An Uncomfortable Topic

Today is Garten Markt Day in German Village.  It brings a lot of people to the Village to look at some of the goods for sale.

The crowds also attracted two people who had the tags that identify them as designated sellers of Street Speech, the newspaper published by the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless.  They stationed themselves on opposite sides of Third Street near the German Village Society building, and when Kasey and I walked past one asked me for a donation.

street_speechI often contribute to the Coalition news sellers and never take a paper.  In my experience, they are good people who are unfailingly friendly and polite, whether you decide to make a contribution or not.  This time, too, I stopped and gave one of the sellers a dollar, wished him a good day and, as usual, declined a paper.

When I was walking back a few minutes later the Coalition person was leaning against a fence, talking on his cell phone.  Wait a minute, I thought.  A cell phone?

Maybe I’m just an ignorant, inconsiderate jerk who is totally out of the mainstream of thought on this, but having a cell phone and paying cell phone bills and charges seems inconsistent with the premise that a person is at the point of needing to be a registered vendor for the Coalition for the Homeless to make a few bucks selling their newspaper.  Seeing the guy chatting away on his iPhone was a bit jarring to me.

I’m not saying that homeless people need to be shoeless and look like they’re starving before they can reasonably peddle newspapers on a street corner.  It would be good news indeed if our neediest people in this country all can afford warm clothes and cell phones and their own data plans, and perhaps I just need to trust the Coalition for the Homeless to give those identification tags only to people who are truly needy.  But boy — if I were in charge I would tell the street vendors to put away the cell phones until their shifts are over.  I think it sends a really mixed message.

The Homeless Guy At The Window

I was in Brooklyn Sunday night and went to a Mexican restaurant near my hotel for dinner.  Because I was a single diner, the hostess asked if I’d like to sit at the bar.  I had a book to read and the lighting at the bar was a bit brighter than the table area, so I agreed.

I sat down at one end of the bar, ordered my food, and sipped at my glass of wine.  When I glanced up to look out a nearby window, a street person was there, staring in at me.  He was right up against the window, only a few inches from the glass, radiating that kind of aggressive, wild-eyed look that you see from some members of the homeless brigade — the kind that makes you give them a wide berth.  That’s weird, I thought.

IMG_6983_2I went back to reading my book, was served some chips and salsa and began munching away, looked over at the window again . . . and the guy was still there, giving me the hard-eyed once-over.  From then on, I became acutely aware of his glare.  And as my meal progressed, from time to time I would try to surreptitiously look over to see if he was still there — and he was.  And he saw me looking over, every time.

Why was he doing it?  Was he trying to guilt-trip me into going outside of the restaurant to give him some money so I could eat my meal without being eyeballed?  Was he just bored, and decided to pass the time by playing mind games with a random stranger?  For that matter, was he even aware of where he was, and what he was doing?  I didn’t know, of course, but I was sure that directly interacting with him, or acknowledging his presence any more than I already had, was not a good idea.

I began to wonder what would happen when I finished my food and had to walk past the guy to get back to my hotel.  I didn’t exactly relish the prospect of an unwanted encounter with an apparently angry man in a strange city on a Sunday night.  But finally, as I was finishing my food, I took one last glance over — and the man was gone.  I quickly got my check, paid it, grabbed my book, and hit the road.

It was one of those unsettling experiences that stick with you and make you wonder about the arbitrary elements of life.  I didn’t sleep very well that night.  Of course, he probably didn’t sleep very well, either — that night, or any night.


At what point do you suppose that you first grasped the idea of “home”?  I imagine it was one of the first concepts I ever understood, and probably one of the first words, too.  It was a specific, physical place, to be sure, but it was a lot more than that.  It was where the most important people in your life lived, and you developed happy feelings that you associated with the special combination of that place and those people and your things — the sense of where your life was centered, and of being where you belonged.

And as you grew up, and your family moved from one house to another, and went on vacations together, the concept of “home” became even stronger, because you realized that your home was not just one place, but could change from one city to another even as you left your friends and favorite places behind, and was more than just the temporary location of your Mom and Dad and brother and sisters.  And after such a move to new place, when the settling-in process finally ended, at some point you thought to yourself that your new house had become less strange and “finally felt like home.”

IMG_6833The home-shifting process continues, for many of us, as our lives proceed and we move through college and venture out on our own.  At some distinct point the concept of “home” morphs from the place where your parents are to the place where you and your spouse and your family have established their own lives.  The legal concept is called domicile — the location where you have established a permanent residence to which you intend to return, whatever your temporary movements might be.  Courts trying to determine domicile evaluate evidence like where you are registered to vote, where you pay your taxes, and where your kids go to school, that seek to capture, to the maximum extent that bloodless legal “factors” can, the emotional element of having found a welcome place where you have sunk down roots.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have grown up with a solid sense of “home,” with the warm, deep feelings of belonging and physical security and personal value and countless other attributes that come with it, can’t fully appreciate how having a home has shaped our lives and personalities.  And we can’t really imagine what it must be like to grow up without that essential emotional and physical center, or to someday lose it entirely and become “homeless” — a powerful and terrible word, when you think about it.

Yesterday, as Kish and I drove back from a vacation on the coastline of Maine, the pull of “home” became irresistible, and what was supposed to be a two-day drive became by mutual agreement a 17-hour, roll-in-and-unload-after-midnight rush to get back to our little center of the world.  And when we finally made it, and were greeted by a small, happily barking dog whose tail was sweeping the floor like a metronome set at maximum speed, we once again were reminded of what “home” is really all about.

Giving $21 To A Homeless Man

Washington, D.C. seems to have a disproportionately large number of homeless people, and they are a very visible part of the community.

When Kish and I lived here in the early ’80s, a “deinstitutionalization” program had just gone into effect, and many apparently disturbed people who had been let out of the local asylum were living rough on the streets. They tended to cluster in doorways or on the steam grates above the D.C. subway lines. Many of them were scary — tormented by inner demons, raving angrily to themselves, and occasionally lashing out at passersby. D.C. residents looked for them and gave them wide berth; tourist families often didn’t.

Last night I walked to dinner in downtown D.C., and the homeless people are still here, tucked into their preferred cubbyholes and campsites, carrying their pieces of cardboard and their threadbare blankets. On the way back one African-American man played the angry black man card to get our attention, saying something like “Hey, get out of my way.” When we stopped, startled, he laughed and apologized, then told his story in rapid-fire fashion.

Homeless people often talk very fast, because they know from experience that people typically won’t spend much time with them. This time, though, we listened, and his story went like this. “I’m not begging,” he said. “I recently got out of prison and I have no where to go. I spent what money I had to buy shoe shine materials. I need exactly $21 to pay for a room tonight, or I will have to sleep outside. Can I shine your shoes?”

The man was coherent and made eye contact, and I believed his story. It was too cold for an outdoor shoe shine, though — and, I realized, therefore also too cold for a fellow human being to sleep outside. So I gave him the $21 he wanted, and my friend made a contribution, too. The man took the money and said thank you, and we walked away.

Thinking about that brief encounter this morning, I don’t regret giving the man the $21. He may have been a masterful con artist, and I recognize that many homeless advocates say you should not give money to the homeless because they will just use it to feed alcohol or drug habits. In this case, though, my instincts said the man was genuine, and I felt that I could help him.

In the cold light of morning, I don’t regret giving this man $21, and I hope that he used it to get that warm room on a cold night.