For 10 days or so after the election, there was exuberance. Their faces shone. New hope. Belief this was the time. Energy. Real joy. And, parties that would go late into the night at the bench outside my window. The conversation, always vigorous and boastful, now had a new topic: their future. One after another they pledged to get out of the park. This was the time.
In the weeks that followed, one after another kept the promise and left. One mended fences with his dad and went home. Another called his grandma and she sent a bus ticket. One finally got his ID so he could get his disability and could get out on his own. One was befriended by stranger who found him an apartment for couples so he could be with his current true love. One got on the list with the VA and was waiting. And another just left. I missed them. Those that could, left me an email address or a relative’s phone number, but life has taught me that we wouldn’t stay in touch.
Home-officed on the border of the park and primary steward for an aging step-dog who, along with me, requires morning and evening walks, I have had the privilege of coming to know and love some of the people who make a home in and around Atlanta’s premier park. Except for some brief weeks in the spring when the weather is perfect, the population in Piedmont Park is small when compared to areas South of North around St. Luke’s and the Food Stamp Office. On a given night, less than a dozen – almost always just men in young middle age, make their home in the park and in nearby vacant buildings. The stories of how they came to be here are all too similar: lost jobs; broken relationships; booze; a fight; prison time; no place to go they want to be or are wanted to be. They haven’t lost hope. They are waiting for something. Some are veterans. Some artists. Some artisans. Handsome men who still have their health. Men who look like they don’t belong here. Men who aren’t wanted here.
This is a relatively affluent area bordering old money and gentrified neighborhoods. The Conservancy who has taken on the redevelopment of the park from the city has, and is, spending millions to make and keep it a wonderful place and provide security 24/7. The Midtown Business Alliance wants no homeless panhandlers here and lobbies to make it so. The police, well, they have it tough. They answer to those that complain, but know their solution is not a solution at all. After all, what sort of society arrests people for being poor? It just makes it harder until most end up in prison at a greater price individually and to society than providing shelter, assistance and jobs. During the last year, my park friends were arrested for public urination, panhandling, vagrancy, lying to the police, public nuisance, public display, public drunkeness and so on. No, not a single drug issue with any that I knew.
It’s been quiet for a couple of weeks since they were away. The vet waiting for a spot spent a week in jail after being denied access to a bathroom and choosing to relieve himself behind the store – he’s pretty down and seeking solace in alcohol. My friend who finally got his ID and crazy check has been robbed and hospitalized twice in other areas of town and is back, but no longer has his ID, money or perspective. My friend who made up with Dad, well, fell out of favor quickly. Others haven’t come back and are remembered during the nightly bench conversations. The talk of Obama has stopped. He’s not even President, yet, and the hope’s gone here. The celebration is over.
But something else is going on. I’ve noticed it for the last couple of a weeks. Perhaps it just the season. It’s mid-December and most of the leaves are gone, so the park is more open. It seems that on each bench, there’s a newcomer. Better dressed and equipped, at least so far. Just sitting. Alone. Staring. Avoiding eye contact. Dejected. Seemingly embarrassed and awkward when spoken to. Future friends, I fear.