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.
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.
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.
We made our way through the chow line, a scene best reflected from movies about prison, but as our food was dished out, the volunteers issued Christan blessing upon us. From there we found a corner table and Jake was still popular and was greeted by a large majority of people inside the kitchen. At the table, he brought me up to speed on the layout of the shelter, and addressed the issues of the day which were discussed outside. He asked what my plans were, and I nonchalantly gave a plan of not having one. Jake explained that there were some other guys like us who can’t stay at the shelter because they were strung out or just paranoid, he went on as to what was upcoming once were back outside after breakfast, and I crept further into the homeless life.
One thing that Saul and I had not developed a cover for was processing. Jake asked what I had thought of the processing since I was a new guy, I was able to deflect by saying that I didn’t want to talk about it. Although Jake wanted to explain it and details and expressed his disdain of the process along the way. Per Jake’s explanation and omitting the vulgarity and side-track stories; to obtain a homeless identification card, especially as a homeless veteran a timely and uncomfortable process must be completed. A form is first filed and depending on the day of the week or mood of the shelter staff or volunteer the form is dropped off with – it can take between an hour and a week to start the process. For all applying homeless a criminal and financial background and a brief physical are required.
Although, for veterans that process is greatly expanded and hindered and the issuing shelter must first perform these checks and then a separate set of checks must be scheduled through the VA medical center. The process is repeated at the VA, and the veteran must submit to a toxicology and mental health screening and a full physical. The veteran is then assigned a caseworker and is presented with opportunities and programs to reintegrate the veteran from homeless to working-class with separate and greater education, job training and placement, housing and medical assistance opportunities than are offered to non-veteran homeless. Again, there are a million ways to get off the street – but a million and one to stay.
This was my first night, it was time to listen, and not ask too many questions or make demands. I was lucky to find Jake that swiftly as well, which allowed me to be in as soon as I got in the door.
After dinner, we went out for a few smokes before turning in for the night, and Jake seemed to feel good about bringing someone in that was “like him,” into the fold. In his mind and despite his age and experience he has learned to shuffle what is really going on in his life in order to hold an understandable conversation with his fellow homeless veterans and non-veterans alike, and as he continued I realized it was his speech to himself. Jake admitted to having a little bit of a rough time readjusting and attended a community college for a short time but dropped out. He was tired of being hassled by people, and he just wanted to be left alone.
Jake said that he read a Rolling Stone article about Railway Kids, and following the article is how he first left his home and his life behind him. He admits that is was difficult at first, and that he got hooked on first methamphetamines and then heroin while he was with the railway kids. Jake smiles as he tells the stories about the drugs, booze, sex and theft in that life -but he swears that he is clean now. I don’t express that I doubt him, but I suspect he is lying and if not his positive reflection on that lifestyle will likely consume him in this environment. Jake was quiet for a few moments, I could tell what he was thinking about and as he bummed a cigarette off of me, he led me into the next topic. Jake asked if, “I was cool”, and I knew what he meant. I replied, “I won’t narc, but I don’t use.” He then looked away and up, and let me know that “The guys we’re going to meet tomorrow all use, but they are cool – they’re like us, you’ll see.” I said, “Right on.” out loud, my brain was screaming, “Damn it.”
Call it a Night
The shelter was a men’s only shelter, a female only shelter was a few blocks over, and the family shelter was nearly outside of the city proper. Albeit, everyone could eat at any shelter, they just had to be segregated by lights out.
Jake and I headed back inside to the communal sleeping room, lined with bunk beds and plastic mattresses. Next to the entrance was another door, staffed with a fat male clerk, who you give your ID to for a set of linen who took my ID and waved in the air, then remarked, “If this shit ain’t all back in the morning, you don’t get this back.” I was now a bit frazzled, so I retorted, “I’ll make sure that my Yelp review reflects you shitty attitude.” The clerk was visibly confused, apparently he didn’t know what Yelp was – I’m terrible at knowing my audience sometimes.
In the communal room, the very same conversations that were on-going in front of the shelter when I arrived droned on until a staff member took command via the light switch. He flicked it like a high school assistant vice principle looking for order at an assembly, his voice cracked just the same as he demanded silence.
From within the strobe light effects of the room, several surrogate group leaders within the homeless community swiftly shuffled, repeated the demand for quiet, and cited an obscure organizational chart that I could not find. Jake said, “Don’t worry and just sleep anywhere,” and I did. For the night I put my boots into my bag and tied the zippers together with a piece of string and then attached the bag to myself, emulating what nearly everyone else in the communal room did with their bags. I found this hilarious and could hardly contain myself, but did know not to contaminate the experience, and I simply said, “Prison rules are for life.” A joke in most circles, which unfortunately led to bedtimes stories passed about the room on the many and various places the men had been incarcerated. When they eventually quieted down, I went to sleep for the night.
Featured Image – Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs