Bundled in a jacket, I walked to St. Paul & St. James Episcopal Church at 6:45 a.m., the crisp wind biting my face.
Last Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, could have been any Friday, or any day, for that matter, for the 3,387 people living in Connecticut who, according to Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, experience homelessness. It could have been any day for the individuals who have no other option but to brave the cold and walk to church to eat free breakfast at Sunrise Cafe.
But something was different about that day.
This time, after eating breakfast, about 90 homeless New Haveners lined up to have their feet washed by about 25 Yalies through the New Haven PAWS Project, organized by Ashton Gores SPH ’18. The event was organized to gear up for Hunger & Homeless Awareness Week, which took place the week of Nov. 13. After the foot wash, people were given a free pair of socks and led over to a pile of free sneakers and boots. The beneficiaries’ thankfulness was evident in the smiles on their faces and in their willingness to share about their experiences at the event.
“You find interesting things out about the person who’s massaging your feet,” said Alik Williamson, a participant who initially felt hesitant to get his feet washed since it was an unfamiliar experience. But he was ultimately thankful for having tried something new. “You find out their goals. That’s one of the things I took away from this. You get to learn about people.”
Williamson’s words resonated with me and made me think about those of us who avoid making eye contact with homeless folks as we rush down the street. The aversion means that few of us get to learn about New Haven’s homeless population, and many preconceptions we have about why these people live in shelters or on the streets are never corrected.
In Sunrise Cafe, I asked the homeless to share their stories, hoping to shed some light on their traditionally ignored narratives.
Williamson said that he had recently been released from prison in Waterbury, and that despite experiencing homelessness, he is working toward his dream of becoming a writer of novels and poetry. He said the most fascinating thing about his situation is the ability to draw on his experiences in his writing. Williamson particularly gains inspiration from the stories of people he has met in prison or while homeless, many of whom come from different walks of life.
“Getting yourself established in society after being locked away for such a long period time is difficult,” Williamson said. “You don’t have financial smarts, so you start spending your money unwisely, and next thing you know, I find myself standing in the streets, in abandoned houses.”
Williamson added that he would rather sleep on the streets than stay in a shelter because he wanted to be independent and help himself.
People look down on the homeless and would often prefer to help a stray animal instead, Williamson said. He added that there’s a common misconception that homeless people are just alcoholics, drug addicts and bad people.
“Some people are, but some people are just trying to get better after making a bad turn or a few bad choices,” Williamson said, who noted that as he now has a steadier source of income, he has been looking for housing.
Drew, a man who experienced homelessness for several years, agreed with Williamson, noting that while many people think the homeless are not “good people,” a lot of them simply struggle with mental health issues and lack the resources to get help.
Drew was an addict and was homeless for a number of years, though he has been clean for almost a year now and went to school for substance-abuse counseling so that he could start a career in that field. During his transition out of homelessness, Drew volunteers and eats regularly at Sunrise Cafe, volunteers at Safe Haven and just applied for a 10-month internship at a homeless relief company.
After getting his feet washed, a homeless man named John wandered over to me, expressing his gratitude for the wash and sharing his desire for pummel stones to remove the bad calluses on his feet.
“I got out of prison [on] July 31,” John said, who found out about the foot-washing event from the Eddy Shelter, an emergency homeless shelter in Middlesex County. “Homelessness isn’t a fun thing. I’m trying to get my SSI back so that I can get out of this situation. Sooner or later, I’ll get my stuff back and be in my own place.”
An older man named Carlos told me he comes to Sunrise Cafe every morning for breakfast. He said he feels good about himself despite being homeless, but sometimes the added stress and depression brought on by his dialysis treatment while being homeless get to him.
Carlos added that he has been on dialysis for 12 years. As he waits for better treatment, his condition worsens, and his only source of help is the DaVita New Haven Dialysis Center in downtown New Haven.
“People think they’re better than you because they’ve got more than you,” said Paul, a 31-year-old man who lost his home after becoming unemployed. “They’re too busy worrying about their lives and problems, and they don’t take the time out to worry about humanity’s problems as a whole.”
Paul said the reason there were so many homeless people was because there are not enough people to lend a helping hand. Though, Paul added, he would never forget the people who have helped him, like those who handed out to him a couple of dollars for a cup of hot coffee when it was cold out.
Ivan, who is also homeless, moved to New Haven from Florida to get medical care after nearly dying from liver failure, hepatitis C and cirrhosis. In Florida, he could not get the $1000 per pill medication for hepatitis C. On top of struggling with health issues, Ivan became handicapped after a car hit him as he was biking across a street in Florida, adding an extra pressure to him on top of homelessness.
After the car accident, however, he said he really had no choice. He hopes that now that he’s in New Haven, he will be able to get back to who he was before his medical issues. While Ivan used to stick to himself because he didn’t like people, he said that now, he was ready to accept help.
Ivan said that in his time being homeless, many people have tried to give him advice, though most of the advice he has received has led him to a state worse than before. He said he looks for people who are compassionate and willing to listen.
“When you’re talking to someone or telling them issues, you’re not asking for advice. You’re asking to be heard,” said Paul.
Yet not everyone in Sunrise Cafe wanted to be heard. Many refused to share their stories and did not want their names printed or their stories made public. In particular, the four or five women whom I asked to interview shook their heads, picked out a pair of shoes and left.
Perhaps there is an added stigma to being a homeless woman. Perhaps I did not deserve to know their story. Perhaps these women felt readers had no right to know, or perhaps there were feelings of shame and judgement surrounding their homelessness.
When some refused to share their stories, I realized that while I wished to give a voice to marginalized individuals, I am in no position to demand to hear the narrative of someone who is unwilling to share.
Kiddest Sinke | firstname.lastname@example.org .