Last summer, I found myself sitting on a couch opposite a 38-year-old Filipino man named Peter who smelled like stale tuna, dirt, and a dream deferred.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“What made you homeless?”
“I need my green card.”
“Where do you stay and get food?”
“I need my green card. I need … my green card. I go clean the mall. I make plans for the future.”
I later discovered, by talking with the soup kitchen staff, that Peter is mentally handicapped. He moved to the U.S. when he was five, but he still had an accent. He probably already had his citizenship.
This was an unconventional way to explore a social topic. My best friend’s mother was the manager at a homeless shelter, and their fund-raising event was coming up. My friend was a film major at our school, and I was a theater major, so we pooled our talents and made a documentary about the causes of homelessness and how the shelter had helped many find counseling, food, shelter, and showers.
I interviewed; she filmed.
It quickly became apparent that Peter wasn’t the only homeless person with seemingly insurmountable problems. There was Don, a 58-year-old professional drunk who had been in and out of rehab and jail most of his life. He was a colorful storyteller – he recalled in vivid detail being there the first time Ozzy Osbourne bit off a bat’s head. A marijuana stem was tattooed on his arm. When he was 15, his friend started to ink the tattoo, but Don decided to stop halfway through the process – an appropriate metaphor for his life. Every time he went into rehab, every time it looked as if he had found steady employment, he quit halfway through.
Then there was the woman simply known as the Bag Lady. A paranoid schizophrenic, she had amassed a collection of detritus and kept it in a grocery cart, never letting it out of her sight. She spent her days waiting for a bus that never came; she would scrutinize each one that passed her stop, invariably deciding it was the wrong one. She kept all her clothes layered on her body, even during the oppressively hot and humid Georgia summers. One day, she uncharacteristically tried to remove her clothes to take a shower at the shelter. She couldn’t. Sweat and dirt had plastered them to her body, and my friend’s mother had to rip them off her. She became hysterical when we asked to interview her.
As I helped set up the camera in the cafeteria to pan across the room, I became overwhelmed watching everyone. Peter prayed for his green card. Don displayed the tattoo that was never completed. The Bag Lady stared out the window at her stop in hopes that her bus would finally arrive. I could only think of that dream deferred.
My studies in homelessness continued long after the camera stopped rolling. I conducted more interviews, this time for myself. Most of these people were thrown onto the streets because an unexpected debt had upended their already volatile paycheck-to-paycheck existence, or because they were addicts who had never found adequate rehabilitation, or because they had a mental illness. Realizing the fragility of the line that separates “person” from “homeless person” has helped me treat everyone with compassion.
Instead of lecturing the homeless on not using welfare to buy drugs or hugging my purse as I speed by a park bench, I take time to listen to them. This experience also helped when I worked for the Obama campaign. I registered more people to vote in one day than most interns did in a week, because I approached the people lying on park benches, the ex-felons and homeless people who didn’t know that they could vote in Georgia. One man cried as he filled out the registration form; the State of Georgia had taken his vote from him 20 years ago. After that, the Savannah campaign held drives at all the homeless shelters.
Learning about the plight of homeless people has made my world a little more beautiful. I learned the difference between a mandolin and a guitar from a street musician named Guitar Bob.
I learned about the history of metal music from Don. Al taught me how to weave a rose out of palm tree leaves. Most importantly, I learned that these people are not welfare leeches, drug abusers, or society’s cross to bear. Homeless people have specific problems that aren’t impossible to manage, and with a modicum of effort and ingenuity, perhaps one day their bus will finally come.
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