On the first day of my experience, thoughts clicked and rattled inside of my brain. On the steps on the shelter, I peered in the past of the city, unkempt and filthy. Glancing at the fine craftsmanship that once made every building a piece of art, now they are derelict structures, yet still somehow more beautiful than the modern cookie-cutter designs in the cleaner and safer parts of the city. Unique structures, art really – but it goes to show that art doesn’t really have an impact on the community. This place was a dangerous dump, and the conversations around me drove that point home. I listened to tales of crime, narcotics, police encounters, and violence that were peppered amongst their daily on-goings, the awful things in life were a common acceptance, like the mail arriving or going to the grocery store. My interest in this was hinged with disinterest as I am not a sympathetic person. The first question I ask myself when it involves the homeless is; what was it that this person did, which drove away all assistance from their family and friends?

Homeless as a Way of Life

Typically the answer involves substance abuse, evasion of responsibilities, or a lifestyle choice. Once you really dig down to the nitty-gritty of the homeless situation, you’ll find that there are countless and unused opportunities presented to the members of this community to get back on their feet from job training, placement, housing, living and sustenance allowance, and so on. The opportunities may not be a fast-track, dream-job, or high-pay but what’s the old adage; beggars can’t be choosers. Although, as it turns out they can and the homeless programs that allow them to stay on the street are the only ones with a line. Programs such as food stamps, free stores, soup kitchens, shelters, welfare, and so on. If you want to live free in America, and earn more than minimum wage, plus tips for doing absolutely nothing – go homeless.

This lifestyle choice also represents a large percentage of the population of homeless veterans, whom I was interested in but I was listening for those few outliers that I could identify – the ones who has not been completely engulfed by homeless life.

The line grouping meandered around me as I kept to myself, listening and watching. I realized that I was no danger, despite the foreboding warnings from the homeless shelter coordinator. Also contrary to Saul’s warning were smartphones and tablets galore, new models as well and in many cases two per person with what appeared to be top-of-the-line data and talk plans. This set two facts for me, Saul was very serious about anonymity, and that there is a surplus expense budget within the homeless lifestyle.

The evening shift of employees and volunteers for the shelter arrived as the sun peered through the skyscrapers. They buzzed in through the rear security door of the city shelter and bewilderingly looked out on us with impatience that we were even there. These many and continuing experiences are not what I observed during my university coordinated weekend, or what I would have been allowed to witness if I walked in under the controlled circumstances of a journalist. This was an environmentally unique level of discontent.

Shelter Hospitality

As dusk crept up, one of the shelter workers, a woman opened the door and joined a conversation in-line with the current topics. She complained about her checks and was looking forward to, “getting fucked-up,” when she “was done fucking with y’alls sorry asses.” On that note she then boisterously issued commands to the group to line up, enter one at a time, and have to have ID’s ready, “if we wanted to eat,” because she “ain’t got time to be fooling around with none our bullshit tonight.” How wonderful I thought to myself, and I began to wonder if this environment had awarded her with her attitude or was it a product of her own design? Realistically, it was the latter, such attitudes and public actions are common and consistent in this city. A short stroll down the city streets or through the shops can bring every profanity and racial slur into new mutations, delivered fresh to your ears.

Through the line, and to my summary scan. My card and pin code passed, the thumb scanner was broken. Past the check, there was a clear disconnect in the time it took to get through the line and to the kitchen, but I did not go to the kitchen of this shelter on my last pass through the shelter. So I took it as it was, the opportunity to look around a bit – looking for the bathroom in every wrong room. This is where I found my obvious first choice to speak to, through a glass door close to the entrance of the kitchen, a man I remembered from my last visit, an Afghanistan veteran who was a few years younger that me.

Meet Jake

In my favor, he was vigilant and confronted me about snooping around which I explained as being new and looking for the bathroom. He pointed it out and upon my return, he was waiting on me, and introduced himself as Jake. He said I had a military look and wanted to know if I had served.  Of course, Buck had served, but I was John and John had a backstory as a three-year in and out contract Army, Iraq veteran, Specialist/E-4, etcetera. Jake from what I recall was famous in the homeless circles in the city, as someone clever and who can hold his own.