I read the sign as I pull up to the stoplight. The “Go Twins” tag makes me smile. A nice sales technique. Something new. But then it puzzles me, makes me uncomfortable. An unexpected touch of humanity. I don’t recognize this homeless guy. This intersection is busy so it gets the “panhandle-tag team” almost 24/7, and there’s always new faces. To be honest, I often don’t look at the faces, and the grubby jean jackets all look the same. How do they choose who gets what corner or for how long? Is there some kind of seniority of suffering, some kind of timing system, punching in and out on some invisible clock?
I miss The Punks. I miss the pink mohawks, the cutaway black leather, the heavy boots and piercings that hung out in front of the McDonald’s in Uptown back in the ‘80’s. They were like tropical fish. Homeless people make me depressed, angry, frightened. They’re grimy, living proof of where my country fails. “Unclean, Unclean” the leper rings his bell as he walks, warning people away. The pariahs don’t carry bells anymore, just cardboard signs.
They have no names. I instantly assign everybody I see a kind of ‘Indian name:’ “Rich Guy In Beemer,” “Cute Brunette Walking,” “Old Fart With Chubby Dog.” But homeless people are just homeless people. Maybe I don’t want them to have names. It creates a distance. In some mythology, the only ones without names are those who have been sentenced to Hell. Often in the past, when mentally ill people died in the American Gulag, the old State Hospital System, they were buried in a ditch in the backyard with only their hospital number and date they died on their tiny gravestones.
Once I saw one of the guys talking into a cell phone. At first I thought it was somebody with schizophrenia speaking to his “voices,” but then I glimpsed the tiny device. The new technology creating smaller and cheaper phones might actually break some of the stigma of mental illness: we’ll all go around talking into the air. I asked a friend who had auditory hallucinations who he was talking to. He told me that he heard people in his head telling him secrets about himself, sometimes very scary things. Other times he was trying to tell his story, who he was and how he came to be this way. Rationalizing, explaining. And sometimes he was practicing. “Practicing what?” I asked. “Apologizing,” was the answer.
When I got out of a hospital back in ‘81, I had no money, no apartment, and no official system to help me. What I had was a loving family and friends who gave me places to stay and resources to re-establish myself. I wasn’t “homeless” during that period, I was “houseless.” And because of that help and love, that limbo between illness and recovery was only temporary.
Many are not as lucky and, without help, their transitional stages become permanent conditions of purgatory. Imagine the terror and horror of literally having nowhere to go. Is there any word in our language more powerful and sacred than “home?” Native Americans and Jews can testify to what happens when you are banished from your home. Homeless people understand what happens when you become an exile even within your own country or city. Those who’ve battled mental illnesses know what happens when you become lost even within your own mind and soul. Think about “home,” and all the love, acceptance, safety and comfort that it means and implies. Then imagine “homelessness.”
Politicians, doormen, police officers, bus drivers, you, me, we sweep them away, out of sight, out of mind. “Move on, now. Keep moving.” Let’s face it, it isn’t law or charity, it’s sanitation.
Sometimes alone, or huddled in bands (Homeless people don’t sit together, do they? They huddle.) Hungry, mentally ill, cold, drugged, sick, drunk, desperate—some are veterans of foreign wars, some are veterans of closer conflicts. Debates about football stadiums, traffic congestion, even global terrorism pale in comparison to the daily issues that they face. Am I going to eat today? Am I going to be robbed or beaten or raped today? Am I going to die today? Afraid-in-the-dark terror. Waiting-for-the-first-light-of-dawn terror.
I doubt their motives. I doubt their hardship, even while seeing them dirty, and watching them beg for help. Even after my personal experience of stigma and exile from my thirty-year struggle with mental illness and MS, I still feel that old judgment, the old self-hatred sneaking in: “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” I comfort myself with the lie: “People get what they deserve. They are where they are because of who they are. I won’t enable deadbeats.”
I have to remind myself that I have also been a nomad, a refugee, a wanderer—that I am also “just passing through.” That within my own heart I once had nowhere to go. I had to beg for help—for my life. And that begging caused a residual wound that’s still hard to heal. I have to remember that real change comes slowly, and my recovery is still in progress after thirty years.
So I force myself to look. I keep dollar bills and Snickers bars in my car. Maybe this person is a lazy deadbeat taking advantage of people’s guilt or goodwill. Or, maybe he’s been knocked flat or battling an illness, or just trying to stay alive until the first light of dawn. For a buck, I’ll take that chance.
Sometimes we just keep people alive. Keep them alive until some assistance arrives. Some insight, or medicine, or help from the City or County or from perfect strangers. The dollars and candy bars I give are a toll for being lucky, for being American, for being human.
And, as for the argument that you can’t help those who won’t help themselves—those are the people we have to help. We must keep knowingly being helping angels.
I hand him a dollar bill. I hold out my hand to shake his, I make myself look him in the eye. “Thank you and God bless you, Sir.” “You take care, Brother. And the Twins are going to win tonight by three runs.”