Sunday, January 13, 2008

Say Hello in There

Chances are, if you live or work in a city, your daily routine will include some type of contact with persons known as the "chronically homeless". By chronic, I am referring to those that tend to be the most visible, but not the most representative, of a large group of people in this country that live in extreme poverty with no permanent residence to call home. These street denizens that inhabit corners, parks, bus stops, alleys, and store fronts are often the target of disdain and ridicule from us "proper" folk; but, except for a sidelong glance and quickened step as we pass them by, they are largely ignored. Many of these people are prone to psychotic and bizarre behavior from time to time, making it even more difficult for the average person to view them as rank and file members of society. This is a shame. Just as within every social grouping of people there are the good, the bad, and somewhere in the middle. Their educational, social, and economic backgrounds mirror those of any other part of our everyday society. As does their inherent need to be respected and valued in some small way as a human being. I think we tend to forget that conveniently as a way to feel better about their plight as people living on the street. If we can somehow dehumanize, or demonize these street characters, we can rationalize our lack of sympathy or assistance and sleep better at night knowing it's their fault, not ours. Maybe it is their fault. People make mistakes. Maybe it's not their fault. People get ill. If we knew them as people, knew them by name, we would feel a larger degree of obligation to help. Human nature is funny that way. Identity is something we humans rely on to get through every day of our lives yet we, unwittingly, deny many of our homeless brothers and sisters the right to have one. These street people are thought of and referred to as a collective of nameless, faceless units. The "homeless", one size fits all.

The issue of identity, or the lack thereof, was beautifully addressed in an article by Summer Teal Simpson entitled "Hello My Name Is" in the recent edition of "The South", a magazine covering Savannah and the Georgia Coast. In addition to an excellent reporting of Savannah's efforts to reduce the homeless population, she, through a series of interviews and photographs introduces the readers to some of Savannah's more colorful and interesting citizens. Though there backgrounds are diverse, they all have the label of "chronically homeless" in common. While there faces may be known to many in downtown Savannah, their names, or true identities are not. Ms. Simpson has corrected that in a powerful way through this article. Left out of the on-line addition of "The South" are the pictures and brief biographies of the individuals that were showcased in the actual magazine piece. These are reproduced below:

HELLO, my name is: MR SAMPSON

"A fixture of Calhoun Square, Mr. Sampson's mind seems jumbled with thoughts, though he is great with numbers and recites old addresses [and phone numbers] with methodical ease. Mr. Sampson was once a clergyman. It's easy to imagine his thick leathery hands christening a child or thumping a bible. He says he once sang in the choir, and lifts his drooping neck to tell us of his affection for Motown. Though he seems to get confused easily, he has kind eyes and a soft demeanor. He raises his head toward the steeples of Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church, and immediately knows it's time to move on. It occurs to me that this is how he tells time."

HELLO, my name is: TOM

"Tom is a wild-eyed man from the West Coast who likes hard rock, namely Steppenwolf. One of downtown's most familiar faces, Tom fluctuates between normalcy and delusion as he speaks on the corner of a lane off Broughton Street.
" have great teeth," he says, eyes darting and his frame shifting as he struggles to make sense of my questions. He tells me he was once a Premadaneous dinosaur; I'm not sure what that is, but it sounds pretty cool.
As he turns to leave, he nervously thanks us for the coffee and cigarettes we bought him. He pauses to rummage through a trash can, then calls back: "Take care of those teeth."
And then he continues on his way.

HELLO, my name is BOB

"Most people know him as "Guitar Bob". He sports a handlebar mustache, shaggy hair and a cowboy hat. He can be relied upon to serenade passersby with his guitar and repertoire of bluegrass standards from a bench in Wright Square nearly every morning. "There's three things that the world needs more of," he says. "Love, laughter and music." He is currently learning to play the fiddle.
Bob has a son in the Marines and a daughter in Kentucky--both of whom he raised while caring for his ill mother until her death. It was not long after that he fell on hard times. "I used up all my resources taking care of my mother and getting my kids grown," he explains. Originally from Tifton, Bob has been "houseless," as he calls it, for five years. "At first I was scared to be that guy living under the bridge," he says. "Then I accepted it and knew that the good Lord was trying to teach me something and whenever he's done I'll move on."
He has wide, smiling eyes and is wonderful company. "Bob is a great character and a great man," says a regular at the Rail Pub, where Bob sometimes visits."

HELLO, my name is: BENNIE

"You gonna owe me for this, dude," Bennie says as he poses for his photo. A small, vocal man with rough, raw hands and an affinity for anything SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), Bennie grew up in Savannah and spent some time in the Bronx before moving back South. Acting as a self-appointed protector of all students who roam the streets of downtown, Bennie says SCAD reminds him of his own "good ol' days," but warns kids today to take better care of themselves. "You've got to look out for yourself," he advises. "Be sure to walk two at a time. Don't go by yourself. That is uncool." Once, he alerted police to a bad situation and was able to save a young woman from rape and robbery. "I'm hero turned zero'" he says, his bloodshot and silvery-blue eyes beaming.
He also adores the Sentient Bean, saying it's the best place in town for coffee. "People can come there and be theirself," Bennie says. His presence at Forsyth Park coffee shop has impacted employees as well. "Bennie always offers words of encouragement to those around him, even though some passers by just dismiss him," says Travis, a Bean Barista,"

HELLO, my name is: RUSSELL

"Russell has a thick, tobacco-stained beard and intense eyes. Originally from Pittsfield, MA, he grew up in Jacksonville and was orphaned at age six. At seventeen, he robbed a convenience store with two friends; two hours after the robbery, the store clerk died of a heart attack. Russell and his friends were tried as adults and sentenced to ten years in prison for third degree murder. A he describes it, he was a racial minority in the prison where he was incarcerated and a constant target of violence.
After he was released from prison, Russell began a new life. A long-time resident of Jacksonville, he went to work for his father, a dentist, and enrolled in college, After nine years of schooling, only one year away from his dental license, Russell became addicted to cocaine. "It's not about being smart," he explains, "It's about being addicted." He is still affected by these weaknesses. He now lives in and out of hotels, frequents the library and reads a couple of books a week. "I try to have dignity and manners," Russell says, "I appreciate the finer things in life.""

Neither these stories nor these individuals are unique. Having worked as a mental health and substance abuse counselor, and social worker in various locations around the country, I know this to be true. What is unique is their opportunity, through Ms. Simpson's piece, to be graced with an identity in the eyes of the public. For this, I'm sure they derive a degree of satisfaction that surpasses any amount of social service or welfare programs that may give them a hot meal and a blanket. Hopefully, someone will now see them on the street and address them by name, give then a nod, or simply a smile. As Michael Stewart, an outreach minister in Savannah states, "People can go just about anywhere and get food and clothes, [but] the best thing you can do for them is spend time with them."

I've been out of the world of social work for a long time now. Long enough to forget the simple lessons that Ms. Simpson's article teaches. I'm thinking of ways to volunteer my time to those that need a little dignity and respect in their lives. Maybe everyday people's time and humanity is worth far more than the dollars they may donate to homeless causes. Even if the time involves nothing more than looking a homeless person in the eye and saying hello in there.


1 comment:

Paul Hammond said...


Props to John Prine