag size one can have (meaning the homeless cannot carry in more than a backpack full of their possessions, and must leave all the rest outside).
The homeless of this library are luckier than most; the head librarian is an advocate of the homeless cause in his own small way and sometimes looks the other way when some rules are broken. We meet him just outside the door: a tall, balding man who looks like the husband farmer in American Gothic, stern but with the possibility of having a bright smile. Before moving on, he tells Gunther about an event in D.C. next week addressing mental illness and homeless in particular.
“Wow, what a nice librarian,” I say. “He’s so understanding.” Ron makes a grunt of disagreement. “Well, the library’s supposed to be open to the community,” he says.
Inside, Gunther greets Shakira, a woman in pink with a big smile; next to her is a man whose desk space is littered with little trinkets. I would have had no idea that they were homeless before Gunther walked over. As we walk over, the trinket man suddenly presents me with an ornament, a bird painted with sparkly colors. “For you,” he says.
“Uh, I don’t think that’s such a good…” Gunther says, while Ron says, “Take it!” My hand is already reaching for the gift.
I accept, and we chat. I learn his name is Damien. He’s a martial arts expert, learned judo, tae kwon do, karate, and jujitsu. He went to competitions and used to teach as well but teaching adults got too difficult for him. “They always think they know what to do,” he says. He asks if I can do kung fu and I shake my head and tell him about my failed martial arts lessons — I can never keep at it — and he says, “You just got to be patient. Just keep doing it.” He tells me how he built a birdhouse out of popsicles at the crafts group at Miriam’s Kitchen, another D.C. organization that takes in the homeless. At the last minute, the stick house structure collapsed, but he’s still building another one, at least when he’s not reading Bruce Lee books in the library. He likes birds, which is why he gave me one. “I’ll name it Damien,” I say.
But before I can ask him anything further — about his life, his other thoughts, his and Shakira’s stories — Gunther signals to move on, and I have to say good-bye. After we’ve left, Gunther says quietly, “I didn’t know if you were really enjoying that conversation or not. I can never tell.” He was trying to free me, but I had liked Damien very much.
Outside, Gunther declares, “He keyed in on you.”
“Hm?” What’s that?
“The homeless have got survival skills you and I would never need,” replies Ron. “They know how to spot someone in a crowd and know who’s more likely to give them money.” So they “key in” on those people, perform some kind of nice gesture, say hello in hopes of a tangible reciprocation.
But I don’t want to believe my Damien bird is part of this survival skill. I want to believe Damien when he tells me about his life; I want to believe his encouraging words about martial arts were genuine.
Gunther can tell I’m feeling a bit upset. “Are we jaded?” Gunther asks Ron.
“I think it’s better to know how things are,” Ron says.
“You’re young and naive and guilt-ridden,” Gunther says. “Stop it.” And he is right, pointing out that my feeling sorry does nothing. By feeling sorry for the homeless, I am only thinking less of a different way of living.
“We think it’s hardship,” Gunther says. “To them, it’s just their way of life. They’re not unhappy … they have a community.”
And for the homeless who are mentally ill especially, four walls and a roof are sometimes a curse instead of a blessing: when it’s quiet, the voices come. So the streets can be freeing, even if it means being cold or looked down upon, even if it means relying on strangers for bread in the public eye.
After leaving D.C., David and I are back in New York, mulling over our thoughts, before heading up to New Haven for the final leg of our trip. On the subway shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central Station, we meet a familiar sight. A man comes into our subway car and starts speaking. He begins with disclaimers: “I’m not homeless,” he says. “I’m sorry to take your time….” The others on the shuttle turn away from him. People look at the ground, at their fingernails. They are annoyed. Perhaps ashamed. I look over at the man, who is now explaining that he works for an organization called We Feed the Homeless. He is asking for donations: food, money, anything.
I look over at David. I’m still hesitant: what should we do? Should we donate?
It’s David who decides. “Let’s go talk to him,” he says.
We shake hands with this George Jenkins, don’t give him any of what he is asking for from the subway patrons, but he tells us about his life anyway. This is part of his volunteer job; he comes out here twice a week for two hours apiece, usually on this particular shuttle and also on the F and A trains, where many homeless slough away their nights. He is toting a SpongeBob SquarePants cooler on wheels; it’s filled with food people donate that he then redistributes. The monetary donations, too, he directly gives back to the homeless he meets on the subways so they can buy food when he has none handy, or so they can buy toiletries. He’s fed seven or eight homeless in the past one-and-a-half hours.
And if he has enough food, he feeds anyone else who is hungry, too: when the well-dressed of Manhattan talk amongst themselves of hunger, he gives them a sandwich. “It isn’t just the homeless who are hungry,” he says.
Once, he saw a woman with a little girl who said she was hungry. He gave the woman 10 dollars to buy something to eat.
The next time he was out, another lady on the train asked him, “Were you that guy last week who gave that woman 10 dollars? I watched her, and she went up and bought a nine-dollar magazine.”
“Okay,” George said.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” the woman asked.
“No,” he responded. It didn’t bother him, he says, because when he gave her the money, he intended it to feed her. Whether or not she used it that way was her choice.
“Only God knows and I know if this money is going to feed the homeless,” he says. “I can only put it out there.” Twenty years ago, he went through the shelter program himself and knows the stigma that comes with asking for donations on the subway. “If people keep seeing you and know what you do, they start trusting you,” he says. Some people nowadays, he says, don’t even wait for him to start talking — they just donate as soon as he gets into the subway car.
The shuttle has gone back and forth a few times now. Before David and I get off, we leave George with a mishmash of salad, grapefruit, cookies, and two rolls of bread — our dinner. He blesses us and the lady sitting across the train smiles.
But he had given us something, too: some kind of conviction that giving is good, even if you can’t know the results. It didn’t matter to him what people thought of him or whether he was actually helping so long as his intention was to help.
He was moving instead of standing still, answering instead of questioning.
Back on campus, David and I walk down Whalley Ave. It is nearing late afternoon. We are just by Popeye’s when from our right, a man pushing a shopping cart pops out singing, “I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her,” hand moving to the beat, head bobbing with purple-black Aviators.
He, Antonio, and his buddy, Steve, are rolling their shopping carts, bottoms semi-covered with bottles, around the streets, scouting for more recyclable items they can later turn in for cash. They get up at 4:30 every morning to beat the recycling trucks.
“Let’s go up, cash these in, then go to Yale,” Steve says to Antonio. Antonio has an appointment at the Yale-New Haven Hospital to take out stitches from the region under his right eyebrow. He had gotten nicked in the face by a stereo as someone was moving one down the stairs.
Antonio and Steve have been buddies for six years now, looking out for each other. “We fool around, have fun,” Steve says.
While Antonio has two kids — he tears up when he starts talking about them — Steve is single, with no kids. “I need to take care of myself first,” he says. His mother, though, lives in North Haven; he calls her every night.
“EVERY NIGHT!” Antonio proclaims, laughing. “He’s not really homeless.”
“It’s true. I’m not always homeless,” Steve says. But for the past six years, he’s been living more or less on the streets. Sometimes he stays with friends and then on the street again for a couple of days. He’d rather do that than bother anyone. A couple of years ago, he was drinking in a park, fell asleep, and woke up in the hospital on life support after having fallen into a coma. Antonio was the one who found him on the bench and called the ambulance. Steve doesn’t drink very much anymore (“the second time,” he says, “I might be dead”), and he makes sure the person who loves him at least knows he’s safe.
While we talk, others join the group, saying hello to Steve and Antonio; quickly, we become a crowd. I am starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. The past few weeks, the homeless I’ve met have felt distant; I’d only have to give to them once, if at all. And though I wanted Gunther and Ron to convince the people on the D.C. streets to go in — to make them go, if they could — because then they would be inside and warm, yes, was it also so I wouldn’t have to face them? Here in New Haven, my home, at least for now, I can’t hide from homelessness — I can’t hide from my own discomfort.
A woman taps me on the back. “Can I talk to you about something?” she says.
“Um, sure,” I say, my defenses already up.
“I’m hungry. Will you buy me something?” She gestures towards Popeye’s.
I look over at David. He shrugs. I shrug. I wonder if she has keyed in on me. But then, I think, no: remember George on the subway. Believe her. What happens when people are hungry in the interim between shelters, when it’s 3 p.m. and the earliest shelter doesn’t open until 5 p.m. at Broadway? It’s not a matter of starvation, but a matter of hunger, and maybe that is no less legitimate, I think.
But when I agree to accompany her to Popeye’s, Antonio shakes his head.
“C’mon,” she tells Steve and Antonio and the rest of the folks. “She’s treatin’.”
“No, I won’t take their money,” Steve says. “I’ve got my food stamps.”
“When you’re hungry later,” she says, pointing her finger at Steve, “You remember this moment. You remember.” And so I treat her with the little change I have to a simple meal: some chicken, some biscuits. But in the back of my mind, I still wonder about her background, wonder, when she takes her food and leaves, if I am being used.
Later, I find out Steve has told David, “Don’t let her take advantage of you. We can take care of ourselves. We’ve got food stamps. We can move up.”
And as I see her walk out the door, I realize I have been trying so hard to ingratiate myself with the homeless that I’ve forgotten that true generosity has to be meant, not given out of guilt. Ron and Gunther do not need to believe a person is good or “real” to help them. Sometimes, their drop-ins at the center don’t remember them the next day; most likely, something is interfering with their judgment. On the streets, they are curt with many of the people they meet, no-nonsense. Ron and Gunther try to recommend that these street-dwellers go to a shelter, but if they don’t, they know it’s not their fault.
While we are saying goodbye to Steve and Antonio, we meet Ali. At 35, Ali wants a family, starting with a wife. “Hook me up, Steve,” he says, looping an arm around Steve. “I need one for myself,” Steve replies jovially. “What every healthy young man wants is a woman,” Ali says.
But Ali is not necessarily healthy. In jail, he drank a mixture of cleaning products — all wax and ammonia-based — to try to end his life. Now his left side — his heart and left lung — is all rotted out. He has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
In the past ten years, Ali has had fifteen jobs on the same New Haven street — Whalley Ave. — including the Popeye’s. But now he can’t work. His disability hearing is next week. He wants to show them he’s ready; if he gets it, he will receive $30,000 a year.
“I’ll get fixed up,” he says. Get a Park Avenue apartment, make a turkey dinner with seasoning, mashed potatoes with garlic, like his mother used to make. “I’ll invite you for dinner,” he says. And before we leave, he says again, “We’ll hang out. Coffee sometime? My treat.”
And I am struck that this man who is still trying to figure out his life would make these promises. Perhaps they are empty, but probably he means it. What should I believe? Does it matter? It’s not up to me how he decides to live his life.
“What can an ordinary person do for the homeless?” I ask David along our journey.
“That presumes the question that the homeless person needs help,” he replies. “Besides, what you would do for Larry is different from what you would do for someone else.” Different from what I’d do for Damien, or the woman on Whalley, or Ali.
I pause before replying.
“Yea,” I say. “Yea.”