‘I was always one paycheck from being homeless’

    South Broad Street in Philadelphia (Nathaniel Hamilton for NewsWorks)

    South Broad Street in Philadelphia (Nathaniel Hamilton for NewsWorks)

    “I’ve been on the streets for eight years. It started when my father passed away. I didn’t get along with my stepmom. It was basically leave or get out. I adapted to the streets real fast. Most people do out here.”

    As I leave the Broad-and-Sansom post office at 9:30 a.m., I overhear a man telling his companion about the Ritz Hotel. The guys look like they are homeless, and I imagine this man is educating a new fellow of the streets.

    I approach with a quiet “Excuse me, were you just telling him where to ask for money?”

    “No,” he says, flicking a cigarette butt toward the street.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “What if he was?” asks the other guy.

    “Well,” I say, “if he were telling you that, I’d want to sit down with you and ask you about what life is like when you’re homeless.”

    They pay attention, perhaps because I’ve paid attention to them, perhaps because my question is too naïve to ignore. I ask for an hour of their time. The second guy wants $5, and when I offer a meal instead, he walks away.

    The remaining man, who identifies himself as Steve, is eager to talk, but I have neither pen nor keyboard, so he suggests we meet at a particular spot at 11.

    Since I’m in my gym clothes, and I need some refreshing before any meeting, I face the absurdity of dolling up for this situation. A warm shower in my safe apartment, shampoo, clean underwear — I’m acutely aware of the irony. Considering whether Steve is tidying up for me, I decide I can safely wear yesterday’s shirt.

    I recognize the total incongruity between his surroundings and mine. On the human continuum, neither he nor I is at an extreme. We’re two people with different strokes of luck, different families and friends, and identical desires for happiness and security.

    ‘So what do you want to know?’

    I reach the rendezvous at 11 on the dot, prepared to offer a meal at the Ritz. What the hell? Then I remember I hate the obsequious service the one time I had tea there.

    No Steve in sight. Perhaps he never intended to show. Or he could be testing me, watching from afar. Or he can’t keep appointments, which is why he lost his job, which is why he’s homeless. Or a generous passerby has adopted him and suited him up at Brooks Brothers.

    In 10 minutes, Steve appears — with his sidekick from before, who would introduce himself as Jerry. Lunch for three at the Ritz? Forget it.

    I would learn later that the men met about seven years ago, when Jerry threw a few dollars in Steve’s cup. When Jerry took to the streets, Steve showed him the ropes, making sure he had a blanket and didn’t sleep alone.

    Jerry says, “So what do you want to know?”

    I suggest that we sit down, and he points to a sunny spot on the sidewalk across the street. I laugh. I’m not as tough as they are. I want a table. Climate control. I offer lunch at Capital Grille, and they both say no.

    “Do you know what food costs there?” Jerry hollers. “The cheapest thing on the menu is like $17. I’d rather have the money. Besides, I’m not hungry. We just ate a big breakfast. Besides, they’d never let us in.”

    We agree on Marathon Grill on 16th Street and land a window table. To my surprise, my companions order coffee. Steve requests five creams, five sugars and a chocolate cookie, which they share. No real food? Twice more I offer food, including carry-out, but they demur.

    In their own words

    I turn on the tape recorder. Excerpts from our conversation follow, lightly edited for clarity.

    Steve: I’ve been on the streets for eight years. It started when my father passed away. I didn’t get along with my stepmom. It was basically leave or get out. I adapted to the streets real fast. Most people do out here. I learned where all the shelters were at. Where the free medical is. And ever since then I’ve been on the streets, on and off. I got friends that I can stay at once every couple weeks and get a shower.

    Susan: What do you have to adapt to?

    Steve: Finding places to sleep. Adapting to the lifestyle — if you want to call it a lifestyle. Finding the good places to eat, like Father John’s between 12th and 13th on Race Street. That’s a good place to eat lunch. I’m there Friday, 12 to 1. It’s a good place to take showers, and you get good clothes there.

    I grew up white, middle class. Didn’t have a lot, but we weren’t poor. I graduated from high school in Haddon Heights. My mom left my father when I was about two because of his drinking. This is survival out here. You survive.

    A lot of these so-called shelters are a joke. I’d rather die before I’d go to a shelter. That’s the God’s honest truth. The staff sucks. They don’t give a shit about you. You’re homeless. You’re in a room with, like, 50 guys. The food sucks. You know what they give you for breakfast? A bagel that could knock someone out, a bowl of grits, and cold coffee.

    They kick you out at 6:30 in the morning unless it’s Code Blue, which is under 32 degrees. They give you a locker, but if you don’t have a lock …. A lot of guys in there are a bunch of assholes. They steal from one another. It’s weird, homeless people stealing from homeless people. A lot of the guys won’t take a shower. You could be sleeping next to a guy who stinks. You try to tell him in a nice way, “You should go hit that shower, man. You’re starting to kick.” I always end up sleeping next to the guy who snores all night. I can’t sleep.

    Jerry: I was always one paycheck from being homeless, like a lot of these people are, and they just don’t realize it. It’s not easy to get a job. First of all, you’re nasty. You know you’re not the most pleasantest person out here, ’cause of the situation that you’re in. Which totally sucks, as far as I’m concerned, and lately my attitude has turned real nasty. I don’t get along with a whole lot of people. And I never used to be like that.

    Susan: So you are not resigned to it yet?

    Jerry: No, not at all.

    Susan: If you met somebody who is one paycheck away from being homeless, what would you tell them to look forward to?

    Jerry: Misery. Every day. I’d advise them to stay in school and get a education.

    Steve: It’s the same monotony every day, hoping that someone will be nice.

    Jerry: Make eye contact.

    Steve: Most of the time, people ignore you. Some stop and help. Some get nasty, but I don’t get nasty back at them. ‘Cause it seems like they’re trying to provoke you. If you sit there, and somebody walks by and says, “Get an f-ing job,” I’ll say, “Have a nice day.”

    Jerry: I don’t need to hear that crap. It’s rough enough out here without somebody calling you a piece of shit. You already know you’re a piece of shit. You don’t need to hear from somebody else. You know?

    Susan: How do you eat?

    Steve: Out of a trashcan. I walk along and I find something and — hey, that looks good.

    Steve: Some people give you food. Like a lot of people from Capital Grill give you the doggy bag.

    Jerry: We eat out of trashcans a couple, four nights a week. We’re always looking in trashcans. Sometimes you get good food out of the trashcan. Last night we ate chicken with teriyaki sauce at Buddakan. We didn’t eat inside.

    Steve: Big chunks of pork, still warm. It filled my belly up. It took my headache away.

    You don’t want to sleep on the streets. At any moment, somebody could walk by and just kick you. I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen people get kicked in the head.

    Jerry: They throw stuff at you, they spit at you.

    Steve: My one buddy, they tried to light him on fire.

    Jerry: I miss a roof.

    Steve: I miss a bed. I’m 37, and my hip is shot. I wake up in the middle of the night, sleeping on concrete, sleeping on cardboard. I’ll sleep like a hour and a half and I’ll wake up and my hip will be killing me and then I have to lean over the other side. In another hour, the other hip will be killing me.

    Susan: What could I do to help you that doesn’t involve money?

    Steve: Say a prayer. Seriously, say a prayer.

    Jerry: Homeless people need a place to put their stuff, where it won’t get stolen during the day.

    Steve: And a place to take a shower. And socks, plenty of socks.

    Jerry: I think the best thing you can do is just be a human being and show compassion for other people.

    Steve: Panhandling. When you walk by me, I say, “Excuse me, ma’am, can you spare a little change for something to eat?” Begging is if you walk by and I walk up to you and will not leave you alone and you say you don’t have any money and I just follow you down the street going “Please, please buy me something to eat, please, please, please, please… ,” to the point where you start getting pissed off. It amazes that someone will feed a bird, but they won’t feed a human being. Where’s the logic in that?

    Susan: Does anything make you feel good, ever?

    Jerry: Yeah, when someone hands me $20.

    Steve: That, and some people say nice stuff. Like, I get this from a lot of elderly black women. They’ll hand you money and be like, “Jesus loves you. God bless you.”

    Jerry: Surprisingly, when you are panhandling, 90 percent of the people that give you money are black people.

    Steve: That’s right. I don’t know the reason. It’s the average middle class that will help you out more than a rich person. Someone from Rittenhouse Square who lives in them condos wouldn’t give me the time of day.

    Jerry: People in business suits, they don’t hardly ever give you money.

    Susan: Thank you.

    Steve: Thank you for treating us like a human being.

    Susan: You want some food to go?

    Steve: No, I’m fine.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal