The Monday after New Year’s, a new urban camper arrived in Piedmont Park. At least, I think he was. He had all the telltale signs:
- More stuff than he could easily carry. To survive in the urban wilderness, you have to have your hands free. Be able to eat, zip your zipper or defend yourself without putting your stuff down. He’d have to lighten his load and stash it somewhere or he’d lose it. Likely he had already made some choices on what was truly valuable and necessary in his life. He’ll need to make more.
- Some of his stuff was in paper bags and overflowing. Paper bags don’t wear well in the weather. Once they start to tear, all in the bag will be lost. Paper bags also don’t provide much security. The extra coat he had was clearly visible. Somebody would want that. Garbage bags are the preferred choice.
- He was carrying a heavy blanket. Logical for his 7AM and 18 degree arrival, but unworkable for long. Marked him too clearly. If you’re going to sit in a public place, you have to look like you don’t live there. Plus, once it gets wet, he’ll tire of carrying it and it will be of little use.
- He was alone and seemed nervous about his stuff. He’ll make friends soon enough. Learn the ropes. Find out you have to have the discipline of the wild and be able to stare straight ahead for hours as if you want to be there. He had carefully set all his stuff down when he arrived and left room for others on the bench. Only a few minutes later, he’d pick it all up and walk to the street. Look back and forth and return to the bench. This repeated for hours. During the time, the blanket found a permanent home in a tree branch. One of his paper bags had been emptied by more experienced campers who apparently appealed to his generosity.
From my desk, I have seen quite a few people join the ranks of the homeless and displaced. Mostly men. Disproportionately black. Those who I have met and spoken with shared pretty similar stories of how they arrived there. Oddly, most don’t blame their fate on others. “I was just drunk and shouldn’t have swung at him.” “My wife got tired of me hanging out and threw me out.” “I did something really stupid and (fill in the blank) someone.”
In just a moment, their lives were changed. When they made a bad decision they couldn’t or wouldn’t undo. Moments we all face, and had they turned out differently, we could easily be among them. Too much to drink. Loud talk. An argument. A desperate act. A decision to break the law. Drugs. Hanging out with the wrong crowd. Wrong place at the wrong time. Booze, an argument, a fight or all three and they were separated from their families and their jobs. Once they get arrested, and most eventually will be (public drinking, urination, panhandling, loud talk, a fight, etc. get them in the system), their job opportunities are narrowed.
Others shared stories even sadder – “My little girl died and my wife and I just couldn’t handle it.”
Sure, there’s a significant percentage where mental illness is involved – bipolar and PTSD (yes, way too many of our homeless are vets) are mentioned often. Those fortunate (if that is the right word) enough to be on disability, will get a monthly chance to get off the street. But the crazy check isn’t much. Often they will share it or it will be stolen. And I dare you to try and get approved to rent a place after living on the street.
There is also way too high a percentage of our homeless who are teenagers and young adults. Beautiful young people who have their health, energy, a quick smile and all the potential America offers in front of them, but they have run away and dropped out. Frequently they’ll sell a little weed or themselves for sex to get by. The youngest among them seem to want to hang out, hear and share the stories, but more likely they are just trying to be safe from those who prey on them. Weed turns to crack or crank or heroin. And all leads to jail and narrowed chances for release.
Most are just people who did something stupid and got caught that led them to the bench outside my window. Most are good people, at least when they are sober. Most want to work, but few employers hire those with a record. Many could find help, but most of those who help the most also require drug testing and have lots of rules. Except for food stamps, most homeless people can’t get on the dole. Welfare as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. So they just hustle and sit. Some will get to go to shelters during bad weather. During better weather, everyone has their secret place behind a house or office building.
Then there are those who just hit bad times. Couldn’t pay their house payment or rent and didn’t have any place to go. Most of those are just passing through. They’ll seek assistance. Many will get on their feet again or, at least, stay out of the system.
That same day as the new camper arrived, someone was evicted from Post Apartments on Piedmont and 10th. A Marshall supervised the dismantling of someone’s life. All of their stuff – furniture, clothing, books, family photos – everything was tossed in a pile in the parking lot. A crowd gathered to look through the new curb picks. It seemed sacred to me. I couldn’t watch for fear of getting sick and even the memory of it brings on nausea.
Post’s policy is to evict if rent for the current month is not paid by the first. I heard said of those evicted, that they had not paid December rent or responded to the letters demanding payment with the threat of eviction. I heard it said, that Post had no choice. Surely, they did. What could possibly have happened to those people that they couldn’t pay? Illness? Laid off or lost their job? Someone not pay them? A divorce? Family emergency? A death? Something seems terribly wrong.
And then, there’s the new guy in the park. I don’t know his story yet. Hope I don’t learn it. Maybe after thinking about it, he’ll go home and say he’s sorry. Or find his mom or a sib and beg them for another chance. Get sober. Or seek out someone at a shelter to point him in a better direction.
Resources (mostly Atlanta, links – please comment and add more):