Three Days in November
What you are about to read is a small expression of the feelings, perspectives and experiences that I had during the three days in November 1989 that I was ‘homeless by choice’ and stayed on streets of Lexington Kentucky. There is a short version and a long version to this story. I will give the short version first: “It was one of the most horrible experience of my life.” In retrospect, I think I was unprepared and idealistic. I had thought that almost 10 years of working among homeless people had enabled me to understand the people and the issues. But I was wrong. I was so wrong.
Here is the long version:
It is amazing how the same city of Lexington Kentucky looks so different to me now. I used to think of Lexington as such a clean and beautiful city. While it may be clean and beautiful to those who have money, it remains ugly and frightening to those who have little or nothing. I took no money and I did not have identification with me when I left that cold early Friday morning in November. I did not shower the morning of my first day. I wanted my hair to appear messed up. During the three day period, I did not change clothing. I later discovered that few of the homeless I met have the privilege of changing clothing more then once or twice a week. I slept in the same clothing only taking my shoes off to go to sleep. I wore a pair of work pants, two pairs of socks, shoes with holes in them, a T shirt, thermal shirt and a very old sweater. I had an old coat with a hood , a blue hat and a pair of work gloves. At no time did any homeless person give me the slightest impression that they thought I was different from them. I believe I was able to fit in. I had hoped to find free clothing but information about this was not brought to my attention. I came to understand that social services and programs for those on the streets were, in this case, something the homeless had to seek out and ask for. Never once was there and announcement of information provided to me about any programs or opportunities available to help us. I received no information on showers or clothing resources. All information about resources came through my fellow street companions. I believe however, that if I would have sought out information, I could have learned about what was available to me.
I was dropped off by a friend from Asbury Seminary about 8:00 a.m. into the downtown area of the city. Although I had been in the Lexington area for a few months, I purposely had not gone down to seek any information on services available to homeless people. I wanted to find out for myself. Wilmore, the host city to Asbury Seminary is about 20 minutes outside of Lexington. I was there on sabbatical from my work as the Executive Director of a rural shelter for the homeless (Good Works) for about 3 months. My objectives were these:
1) After working with homeless people from the point of view of a counselor and an administrator for the past 9 years, I felt I needed to see them from the point of view of an equal; one who ‘comes along side.’ In a real sense, I felt that I had to have this experience as a kind of “rite-of-passage” to further bear fruit and make progress in the work I am doing with Good Works Inc. in Athens Ohio.
2) I wanted to try to understand how the homeless see themselves, their problems and the solutions to their situation. I had my own opinions of how I and the “professionals” saw their plight, but I wanted to try to understand how they see themselves and the help that others are providing for them. I also wanted to see how they saw the way out.
3) Because Jesus incarnated himself into the culture of man that he might identify with us in order to communicate the message of God’s love, I wanted to incarnate myself into the culture of the homeless in order to learn how I might better minister to and care for them. I feel that the power and impact of my own ministry with hurting people is proportional to my understanding their suffering while suffering with them.
4) While I knew that I could never actually become “homeless” as they were, I believed that I could taste something of their world, possibly enough to give me the guidance I needed to “bind up their brokenness”.
After I was dropped off, I prayed and then I began to walk around the city. At first, I was looking for street people but did not see any. I thought that if I could find them, they would be the best source of information. I thought I knew what I was looking for. I knew the look, the dress and many of the mannerisms of these people. What I discovered was that I knew how to stereotype. I now know that I had a thing or two to learn about “looking at the outward appearances” of people.
My first stop was at a gas station. After initially being ignored for a minute, I asked the worker if he could tell me if there was a “drop-in center in this town or some place where people could go during the day to keep warm.” He then directed me to the Salvation Army (called the SALLY I was later to learn from the street people) which he said was down the street. I immediately walked the 3 blocks until I found it. There were two buildings and it took me a few minutes to find out where to go. When I arrived at the front door, the man outside (apparently a homeless man in their work program; a trustee) said the shelter was not open and that I should go the Horizon Center located just three blocks down and to the left. He told me ‘that is where most of the people who stayed at the Salvation Army at night went during the day.’ He rattled off the name of the place and street quickly. I did not ask him to repeat himself. I left not fully understanding the directions. I began walking and soon got lost and had to ask directions from different strangers. Most people had not heard of the Horizon Center but many had heard of the street Martin Luther King Drive so they directed me there.
After what seemed to be about 45 minutes of walking and asking directions I finally found the center. While I was walking, I began to feel frustrated and tired and it began to dawn on me, possibly for the first time in my life, that people were looking at me differently. Was it because of what I was wearing? The seminary community and the friends and workers from the Christian community in Athens had helped me to respect myself for who I was, not for what I was wearing. I recalled the scripture “Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.” At first I tried to inwardly laugh-off the looks people gave me, but later they began to sap my energy. I kept wondering if they were thinking, “What’s wrong with him? Is he mentally ill? Why doesn’t he get a job?” The mind can really play tricks on you with other peoples’ dirty looks. I began to feel sad. I began to experience a little bit of “lost-ness” and loneliness. I began to feel the thoughts of others and to take notice of their double takes and looks. At this point however, I felt physically strong and emotionally secure. I knew who I was and dirty looks were not about to take me down. Not yet.
Well, as I said, after a lot of walking I finally arrived at the Horizon Center, one of two places in the entire city where homeless people could stay during the day. It was a one story steel building shaped like an airplane hangar set in a parking lot next to the sheriffs’ department behind the county jail. I later thought, “What a funny looking building and what a location! What kind of message is sent by the decision to locate ”
I came in through the back door and later learned it was not to be used as a entrance. I immediately noticed the room filled with people, noise, smoke, and the smell of dirt. I did not notice anyone looking especially at me. It became apparent that people were involved with one another and new-comers did not break in easily. I soon got in line to get some food. Not once during my days on the streets, did any staff from any of the agencies I
It was about 9:00 a.m. The food being served was turkey, green beans, baked beans, lemonade, hot tea, stuffing and gravy. It tasted okay. After I got my plate full of food, I decided to sit near a newspaper so that I could read the news while I ate my food.
After the meal I watched:
– Some of the men were already very drunk even though it was only nine o’clock in the morning. The one child got a lot of attention and brought out the “childlike” part of many men. Everyone used the same five cuss words and it seemed like a minute didn’t go by that someone was not saying something foul. People were emotionally “on edge” and used a lot of emotional language.
– Some of the people were playing cards, shouting and cussing out each other. There was a lot of ridicule, outward threats and negative voices. The place was very dirty and the atmosphere was depressing. At times, it was hard to tell the difference between joking and threatening.
The place was dirty. Very dirty. Trash and cigarettes butts every where, food left in different places, vodka and rum bottles on the bathroom floor and a smoke filled room. Many people did not clean up after themselves. (I learned I must be allergic to cigarette smoke because it really made me sick). The place was chaotic and not fit for animals. The drinking fountain did not work and water was available out of a jug, but only a few cups were placed out and these were used and reused by everyone.
– There was a bathroom for men and one for women. The men’s room door was always kept open. I watched a lot of drug deals take place, a lot of alcohol consumption and a lot of private conversations go on back there. The place smelled very bad and could be best described as slime, slime, slime. They did have a shower in there but I would have never considered using it.
– A woman I thought might be a prostitute. She would come and go all day and would be on and off the free phone. A number of severely mentally disabled people including a woman who talked in rhymes to herself while she rocked and while others laughed at her, and a number of men who sat in deaf stonefaced silence for hours and would not talk with anyone. Staff – security guards – job givers (exploiters) – kitchen cookers.
– Rules were posted on the walls which I read as I passed by in line for a meal. I wondered what they did for those who could not read. The rules explained how certain behavior would not be tolerated, (weapons, drugs, alcohol, acts of violence or foul language) and how everyone needed to come in through the front door and sign in. I very rarely saw any of these rules enforced. No one spoke to me about any rules, asked me to sign in or told me not to enter through the backdoor.
There was a TV but it was small and only a few people could see it and less could hear the sound. It was a old black and white and the picture was poor. The only couches in the room were in front of the TV and many of the drunks slept there during the day. People were coming and going all day long often leaving in small groups and returning a few hours later. I wondered where they went.
During the afternoon, I counted about five men at different times who passed out and were escorted by other homeless men and/or carried to chairs, the floor or the couch (depending on what was available) to sleep off their drunk. I suspect that a large percentage of the people used alcohol daily. Could I blame them? I began to understand the misery which led them to using drugs. It was the only way of escape that some of these people could see from the horrible rut in their life. I finally began to understand that a “high” was a way of coping with the misery of street life. When people live in darkness, depression, pain and misery, they look for any escape that will bring relief and their drug of choice (be it food or alcohol) is usually the first thing they think of as a companion through tough times.
From what I could observe, the staff at the Horizon Center did very little interacting with the homeless there, except to come out and quiet them down. The dressed very differently and it was very obvious who worked there and who was served there. I tried to made eye contact on several occasions in the hope that they would approach me but the staff never came to speak with me.
Initially, it was unclear how many of these people were simply street people who had homes but who hung out at the Horizon Center and how many were homeless people. I later discovered that almost everyone there was homeless.
I began hearing people say something about the Horizon Center being closed at from 11:30 to noon for a clean up. So I inquired as to what people do then. I learned that many of the people go over to another type of day center called the Community Kitchen. I had heard about the Community Kitchen because a a month earlier when I had read a story in the Lexington newspaper about how the director had spent 3 months as a bag lady in the Kentucky-Indiana area as a thesis for her masters degree. I got directions from a woman on the street and walked over the few blocks.
The Community Kitchen seemed like a much nicer place then the Horizon Center. They served fresh hot coffee and provided clean disposable cups. They had a piano and many nicer places to sit. I had never realized how important a nice place to sit was until I had spend many tiring hours wandering on the cold streets of the city. The floors were cleaner and they had a smoke filter in the room. The piano alone made me feel better and as I listened to a young black girl sing, my spirits were lifted. I also noticed there was a small library of books available.
After I got a cup of coffee and began leaning against the wall to rest, an older man came and inquired about my coffee. Because there were no more cups, I offered him my cup and he accepted. We later had a short conversation as a result of my kind gesture. The staff worker at the Community Kitchen seemed to play the role of a policeman. As I saw things, it seemed like every moment he was watching the folks and rushing to investigate everything which seemed “out of the ordinary.” I kept watching him rush around the room, open and close doors, talk briefly with people, give orders and greet visitors dropping off clothing. In contrast to the Horizon Center where the staff and security guards paid so little attention to what was done or said, the male staff worker at the Community Kitchen seemed “overbearing.” At one point he tried to throw out an older, mildly drunk man because he wouldn’t stop cussing. “What a contrast to the ‘unleashed’ cussing at the Horizon Center,” I thought. It looked like the young staff worker got his ‘self esteem’ and ‘power needs’ met by being in control of the room. It was laughable to observe the young worker threatening and telling the older drunk to leave and all of the homeless people watching with smiles on their faces. I could tell they felt entertained. The contrast between the only two places where homeless people could “hang out” during the day was amazing. I wondered if the staff in both places communicated with each other. I wondered if they were in agreement with each other in philosophy and purpose. I wondered how they defined the problems of the homeless.
The Community Kitchen closed at noon and while it looked at first like people went their separate ways, I soon discovered that most of the folks headed back to the Horizon Center. I sat on a bench outside the Community Kitchen and had a short conversation with the man to whom I had earlier offered coffee (a homebased alcoholic man) about the bummers of street life. Then, I elected to go back to the Horizon Center myself.
I arrived back at the Horizon Center and found it somewhat cleaned up. All the vodka and rum bottles had been emptied from the bathroom trash can and the floors had been swept by someone. I remained at the Horizon Center for the next few hours observing the following when I wasn’t napping:
While many of the people made fun of the mentally ill woman, some ignored her and I did not observe the staff interacting with her.
The few men who had earlier sat silently and stared into the air were back in their places looking extremely depressed and out-of-touch.
– There were many loud black men swearing and threatening each other
– There were a few young obese women flirting with the men.
– There were a number of drunk men coming out of the bathroom and falling down onto the floor
– The young prostitute was coming and going all day long and men were coming up to her to try to engage her in conversation
– The staff stayed behind the doors of the office only coming out to leave, give have a short conversation with the security guard or ask someone to quiet down. Occasionally, a street person would knock on the door of the offices and would go in and talk.
The next day (Saturday) I asked a security guard if she could tell me anything about the programs offered at the Horizon Center. She said she did not know anything about the Center and suggested I come back Monday and inquire with the staff. I was actually quite surprised to discover that she knew little or nothing about the Center programs since she appeared to be the most visible staff worker there. I inquired whether she had any literature about the Center and she said she had nothing. When I asked if she was employed by the Center or worked for a private contract agency, she responded by saying that I sure asked a lot of questions!
After a nap (I slept in the upright position and got a stiff neck) I moved to sit near the TV and met the man whom I would soon after consider my buddy. In the prayer meeting prior to leaving for this adventure, we had specifically prayed that the Lord would lead me to someone who could “show me the ropes.” Some one I could feel safe with. HE DID! We exchanged a few words and I could sense that he was safe. He told me he just got into town yesterday, had been to McDonalds looking for work but was unable to get a job for the day. I naturally assumed he meant working at McDonalds. I was in for quite a surprise.
I knew the Salvation Army opened at 5:00, so I thought I’d go down early. I was really tired of sitting around and breathing in the smoke and the unwholesome atmosphere of the Horizon Center. I left and walked the 1 and 1/2 miles down to the Sally. When I arrived, I was told that I could not stay in the Way House because it was full. The Way House is a shelter located in the Sally’s main building where there are bunk beds, a TV room, a shower and a much nicer atmosphere. They also had different hours. Secondly, I was told that since I didn’t have identification, I had to to to the police to get verification of my identity. The lady at the desk at the Salvation Army asked for my name, Social Security number and my date of birth, and then wrote this information on a standard form which she later gave to me and told me to take to the police. I gave her truthful and accurate information. Something in me, however, knew from past experience that the police could not give me an identification check . Nevertheless, I went. The directions I was given were unclear and as a result , it took a bit longer to find my way than I expected. When I arrived at the police station, I presented the paper to the clerk and she soon returned it with a stamp on it which indicated that I had been to the police, been checked out and was okay. I asked the clerk how they could check for identification (since I knew it was not legal and also not possible). The clerk said they only did an “outstanding warrant check.” It then occurred to me that the real purpose of being sent to the police was to scare the homeless who are not sly enough to use another name to be honest. The police have no way to check one’s identity. They only thing they could do is check to see if there are any outstanding warrants against a person’s name. Why would anyone with an outstanding warrant even go to the police, let alone give their real name? All of this seemed so insignificant in light of seeing the weapons and drugs
I returned to the Horizon Center and waited for the time to pass so that I could go back to the Salvation Army for the night. As I sat in the smoked filled room, I began to feel sick. Getting sick was not in my plan for living these days on the street. I was emotionally and physically unprepared for the thoughts and feelings which would generate from being sick. I really thought I could handle living on the streets but after feeling sick, I was beginning to have my doubts. We sat around and watched ABC news. The person of the week was ‘Father Ritter’ and the the last story on the news was about his work with homeless children. The reporter concluded that Covenant House was really making an impact upon homeless teens. It felt odd to be homeless sitting among the homeless and watching a news report on the plight of the homeless!
After the news was over, my buddy and I headed toward the Salvation Army. He was a man in his later 40s who said he had been on and off the road since 1976 after he was divorced by his wife. He told me that he had a daughter who lived in Dayton, Ohio but didn’t say much more then that about himself. I was glad to walk down there on the dark lonely streets with someone I felt safe with.
We arrived to find many people waiting outside in the cold for the doors to open. “Last night they opened up early because it was cold,” someone said, “maybe they will open up early tonight.” The doors did not open until 8:30. We waited and waited while more and more people came. Almost everyone was under-dressed and shivering. The weather had changed suddenly a day or so earlier and many people had not obtained warmer clothing. Many people needed a coat, hat or gloves. I saw a great need for clean socks, good shoes and warmer clothing. It must have been 30 degrees or lower outside. I offered my hat to a man wearing only a flannel shirt but, after I said I wanted it back when we went inside, he declined it and threw it back to me. A number of people who looked like “staff” workers at the Sally were coming an going out of the building while we waited in the cold. Every time one of them would come out, the people would ask if they were going to open soon. Later, the lieutenant (a young men in his mid 20s) said he was not working tonight and suggested we all ask the man on duty when things would open up. Finally, the staff and homeless trustee workers arrived with a shopping cart full of blankets and sheets and the doors were opened.
Everyone pushed to get in. I had fears of being crushed by the pressure. We arrived inside and lined up for what was to be a food line. I later learned that the Salvation Army and the Horizon Center serve meals on different days. The Sally serves their meals about 8:30 at night. The meal was served in the gym. This night we were provided with very spicy rice, peas, very greasy chicken and lemon aid. I was already feeling sick before the meal but afterwards I really felt sick, so I left the table and went to the bleachers to sit down. They only provided four tables for more than 125 people. I dozed off for a few minutes and when I awoke I noticed that almost everyone had left the gym. I got up and saw everyone standing back in line, this time to get a sheet, blanket and permission to get a mat to bed down for the night. My buddy, knowing I was sick, allowed me to cut in line. It was a good thing too, because I later discovered that those at the end of the line get the worst spaces and the least privacy on the floor (often near a sick drunk) and if you were too far back in line, you possibly would not get a sheet, blanket or both.
By the time I reached the front, they had run out of sheets and I was given only 1 blanket. Because I was new, I had to show them the form stamped by the police and then fill out one of their forms. No one asked if I could read or write. On their form, they asked for my home address, a person to contact in case of an emergency and asked me to sign it on the back. This took only a few seconds. At no time during my three days, did anyone from the Salvation Army seek any additional information from me or seek to verify whether the information I provided on the form was true. No one spoke to me from the staff. There appeared to be only one man running the whole program in the gym. I was never provided with an information about rules or expectations. I later heard from the other homeless men that they only allow three nights of shelter. During dinner, I learned that there was no effort on the part of the staff to check for weapons or drugs. The man across the table from me told me that he only messed with those who messed with him and then pulled out a carpenter knife and opened the blade to show me how it worked.
I began to realize that a person’s crushed sense of identity and self worth causes them to strive for a position of power and control through physical threats and intimidation in order to feel better about themselves. Can organizations helping the homeless seek to identify and meet these same needs in different and constructive ways? I believe we can!
After picking up the blanket I went back to the gym, followed my buddy, picked out a mat next to his and laid down. The lights were bright so I put my blue hat over my eyes and tried to fall asleep. It just so happened that the loudest man in the gym was the guy sleeping on the other side of me. Every time I’d doze off, he would shout out something loud and foul. The lights finally went out and I fell asleep. I think I slept well.
During the night I could hear people coming in and going out. I thought, “If someone had an enemy here, this would be the perfect time to hurt or kill them.” About 5:30 a.m. the gym lights came on and everyone began to wake up, shake off the sleepies, put their mats against the wall and line up for breakfast. The provided buttered english muffins, peanut butter and jelly with coffee and grapefruit juice. I took the muffins and coffee and sat down at one of the two tables set up in the hall. As I sat eating, a woman across from me told me she had a job at Wendy’s and was planning to go to work. Two other men got into an argument. I felt at peace. I felt a great deal of compassion for these people and for myself. I had survived day one and I was feeling rested. I felt renewed and ready to handle day two.
My buddy reminded me that he had to get to McDonalds so we left before 6:00 am and started walking. While we were on our way, and as he talked, I began to understand that the work he was seeking was not work for McDonalds; we were going there because the employers came to McDonalds to pick up people at another site. I then discovered there were basically two kinds of day labor available, shoveling horse manure or stripping tobacco.
We arrived and stood around in McDonalds’ parking lot . They were bumming cigarettes and I was hoping someone would offer me some coffee. I went inside for a minute and came out to discover that my buddy landed a job and had asked if I could work, too. The employer told us all to pile into his cab-covered pickup truck and soon we were on our way. I had no idea where we were going or what kind of work we would be doing. I had a mixed emotions but prayed and trusted that God was in control of my situation. I had a hunch it the work might be exploitive. I had heard some reports that many of the labor pools took advantage of homeless people by giving them dangerous work.
In the back of the truck were two black men and two white men and me. The driver (whom I came to realize was “the boss man”) stopped in the downtown area and called out the window to another black man asking him if he wanted work. The man decided to join us and opened the tail-gate. Because he would not close the tail-gate, an argument ensued between the newest arrival and another black man as we drove to the work site. The argument grew more tense as we traveled down the freeway to our destination. I was beginning to get sick from the cigarette smoke and the gas fumes mixed together. I was also shivering from the frigid wind coming through the open tail gate. When we finally arrived, it appeared as if we were on a farm somewhere about 20 minutes outside of Lexington. For my own safety, I tried to see how got there and where we were located but the windows were too dirty and the truck was moving too fast for me to see any landmarks. Immediately after we arrived, we all piled out of the truck and the two black who had been arguing with each other earlier on the way continued to exchange harsh words. One of them pulled a large knife and threatened to cut the other. I thought “This should be interesting.” The other walked away and backed down. I wondered if there would be a fight or bloodshed. There was not.
We all went inside and waited to be told what to do. A few of us stood near the heater and warmed our feet. The barn was cold and the heater did about as much good as an air conditioner trying to cool a hayfield in summer. I never felt the heat but I did breathe the fumes and began to really feel sick. We were soon given work stations and jobs. I was taught how to strip tobacco. I was soon given a new name “Boy” and was criticized and ridiculed when I didn’t work hard enough. After a while, I began to realize that this may have been in a small way what the Israelites may have felt when they were told to make bricks and then bricks without straw. I can’t remember the last time I was in a situation like this. The boss was constantly coming by and criticizing. I never got the sense that I was doing very good work or improving at all.
Because of the working conditions, the fumes, the dust from the tobacco and the fact that I didn’t have any breakfast, I really felt sick. Time seemed to pass slowly. I became tired and sore. I began to look for reasons and opportunities to take a break. There were no breaks allowed. It was four hours on your feet, a one hour lunch break and back to work for another four hours. We were never told exactly what we would be paid. I heard that the boss gives $5.00 an hour and if you didn’t have any money, would provide $5.00 for lunch.
About what seemed like mid-way though the morning, I was feeling sick, tired and was wondering whether I should even come back after lunch. I was then approached by another worker (I didn’t recognize him and I presume he was not from the street) who offered to sell me some marijuana. I told him that I didn’t have any money, but he reminded me that I would be paid for my work and could buy it from him then. He spoke highly about the quality of the pot and said it was well worth the $20.00 he was asking per ounce. I wanted to learn more about the drug culture, but I tried to be careful not to blow my cover. I wondered if the “boss man” knew of the drug dealing. I wondered what these dealers really thought or felt about us. It was obvious that we were dirty homeless street people and dependent upon this work for money.
Stripping was hard work; very hard work. I had never stripped tobacco before and there were many times I wanted to “wimp out” and “give up.” I found myself thinking of excuses. I felt physical and emotional pain. I began to understand at least one reason why some people use drugs. If the real world is so painful, then to survive you must create an ‘unreal world’ to find relief.
I began to think about all those sermons I had heard, believed and even repeated on the subject of “excellence.” I remember thinking that a good witness is one who does good work and not a shoddy job. But I felt weak and tired. It was hard to strive for excellence. I looked over and saw my buddy and the other men from the streets working hard and not stopping except for an occasional smoke. I thought to myself “Here I am, a Christian Director of a shelter for the homeless, looking for an excuse to stop work while these homeless men next to me are neither complaining, speaking evil of the work nor taking breaks. It certainly was an eye-opening experience. I realized that I had much less stamina for hard labor then many of these men. They were far from lazy and in many ways, much more motivated than I.
I realized that the physical sickness that I was feeling combined with a lot of walking, a short nights’ sleep and the emotional sense of sadness I was experiencing had caused me to become weak. I realized that much of my energy was being sapped by the emotional abuse of the boss and the physical working environment. I decided that I had to direct my thoughts in some direction so I turned them to my wife, my home, my job and the friends I had met at Asbury Seminary. I sought to cling to those things which gave my life meaning. I felt better for a moment but then realized that these men who I was working with did not have these same things to empower them. I was renewed in my complete debt to the Lord for all he had given me. A whole new sense of appreciation and thankfulness came over me. God had really given me much more then I had ever realized. I had taken so much for granted. I finally understood emotionally (though only in a small way) what it was like to be homeless.
Many of us were choking and coughing because of the dry tobacco leaves in the air. A few times throughout the morning, the boss would come by and hose down the floor and work areas. Once he came unexpectedly and hosed me down a bit too. I was already cold but this didn’t help any. I wondered if he even cared. He didn’t seem to notice that I was wet.
Finally, the lunch break came and everyone lined up to receive their $5.00 in lunch money and pile back into the pick up truck for a ride to what I assumed would be a restaurant. I had really been looking forward to the break and had sort of assumed we would go to a sit down fast food place like Wendy’s. I was the last in line and when he handed me my money I began to ask him a question but he walked away. He came back a minute or so later and I told him I was too sick to work the afternoon and requested that he give me my morning wages. He said he didn’t have the money right then and that if I was sick, I should come back an lie down a for a while. I could only assume he meant lie down in the cold. Everyone in the pickup truck was waiting for me and in what seemed like minutes, we raced at high speed to a convenience store. I felt dissappointed. Some of the men went to the liquor store next door. I bought some chips and two chili dogs (which turned out later to be a bad idea because I felt even worse) and a hot chocolate. I was the last one out of the store. Everyone was already back in the truck. These guys seemed to move fast.
I had decided not to return so I told the homeless men that I felt sick and would not be joining them. I didn’t know what they would say. The told me to get my morning pay and I told them I had asked for it but the the boss wouldn’t pay me. Immediately they began to stick up for me and spoke loudly about how unjust that was. I felt affirmed. The boss soon turned the truck around, wave at me to get inside and I nodded that I was not going along. I wondered if he would threaten or try to persuade me. He did not. Soon they drove away and I was left standing in a parking lot of a convenience store somewhere outside of Lexington. I had no idea where I was and didn’t even know the direction back to town. I inquired and learned that I was near Georgetown. I stuck out my thumb to tried to get a ride.
I felt relieved that I was not going back to work but a little ‘scared’ at the thought of finding my way back to Lexington. Could this be the hour to end this experience? Wasn’t it time enough ? For a brief moment I considered calling it quits but later decided to keep on going. About 30 minutes later, a man picked me up and took me into the outer belt of Lexington. I went to a Wendy’s to use the bathroom and rest. By this time I really felt sick and I just needed a place to rest. After I left Wendy’s, I started walking to find a main street to hitchhike towards the down town; but I decided that I still felt too sick to carry on. I then went into Arby’s, bought a cup of coffee with my remaining $1.50, sat down and leaned up against the wall. I looked bad and smelled bad. People would come in and stare at me. I felt weak, tired and began to realize for the first time that I simply could not survive on the streets. I did not have the endurance. I did not have the strength. While I had planned to stay at least 5 days living on the streets, I realized I had idealized and over estimated the experience. I had not counted on being sick. Instead, I had unconsciously planned on being emotionally, physically and spiritually well at all time. I was surprised.
I fell in and out of sleep as people came, ate their meals and left. I awoke wondering if they were going to ask me to leave. I thought that I smelled pretty bad. They did not. I must have rested there about 2 hours. I finally decided to leave so I bundled up and started walking to the next street which led into downtown. I tried to hitchhike but finally gave up and walked what turned out to be about 3 miles into the downtown area, stopping every once and a while to rest on a city bus bench.
After arriving in the down town area, and with $1.03 cents left from my lunch money, I started walking back towards the Horizon center and noticed a few street people from the night before. I said hello to one black man who gave me a dirty look. I guess he didn’t recognize me. Just then another man called me over to him and his buddy (they both appeared quite drunk). He asked if he could borrow 45 cents . Immediately, I told him that I didn’t have any money and when he asked the second time, I told him that I had slept in the same place that he did last night. He asked a third time and when I smiled and said I had no money (I was lying), he cussed at me and told me to get out of his face before he rearranges mine (or something to that effect). I felt fear and I soon left their company
I realized later that I still had a bag of chips sticking out of my coat pocket and he probably concluded I was lying because he assumed that I did have money enough to buy this food. From that point onward, I kept an eye out for that man and tried to avoid him. He seemed unpredictable and I was afraid of what he might do to me.
But why did I lie? I lied before I thought. I did have 45 cents. Couldn’t I have given it to him? What if I would have said “yes, I have 45 cents but I am not going to give you it and have a nice day”.As I started walking away from these men, I reflected on my actions and came to the following observations:
If I had been on “my turf”, I might have said that I did have money but did not have enough to give him any and that I only had enough to get me though the next days coffee.
I lied because I didn’t feel I could tell the truth and not get hurt by him and besides, I didn’t want to give him my money.
I didn’t want to give him my money because at that point, I worked hard for it (4 hours of very hard labor for $5.00) and I could only observe that he was going to use it on alcohol.
I realized that it would be difficult to maintain integrity on the streets and that you often have to lie just to survive; and that in some cases, lying is the wiser decision. I also realized that wickedness begets wickedness and that a few lies can roll into a whole lifestyle of lying. If we want people to tell us the truth, we must make every effort to make it ‘pay off’ and ‘give them a safe reason’ to do so. There must be clear incentives for them to tell the truth rather than to lie.
I returned to the Horizon center and again found a smoke-filled noisy room and many people coming and going. I decided that I just couldn’t stand to stay there and breathe in the air so I left again to walk around the streets by myself. I walked and walked until my feet and legs were exhausted and my body was cold. It was getting dark so I returned to the horizon center again.
As I sat in the Horizon center, I observed men from a rescue squad come in examine a homeless man and then take him by stretcher with a neck brace to the hospital. He was a older man who apparently been hit or beaten someone. Just then the Police came in to question some of the men. A few minutes after the police left, two black men got into a fist fight right in front of me . The tension was high and the excitement was in the air.
Then, to my amazement, the boss man from the tobacco work walked in. He came in to recruit men and women for work on Sunday. He walked around and advertized his job openings. I caught eye contact with him on two separate occasions but said nothing. As far as I was concerned he owed me about $15.00. He had only paid me $5.00 for my 4 hours or work at what I understood was $5.00 an hour. To my shock , he came over to me and handed me (in the sight of everyone) $7.00 and said this was for the mornings work. Total pay then was $3.00 per hour or $12.00 for the half day. I asked him how much he paid his other workers and he said some got $3.00 and others $4.00. I later learned that everyone was paid either $4.00 or $5.00 per hour. The boss encouraged me to come back to work the next day. He reminded me that I could have gone back with them after lunch and laid down. I kept silent and when he was finished with his speech, thanked him for the money.
Now what? I felt fear. I really was afraid. Why? Because now people would ask me for money or could possible take if from me by force if I was unwilling to give them some. I was also afraid because I knew that some of the people saw the boss man give me my money. I realized that you really can’t save much money and stay on the streets. Even if you didn’t want to spend it on yourself, people will bug you and pester you for it or possibly even rob you of it. And if you had an addiction, it wouldn’t be long until you could find a reasonable excuse to use your money on it to help you through the misery of street life.
About an hour after I received the $7.00, I decided to take myself out to dinner. I decided to reward myself. I had worked hard for that money. In many ways, I think we all try to comfort ourselves with the thing that gives us the most pleasure when we get money. I also thought that when street people get money, they spend it on their drug of choice. My drug of choice was food. Besides, if I kept my money too much longer, I risked the chance of being robbed or would have to continually lie to those asking for it.
The thought did occur to me that I was only going to be on the street for another day and that these people needed money much more then I. But I didn’t feel very spiritual, I was a truly hungry and I didn’t look forward to another greasey Salvation Army meal. Besides, if I did want to give the money away, to whom should I just give it? Should I wait until someone asked me and then just give it away? No! I was hungry. I’d only had two chili dogs and chips all day. The decision to take myself out to dinner and spend $4.00 was easy. I was tired of sitting around the smoke-filled Horizon center and this would be my legitimate escape to another place safe from the cold.
After I finished watching the evening news, I walked to the high class mall in the center of downtown. After I arrived, I walked around for a while and looked at my options before I decided on a place to eat. I saw a few folks walking around the mall who stayed with me at the Salvation Army the night before. I bought a burger, fries and an iced tea. It felt good to sit in a restaurant again with some money. The world feels so different when you have money and the city is really a much different place when one has the means to buy things. I had not fully understood that before.
I had to keep my hat on because my hair looked so strange. I knew I looked like a street person. I really made an effort to be extra kind with the merchants and paid special attention to my tone of voice and saying thank you. I wondered if they noticed. I wavered between feelings of thankfulness for the food and a clean place to sit down and feelings of embarrassment because of the way I looked, what I though others were thinking of me and how I was feeling about myself.
I finished my meal and started walking towards the Salvation Army for my second night of shelter . I knew it must be after 8:00 and they opened the doors at 8:30. On my way, I stopped to view 5 fire trucks rush to a downtown building. I followed them a few blocks and watched as they looked for the fire. There was no fire; only water pouring out of the sprinkler system of a furniture store onto the street. It was an interesting sight but the air was too cold to stand around in just to watch frustrated firemen.
I soon shifted gears and again started walking towards the Salvation Army. I found myself following two black street people down a dark street. I was not afraid and I was surprised at this lack of fear in myself. I was walking faster then they and said hello as I passed them by . I arrived at the Salvation Army to find many people waiting outside again for the doors to open. Just as I walked up to the people, the staff worker shouted a number of times for the people to look at the door which opened to the gym. He kept saying that the door was open and that people could go in if they so desired. No one moved. He kept shouting in a sarcastic, demeaning, degrading and dehumanizing way as if to say “You stupid people, the gym door is open, go in out of the cold!” I was cold and I soon got the idea the the heat was on the inside so I went to the gym sat down and waited for the meal line. Although I really did not plan to eat, I did want to connect with some more people. My usual strategy had been to keep quiet and wait until I felt it was the right timing to engage in conversation. While I wanted to wait until others initiated conversation with me, this never happened. I soon found myself in line with a young man who, to me, looked out of place. He was clean, soft spoken and seemed to welcome conversation with me. I had seen him around during the past few days and noticed that his outward appearance didn’t fit the rest of the folks. He told me that he had been living on the streets since the end of September. He had lost his job in the summer and was stuck. I felt compassion for him. If only someone could take this man into their home, I thought, he would be so grateful. I found myself wanting to believe the best about him.
I went through the line, picked up a hot dog and sat down at one of the four tables across from a hispanic man who talked at me about a fight he just broke up on the street between two residents of the shelter. He told me that he now had to share a dorm room in the Way house with one of the men and was wondering if there would be trouble during the night. I wondered if he was scared of getting knifed or something. Just then he told me that he only messed with people who messed with him. He then pulled out a carpenter knife and demonstrated how the razor blade worked. I was reminded that no one at the Salvation Army checks any of the residents for weapons. What a wonderful thought to sleep on!
I soon got back into line to get a blanket and a mat. The young black women who I met at breakfast sat next to me. I had earlier observed many of the men trying to engage her in conversation. I was amazed at the lines these men would give her. I knew they were not sincere. In fact, I think she knew they were not sincere. Would she accept their advances because she needed someone to care for her? I asked her about her job at Wendy’s. She told me that the other employees criticized and ridiculed her because she was staying in a homeless shelter. I thought to myself “How sad and how cruel and how low.” I felt anger at those employees and compassion for her. Here was a woman truly trying to get herself out of the pit and her fellow workers kicked her emotionally. “The worlds needs less people like those Wendy’s workers and more like this young woman.” I thought.
The line soon moved to the front. They looked for the card that I filled out the night before but could not find it. They let me though anyway. This time I got a sheet with my blanket. It was a good thing too because the mat I found was stained with something wicked. I laid down to rest. The man who laid down next to me was the same man who earlier in the day at the job site had pulled a 8 inch blade on the guy who refused to shut the truck tailgate. What a wonderful thought to sleep on. I’m sleeping in a room with 125 people and I get the guy with the knife next to me. Somehow I knew that God would protect me.
There was a great deal of noise and a few of the men were walking around so it was hard to fall asleep. The lights were on. One of the men walked through the partitions into the women’s side. He made a game out of going back and forth and the man on the mat next to me was overcome with laughter. I felt dull and emotionless. All I wanted to do was to go to sleep.
Soon the lights went off and the noise began to quiet down. I dozed off and woke up several times throughout the night. At 5:30 a.m. the lights came back on and we lined up for breakfast. The coffee was good but the week-old doughnuts were too hard. My buddy had come in late the night before and we greeted each other at breakfast. I had not seen him since I left the group at lunch somewhere outside of Georgetown. He told me that after work, he and another man went to a bar, ate dinner, found some women and spent all their money. I heard the other man say how angry he was with himself for spending all his money and in another breath, he explained to himself while we listened that his situation was so miserable that he deserved a good time. Both men talked about getting back to McDonalds by 6:00 a.m. to get picked up for the days work. I decided to tag along.
I started to feel sad. I had a strange attachment to these people and these two men in particular. I was leaving soon to a better place and they would remain in this rut. I had a fantasy of coming back with money or gifts. It seemed like just a fantasy. I wondered if they would be angry or pleased if they knew who and what I really was. I decided NOT to tell them.
As we walked to McDonalds we met an older woman walking the streets by herself. It was just before 6:00 a.m. She said she had lived in Lexington for 70 years. She, too, was going to McDonalds. She showed us some short cuts and after a short stop at a convenience store for some cigarettes for my buddy, we arrived to find about 30 men gathered inside and out, waiting for work that Sunday morning. I happened to sit next to a man who said he was from Columbus Ohio. We talked about different things and in a matter of a few minutes, he and my buddy made a plan to leave Lexington and head south to Marietta, Georgia. They talked about the work they could get there in the carpet mills. They didn’t ask me to join them. At first the men wavered between working a whole day stripping tobacco, working a half day or just leaving immediately. I think they decided to hit the road. Both men left without saying good-bye to me. I sat at McDonalds, read the paper and ate an Egg McMuffin I bought with the few dollars I had left.
I decided I’d visit the Horizon Center one last time before I left the area. As I walked there, I wondered if the place would be any different on Sunday mornings. When I arrived I found the same security guard and all of the same people from the night before who slept at the Sally. The room was filled with noise and the sound of the radio. One man yelled and threatened a woman for changing the radio station. Some men were playing cards, others were watching Oral Roberts on the TV. Some were already drunk. I sat with the clean cut man I had spoken with in food line the night before. We talked about how to spend the day. He told me he hoped to go to the library and read for a few hours. I told him that I was leaving and that I would “catch him later.” I bet he thought he would see me again. I’d sure like to see him again sometime. I believe I could help that man. I believe he really could benefit from a place like Good Works. I believe I saw into his heart. As I left the Horizon center, I began to experience deep emotions.
On my way to meet my friend who would take me back to my car at Asbury Seminary, I prayed and I cried. It was finally over. Oh how horrible it all seemed and thank God I didn’t have to stay there. I really wondered if I would go crazy if I had to stay. Where was God on the streets? I spoke to myself and told the Lord my feelings out loud. “I didn’t see you in these places Lord Jesus. I didn’t see you.” I thanked God I wasn’t homeless. I thanked God I did not have to stay there and that there was a way out. I wondered if I could have really endured 5 days of homelessness in that place. I really don’t think so. The street would eventually change my identity into someone I never wanted to be and force me to become someone I was NOT just in order to survive. Is this the case with the others too? I wondered how they remembered themselves before they were homeless? I felt great compassion. I am renewed in my compassion. I am renewed in my gratitude. Oh God, help me to communicate the depth of this experience to your people and may something I say change them and call them to a renewed compassion for oppressed people.Thank you Lord that you keep your promises. You are indeed working in me to will and to do for your good pleasure. Amen
One final thought: it occurred to me that the only person who took any personal interest in me during my entire time on the street was a elderly lady who introduced herself to me as an evangelist. She said that she lived in a home not far from the Salvation Army and the Horizon Center. She said she had no heat in her home and would come to eat the hot meals and stay inside and keep warm during the day. She witnessed to me by telling me that Jesus could heal my broken life and really urged me to give myself to him and let him forgive my sins. I was touched by her affirmation. She asked personal questions and they caught me off guard. Although I only had one encounter with her, it was a memorable one. I could see that she was sincere and wanted to truly direct me to the ONE who could really give me help. I deflected her questions, and at times ignored her outwardly but inwardly prayed God’s blessing upon her. Thank God for one light like this in such a dark place! She inspired me. Oh, that I might learn how to “incarnate myself” into the people whom I long to reach. Oh, that I might learn to understand the way they THINK and remain sensitive to the way they feel so that I might speak their language and give them the good news in the ideas and concepts which will truly “prick” their hearts. God help me.
—Keith Wasserman, January 1990
I returned to Lexington in the fall of 1993 to learn that the Salvation Army no longer provided shelter for single men. I was directed to the new shelter called THE HOPE CENTER several miles outside of the main city area. It was quite a walk. I arrived at the HOPE CENTER and was struck by two things immediately 1) the metal detector which everyone had to walk through before they could enter the shelter and 2) the nine pages of rules which listed as #1 “turn in your firearms.” The residents called this place ‘the prison’ and it didn’t take long to see why. While most of the men were provided beds, the fifty of us in the overflow area slept in eating area on the floor. Some hours after we went to sleep on the mats provided, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a loud voice threatening to hurt someone. The man’s threats went on for several minutes. They were both loud and foul. I felt threatened. I eventually fell back to sleep. When I inquired about the incident that morning, I was told that the man making the threats was talking in his sleep. The situation with the homeless hasn’t appeared to change much in Lexington. I found the whole experience a step into a sub-culture where your life is continually at risk.
— Keith Wasserman, 1994