Midday, I capture my first glimpse of Albany as I descended the hill into the city. It was October 1, 2010. I moved into the west end of the city over Normanskill creek, a tributary of the Hudson, then passed a tree cradling a baptismal font at an Episcopal church, and later, a Presbyterian church, and finally a library.
We move down the street in suburban Albany, and find a big rehab park named ”St. Peter‘s”. I asked at the reception if I could pitch a tent on their nicely manicured lawn, and they said no, for privacy reasons. They asked me if I wanted to be admitted – I suppose with a stretch, from Marx‘s point of view I might qualify: ”Religion is the opiate of the masses…” Having slept in a tent for over a month by now, a bed and a shower was tempting, but ”curing me” would have been a premature end to an interesting story. Besides, I was rather skeptical of their ability to ”cure” me, and definitely not one to voluntarily offer to relinquish my freedom.
There was a nursing home across the street. I opted out of that one, too. So Petey and I move farther back, into a woody area with some big metal construction beams that had been placed out of the way. It was not clear who owned any of this property – vast, abandoned, no reason not to pitch a tent there. The next morning, I am awakened by the police. They inform me that it is private property, and someone had complained. I had best be moving along.
I quickly pack up and we left. I spent a little time at the computer in the library uploading pictures to make some more space in the memory of the camera. Libraries are one of the most critical investments that cities can make for the homeless. They offer a reprieve from the elements, quietness, restrooms, water, and opportunities for the homeless to acquire an education or resources by finding out where these resources are locally on the internet. They are integrating and not segregating as a homeless shelter would be. If you want to put yourself in a pool of homeless people, go to a homeless resource center. If you would rather be integrated, go to the library. Although I have on one or two occasions been treated rudely for shutting my eyes in the library, for the most part, the librarians look after the homeless. Some offer them a quiet place to set up in the back at night. I‘ve seen them leave a door open at night when it drops below freezing. There is generally a friendly ”hello”, a recognition that you have an identity there, and dignity. In their own quiet way, these people are heroes. Obviously, they also serve the nonhomeless. One will often be amazed at the books and lectures that one can find there, and the creativity displayed by the librarians in teaching the public about computers and the community in general.
Come to me all ye who are Weary
There are the service-resistant homeless, the economies of the service providers to the homeless, and a lot of reasons why someone would want to remain “outside of the system.” I remember the only time I have ever actually tried to stay in a shelter. It was a “12-12“ shelter in DC a few years ago. You check in at night, and are out on the street by 7 o’clock the next morning. I was there (without dogs, because my dogs had somewhere to stay) because it was cold that night. I remember standing in line (I was probably 15th or so in the line that curved around the building waiting for it to open). By the time that it did, I had fallen asleep standing up with my head leaning against the wall. As we moved through the intake, I am informed that the little food that I had with me, would have to stay outside. OK. Deep breath. I could part with my dumpster dive. Then, I am informed that my tools that I relied on for day labor would have to stay outside. I would have to find a hiding place for them. They could not be accommodated in a locker. OK. Deep breath. They need a posture of total submission. Finally, at the intake table, cameras pointing at me, I am asked to complete an 11 page intake survey to receive services. I opt out.
It’s a lot easier to find a bathroom couch in a building and be gone before housekeeping arrives. I’ve slept in some pretty creative places – for example, under tables prepared for catering events. Some of these tables have these heavy cloth overhangs. Can you imagine, in the middle of the event, as everyone is enjoying their little hors d’oeuvres, someone raises the cloth and discovers a homeless person? It would probably give most people pause, but you never know.
The shelters are even harder if not impossible with dogs.
After a couple of hours of warmth, I move on into the city with Petey. It was Friday, and it would take us the rest of the day to get to the Capitol.
Moving into the city around lunch time, I was quite short on cash. We stopped at a fast food place, hoping to get some leftovers. This was the big city, and the fast food places always have to clear out their breakfast menus for lunch – so it was a reasonable bet. The manager came out, and told me to “Get the _____ out of here.” I asked him what I had done to him. He was seething and told me he was counting to 3, and if I wasn’t gone, he was calling the police. One, two … OK I’m outta here. God forgive you. The level of rage was completely disproportionate to the situation. It was the first time I have ever felt attacked at a fast food place, and I felt the hate and hostility oozing out of him like a pus-infested abscess just ready to rupture. It was a level of hostility that would normally just precede a hate crime.
Main Entry: hate crime
: any of various crimes (as assault or defacement of property) when motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a group (as one based on color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation).
According to a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, over the past 10 years, there were 880 reported hate crimes against the homeless (as defined as an unprovoked attack on a homeless person by a nonhomeless person), 240 of which were fatal. I remembered the homeless guy in Houston run over by the bus driver after he was pushed onto the street by someone he had asked for some spare change. It had only been 6 months ago. Another version of the same story is that when one guy couldn’t get food from the other guy, he lay down on the street in an act of suicide, allowing himself to be run over by a bus. Six days later, a homeless person was apparently shot on the University of Houston campus. For the most part, though, people are decent. If they see you grab the leftovers from someone’s plate of food at an outdoor diner, they’ll step up and tell you “You can’t be doing that”, and hand you a couple of hotdogs, telling you to “Move on.” Be invisible.
We moved passed the governor’s camp.
I overhear a couple of young adolescents mumble “bum dog” as we walk by. We passed the bars, and I see a drunk man literally in a stupor fallen on the sidewalk. I move to help him, and then notice that he had an entourage of people around him. I remembered the Good Samaritan, but I didn’t even have enough money to get him into a hotel or room. You had to be rich to be a Good Sam. If Petey could speak like his namesake, the following might have worked:
“Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee…”
Acts 3: 6
But the words also might have fallen on a brain too deeply numbed to have any influence. Where is my faith?
There is a high incidence of alcohol use among the homeless. In 2009, it was reported to be 38%. It certainly isn’t everyone. Among people 21 years and older, the number of people who binge drink (homeless and nonhomeless) in the United States is 7% frequently, and 16% infrequently. After a significant amount of time on the street, I can say that the causes of drinking among the homeless are not always in the direction one assumes: alcoholism causes homelessness. The reverse can also be true. When an individual has no family, no job, nothing else to provide a reward or distraction or numbness to the pain of loss, the $5 bottle of booze can be the only pretty cheap and accessible alternative. I’ve personally only rarely been tempted in that direction, but it is simply because I feel sick when I drink. I derive no pleasure from it in large quantities. If someone’s brain chemistry is wired just slightly differently, it is not a difficult slope to roll down.
A 6 month systematic study of the cause of death of the homeless in Atlanta, Georgia, infers the death rate to be 5.7-10/1000. Atlanta has a homeless population of 4-7000. Of the 40 deaths that occurred, 6 were directly attributed to alcohol, 22 were considered alcohol-related (hematoma from a fall, heart attack, delirium tremens seizures, lung disease, burns, struck by car). This makes alcohol the primary source of death (70%) among the homeless in Atlanta. I guess that the statistics probably translate to other cities, as well.