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Story of Homelessness in plain view of the White House"
a narrative by Jim Macdonald 4/10/03
Last night I spent hours talking to two homeless men and another man who had been homeless at various times of his life. Where did I have this discussion? I had it on the edge of Lafayette Park, which is a small park across the street from the White House, in plain view of it in fact. Pennsylvania Avenue, at the White House, no longer has traffic, and so if it weren't for the fence and the street, it would simply be an extension of the front lawn. About another 100 yards from where I was standing demonstrating against war, George W. Bush was sleeping.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, a small group of people meet and hold all night vigils at the White House to protest the war. They belong to no organized group, although in recent weeks, they have started calling themselves "Think Peace." It was all started by a local high school student named Chelcy, whom the people on the street there call "Swerve." A couple weeks I ran into them when looking for another all night vigil that I never found, and I've been coming back whenever I was able, usually late on Wednesday nights.
Anyhow, to get more to the point, when you are outside, sometimes you need to use the restroom, others want to eat, etc. So most of the group left for awhile to go to a nearby restaurant. This left only a few of us there. It left me, a young man, and a middle aged man. Soon after, another middle aged man wearing nothing but an open shirt came over. He was a tall, large man, but he was clearly homeless, clearly going to freeze on a cold night in Washington (the low last night was 32 degrees, which is unusually cold for this time of year). So, before I grasped the situation, the young man gave the homeless man a blanket and put it over him. The homeless man was sleeping on benches in front of a yellow church just across the street and was curious about the scene over here. The blanket that the young man gave him was one of those gray wool blankets that you often see homeless people carry. That blanket suggested right away that the young man was homeless, too. And, so he was.
So, the scene was two homeless men, myself, and another middle aged man who became extremely curious how the other two ended up homeless. The other middle aged man was very concerned on this cold night for these two people. He wanted to know their story because he admitted that he had been homeless as well at various times in his life. So, we got the story. The middle-aged homeless man, who had some mental problems that were a little hard to identify (slight senility) said that he had been on his own since he was 10 and that he was ultimately homeless because all his cars broke down. We never got better clarification than that except that he held his father with utter contempt. He would talk endlessly about a woman he was in love with on the streets who he gave all his money to so that she could get away from a clinic that was giving her treatments that she believed were making her ill. She ran off and never came back. He was heartbroken over this woman. The only hope he had was finding her again; although from what we could gather, this woman used and left him. It was so sad to hear him talk about her because he seemed to think she still loved him, and no one was going to shatter the lie he tells himself to live (even if we tried). He was 41 and admitted he didn’t think he had many years left. At one point, he showed us knife wounds that someone had given him. He talked many times of the dangers he faced, especially in certain parts of town.
The young man told us his story. To call him a young man seems to be a misnomer, but he had lived an awful lot in his 18 years. He was from Philadelphia originally, and at age 13, he became a drug runner and addicted to cocaine and marijuana. By the age of 15, he went into rehab but also had to serve time for two Class A felonies for pushing drugs, and that apparently happened in Massachusetts. After he got out, he went back to New Hampshire to live with his parents. He says he has been clean ever since, and to talk with this eloquent young man, you find yourself believing it. There was a calm serenity about him. He ended up leaving his parents when he said they were too poor to support him, although he hinted that there was a lot more to the story than that. He was homeless in New Hampshire for quite some time. Somewhere in that, he became involved volunteering for social justice groups, and he called himself an anarchist. In fact, the reason he was in DC was to organize something for a local anarchist group. He was heavily interested in learning and was reading some pop philosophers of today. There was a surreal scene where the older homeless man asked me what I taught. When I told him, “philosophy,” he began to ask me what that was (while this man was able to read, he otherwise did not have a lot of schooling). So, at one point, I’m standing there alone with both homeless men talking about epistemology, or the study of how you know things. The young guy was trying to explain to the older guy what epistemology meant, and used the example of, “How do you know a cloud is not made of trees?” It was a very interesting discussion, actually, and the young guy is extremely bright. Anyhow, the young man claims he is moving to Boston soon into a house with 10 other anarchists where he will have a job that pays him $50 a week. The other man was so intrigued by this young man’s seeming sense of invulnerability on the streets and his lack of worry about his condition. He suggested all the reasons he should be afraid and all the potential he had. And, yet, the more I listened to this, the more I sensed the young homeless man was the most serene. He wasn’t afraid. There were hardships on the streets, but he prided himself on not needing much. He seemed to be in some control of his situation. He gave his blankets freely to other homeless people who came by. He showed compassion for everyone. If this is the face of anarchy, then I wish that government had half as kind a face.
So, here on the front steps of the White House, you had two homeless people, another who seemed to know something about it, and here you had me. I grew up in a poor to lower middle class family in Ohio, but I never went absolutely hungry (there was always stale bread and processed generic cheese stuff) and never went without a roof over my head. I have had the full fruits of education, live in an apartment with lots of modern luxuries, and I probably in my worst case scenario will never have to be homeless. It was an education learning about how homeless people find shelter, where they go for food, whether they work. In fact, many of them do hold jobs. It was interesting how they dealt with the police, the danger on the streets, etc. Our young man was well-traveled, mostly joining underground activist groups, sometimes for very long bike rides. The middle aged homeless man had lived in DC his whole life and yet had an interesting eye for people. He asked me at one point if I was Greek (something almost no one has ever said to me), and in fact I am half-Greek although my last name is Macdonald. He was able to tell which of the 4 of us was a lifelong DC resident.
What fully to make of this scene I’ll leave for all of you. It’s still sinking in for me. For the last hour, I was alone with these two men. I was just very interested in getting to know them, and I was offering thoughts to the young man about how I knew many people with a lot more who were a lot less happy than he was and a lot less involved. His view on anarchy was interesting because he was not truly an anarchist. He suggested some form of direct democracy, and I think that’s why these so-called anarchists are on the left rather than the right. On Saturday, he’ll be wearing the black masks, and I never understood how anarchists could be for peace. And, now I do. Not all anarchists are the violent ones we saw on television. Some truly are for peace. This young man was going to be on the streets tonight anyhow, but he wanted to be at the peace vigil.
There are a lot of misconceptions about
homeless people. The vast majority of them are not panhandlers. Many of
them survive without any money at all, sometimes not eating for a week
at a time. Most of them are actually quite young, often below the working
age. Some are quite articulate; others hold jobs. Some are there by choice;
others are not. Many are mentally ill; many are not. It seems that we try
to pigeonhole a diverse group of people. We either defend the homeless
by making them victims of society, or we berate the homeless for being
lazy bums who need to do more. However, neither view is true. They are
not simply a group; they are human individuals just like us with thoughts,
feelings, worries, attitudes, and dreams of their own. We shouldn’t decide
whether such people are worthy of help or not. We should simply cut the
condescending crap and treat them as individuals. Last night, I saw a homeless
man give other homeless men the blankets off his back to help keep each
other alive. I wish 100 yards away, the man who was sleeping smugly in
his bed did A LOT more of the same. I wish I did A LOT more of the same.