That question sets off others of my own that go unspoken: “What does this guy do with the money?” “Doesn’t begging like this make him feel awful?” “Why doesn’t it make him feel awful enough to stop and get a job?” “How did he get in this fix?” “Is he really in a fix, or is he taking me for a sucker?” “Why should I give to this guy rather than the other beggars on the block?” “Or do they think I can give to them all?”
To most of us, the homeless are a visible mystery. Perhaps some of the most hardened among us would prefer them to be invisible. But the rest of us would prefer them to be less of a mystery. We want to help, yes, but we want our efforts to go where they will make a difference. For that to happen, we have to know what we’re up against.
Although there have been some harder-edged stories on the homeless, the main message the media deliver about them is that, despite their predicament, they’re just like us. In a news special, Tom Brokaw stated that the homeless are “people you know.” Robert Hayes, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told the New York Times that when he is contacted by television news programs or congressional committees looking at homelessness, “they always want white, middle-class people to interview.” A recent study that examined the national print and broadcast coverage given the homeless between November 1986 and February 1989 discovered only 4 percent of the stories attributed the plight of the homeless to their personal problems.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, Rep. Charles Schumer wrote that “the slightest misstep or misfortune a temporary layoff, a large medical bill, a divorce could send (a low-income) family onto the streets. Indeed that’s exactly what’s been happening.”
Although real homeless people are all around me every day, I’ve been vulnerable to the more idealized representations of the press because my approach to street people has been typical of the white middle class: Usually, I stare straight ahead and walk on by, my head full of those skeptical questions. Sometimes, something an excess of change, a particularly good day, or just a weariness of skepticism would make me stop and give some money. But no matter what, there was one thing I would never, ever, do: Talk to these people. Recently, however, I decided to break that nervous middle class habit. I resolved to talk to the homeless, to ask them some of the questions I had been keeping to myself in all the years of walking right by. Night of wine and poses
I first put my new approach into effect one night last winter. On the stretch of Connecticut Avenue just above Dupont Circle, it was cold and rainy, and the panhandlers were huddled in bunches near the entrances of the restaurants on the block. With most of the dinner crowd already gone, the best pickings were over for the day. That left only pedestrians like me.
Both men are unsteady on their feet and hard to understand, with 100-proof breath. I make a donation and learn that the tall man is named Mike and the short one is K.C. I ask them how long they’ve been on the streets, and they tell me six months. They’ve both had jobs in construction. Mike says he used to work as a bartender until he lost his job because of his drinking. When I ask where they stay at night, Mike says that the owner of an art gallery across the street lets them sleep in the lobby of the building. Mike says they get to bathe every two days at a shelter in Alexandria.
“What do you do with the money you get?” I ask. Mike gives me a thumb-to-the-lip bottle motion. Then he shrugs his shoulders in embarrassment.
A block away I cross paths with two guys standing out of the rain under the overhang of a closed lunch stand. Both in their 20s, it quickly becomes apparent that all they have in common is this dry spot of sidewalk. The guy who tells me his name is Wayne asks me for some change, telling me he got laid off from a construction job. The other guy, without introducing himself, quickly tries to take over. “Hey, I’m in a situation too. I’m a starving artist, and nobody’s giving me nothing. I don’t have a job. But I’m a millionaire, I know that inside. That my art is worth money, okay?”
I ask him if he ever tries finding work in the want ads. “Everybody keeps saying that, man The paper is to get you to buy it or look at it. They’re still making money off you ” Hope for some homeless
In my travels around Washington, I rarely see homeless women on the street. But there are places outdoors where they congregate. Walking north on 14th Street and turning onto Belmont any evening at around 5:30, you will gradually become aware of a pilgrimage first just a few shadows moving through the uneven light, but eventually a line of them making the daily trek up to the top of the hill. Most of the shadows are families, living in temporary housing for the homeless. There are very few men, either by themselves or attached to a family group. I fall in step with the shadow families, curious to see what could have this drawing power.
At the top of the hill is the one-time Pitts Hotel, a ramshackle building now operated as a shelter for homeless families. Parked out front under the archway is a gleaming yellow Rolls Royce, District license plate 347. A man standing next to it tells me that it belongs to the building’s owner. The people file by it without taking much notice. The building has room for only 50 or so families, but every day the District’s Department of Human Services deposits four additional busloads of shelter residents mostly families at the foot of the hill so that they can get a cooked meal.
Watching the women come and go on Belmont, you can’t avoid the feeling that they are fighting some powerful obstacle in addition to the lack of a permanent place to live. Many seem tired and cranky, snapping at their children and cuffing them for transgressions that are hard to see in this light. “I’m not here because I’m all drugged up,” says a plump woman with four kids in tow, hurrying down the hill to make the last bus. “I work as a nurse’s assistant at D.C. General, and the truth is” her voice lowers “I had to leave where I was living because my friend was beating on me.”
Despite these dark overtones, the longer I watch and listen, the more I become aware of the many hopeful signs on Belmont Street. As a group, these women seem fairly straight. Straight enough for Tom Brokaw. They stand in stark contrast to street hustlers like the artist. Obviously, many of these people are using their meager means for the right things. Yes, for the Belmont families, it seems that housing would be a big part of the answer.
I showed up at CCNV late on a Saturday afternoon in January, dressed in my worst clothes and having not washed or shaved for days. In front of the building, Saturday night is already well under way. Thirty or so men are standing on the porch and along the sidewalk, talking loudly and taking regular pulls from the brown paper bags they all seem to have.
Behind a van across the street, two guys are fighting. They must be pretty drunk; the pace doesn’t let up a bit even when one guy slams the other’s head into the van.
There’s a constant stream of men coming in and out of the building. A beer can in a paper sack is practically part of the uniform. A few weeks before, Newsweek ran a picture of the area where I’m sitting now. In the shot, the CCNV building and grounds looked spick-and-span. The three guys now on the bench to my right, sharing a joint, weren’t there. And neither were the two women and one guy on the sidewalk right in front of me, passing a reefer among them.
I go inside to find out what prospects there are for getting put up for the night. I’m told that the shelter is full until Tuesday, but that a van will eventually come to take me to one of the city’s emergency shelters. I decide to wait in the lobby. Over the next couple of hours there I see a lot.
Residents continue to stream in and out of the building. (There is no sign-in or sign-out. The building is open most of the time. Between midnight and 4 a.m. the front door is opened for five minutes every half-hour.) About a third of the people I see are carrying Walkman sets. At least half are carrying beer or liquor. The stuff’s usually in a paper bag. Later, a CCNV spokesman named Lawrence Lyles tells me that CCNV policy is that “we allow people to have beer and hard stuff, but not illegal drugs. As long as they maintain themselves. This is the residents’ house. If you were home, you’d drink a little beer, wouldn’t you?”
A handsome man with longish gray-black hair comes down to get his mail. He’s carrying two books, the first I’ve seen here. He’s neatly dressed in a completely coordinated Army camouflage uniform. In this scene, he looks as solid as a rock. He’s walking toward me as he finishes his letter. “They say they will give me money if I go to a psychiatrist,” he tells me, his face lit up now by a scary smile. “But I will stay here instead.”
At about 8 p.m., one of the staff members very politely informs us that there’s room at one of the city’s newest emergency shelters. And it’s within walking distance, over at the Department of Employment Services just around the corner.
On my way there, I fall in with two other guys, Tom and James, headed for the same place. They are both refreshingly clean-cut and substance-free.
The three of us talk among ourselves. Tom just got out of jail during a routine traffic stop the day before, he got arrested on an old warrant for driving without a license. He made bail, but he’s from Virginia, and without a license or car (it got impounded), and low on money, he has no way to get back. And he has no place to stay here. His court date is next month, and he figures he will get some jail because, as he puts it, “this isn’t the first time.”
James works in the kitchen at the Marriott in Crystal City. He’s wearing an Army jacket, from his days as a parachute rigger in the Airborne. This is his first day on the streets. He had been living with his girlfriend, but they had a fight. I ask James if there isn’t a family member he can stay with until this blows over. “I tried staying with my mother,” he answers, “but she had too many restrictions she won’t give me a key, she won’t let me in past 11 at night, and there’s no TV downstairs. I’m a party animal.”
Lying back on my cot, I spend a long time staring at the garage ceiling, trying to figure out James’ logic. Why would somebody clean and employed choose this and tomorrow night maybe something much worse over coming in at 11 to a house with only one TV? Would “people you know” do that?
Americans tend to believe that homelessness is exclusively a social problem, a system failure. This idea goes hand-in-hand with the traditional liberal notion that the solution to the problem is simply the provision of housing and jobs. While there is something to this, it’s not the solution. As I found out for myself there’s too much else going on with the homeless.
Allowing for the possibility of some overlap, here’s how I would roughly classify the homeless people I met: At least three-quarters were (current or recovering) substance abusers, three-quarters were unattached men, and about a third seemed to some degree mentally ill. But there is another important factor I observed in about half of the homeless people I talked to one that takes a little explaining. I call it the “X-factor” because I’m not having much luck figuring it out.
Ronald Reagan once came in for a lot of well-deserved criticism for saying that anybody who is homeless is so only because he chooses to be. That’s a ridiculous notion. Sleeping in the park in the winter, being chronically sick and disoriented nobody chooses that. But just the same, people like the artist and James are carrying something around in their heads that’s separating them from opportunities and propelling them toward ruin. The artist has his incoherent put-down of the classifieds, and James has his odd standards about acceptable living conditions. Here is another example of the X-factor I came across in talking to the homeless:
A 50ish man whom I often see late at night begging near my office, an articulate man who appears sane and drug- and alcohol-free, tells me that he served in submarines in the Navy and then worked at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He says that he lost his job at the NRC because of differences with his bosses. Later, he landed a job stuffing envelopes for a political organization, but he quit because he didn’t agree with the material he was mailing and went back to the streets, where he makes about $ 2 an hour (It turns out that’s the typical figure for a Washington beggar).
All of these people fail the Bill Shade test. Bill is the only single male homeless person I met who I am convinced is actively trying every day to become unhomeless. Bill was working in construction when he got burned out of his apartment. Most of what Bill collects from begging he turns over to the woman who takes care of his daughter. Once I was talking to Bill when I noticed the Help Wanted sign behind his head. He read my mind: “I already went in there, but they want a girl to work behind the counter.” So instead he sweeps the sidewalk in front of the shop. He works odd jobs whenever he can. He cleans up around the bank where he sleeps. He puts quarters in expired parking meters to save people he doesn’t know from paying the $ 15 ticket. He’s hoping to get the funds together to move back to Baltimore with his daughter.
I’m finding it hard to articulate the troublesome mental baggage that hampers the artist but not Bill Shade. It’s not, contrary to the Reagan camp, mere laziness these people work much harder every day than most just to keep from freezing to death. It’s something more like a twisted sense of pride, a sense of personal specialness tweaked so ridiculously high that anything even sleeping outside and begging for food is viewed as better than forms of compromise that you and I would readily accept, like fitting in at work, getting a job out of the newspaper or coming home at 11. I’m convinced that some of the homeless I met who evinced the X-factor were neither mentally ill nor addicts. What do we make of them?
There can be all the low-cost housing in the world, and an untreated paranoid won’t set foot in it, and an untreated schizophrenic might burn it down. (Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist who is an expert on the homeless mentally ill, told me that he has encountered both outcomes.) And a drug addict will spend the rent money on crack. So homelessness is in large measure a mental health problem and a drug problem that defies the conventional liberal answers of housing and jobs. But notice this about the X-factor homeless: They aren’t likely to be people for whom jobs and housing alone would be the answer, either. If low-cost housing were made available to the artist (and for all I know, it already has been), how would he pay the rent? If he were offered a nonglamorous job to make the rent, would he take it?
There certainly seem to be homeless people who are nearly like you and me, save for some intervening bad breaks. Many of the women on Belmont Street appear to fit that bill, as does Bill Shade. So for people like these, fixing the bad break making jobs and housing available is what’s called for. But media depictions to the contrary, there are more homeless people the untreated mentally ill, the addicted and those with the X-factor who are not like us. As a result, if they are ever to realize secure and steady lives, they will require different kinds of help.
Traditional liberals don’t want to admit such differences and that’s wrong because they want us to help all the homeless that’s right. Neoconservatives admit the differences (right) because they don’t want to help them all (wrong). The correct position is to admit the differences among the homeless while strenuously working to help them all. If conservatives need to care more, liberals need to see more.
It’s a cruel joke to pretend that an untreated mentally ill person is better off in the streets than he would be if he were compelled somehow to take medication, or to pretend that the artist would hold down a job with the same tenacity as Bill Shade. To make real progress in the fight against homelessness, we must first be honest about who the homeless are.