From Homelessness to Independence
From Homelessness to Independence
Part 1- Living on the Street
In the last six years of my photo essay journey, social justice has been the focus. While this has covered a range of topics, I always return to homelessness. I think it’s because of the humanity I see on the streets of big cities such as Philadelphia where I have been a frequent visitor for more than thirty years. I walk by what appears to be lost souls and wonder who they are, why they are in that situation, and how society allows it to happen.
Recently, I’ve been asking myself these questions: “How do homeless people get their basic daily needs met? For those who are able to move beyond homelessness, how do they do it?” There are many experts who deal with these questions, but I want to hear it from the people themselves.
The very definition of homelessness shows the importance of hearing directly from the people. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Social Work, homelessness is formally defined by the United States government as when a person “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, and if they sleep in a shelter designated for temporary living accommodations or in places not designated for human habitation.” While important for analysis and policy, this is clinical, not personal.
These emotional definitions are from the people who live it:
- “Homelessness is when you have nowhere to go, just out in the streets looking for a place to go, trying to get something to eat and looking for money- that's homelessness… It’s bad to be homeless, VERY bad!”
- “Homelessness is when you feel like an outcast- not accepted anywhere… It’s the essence of being invisible.”
- “Homelessness is any time you have to live out of a bag- you have no place to hang your stuff.”
“Navigating Poverty: From Homelessness to Independence,” is a snapshot of a very complex process. I want to help people understand the human aspects of poverty and to think about how we might be able to help.
This will be a multi-part series exploring several waypoints from homelessness to independence. The exact waypoints will evolve but my current plan is four short stories:
- Living on the Street
- Stable Housing
- Stable Employment
I have reached out to several organizations for guidance and contacts. I will interview providers and experts for background and context, but mainly I will speak to the people for their experiences. This is far from exhaustive coverage- that would be a book, this is a story.
Office of Homeless Services, City of Philadelphia
For background I met with Liz Hersh, Director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services. She leads a massive effort: “… to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring for the City of Philadelphia.”
Many homeless people don’t seem to be aware of the city services that exist:
Liz: “From surveys we’ve done, we’ve learned that most people want help- they want to be known… When we worked at closing four major homeless encampments and finding everyone help and connecting them to shelter beds and treatment, they almost all were willing to give us their names, their birthdates, private information- they wanted to be seen.
Likewise, when we survey why people panhandle, it’s because they need money for necessities and so many would prefer to work… But we as advocates and government agencies have to approach it effectively; we have to figure out what kind of help people need and will respond to and have a diverse array of options.
So, we rely extensively on street outreach to talk directly to people about what help is available, what the reality is, and to make inroads and relationships with people; outreach tries to find out what’s going on with people, what services they might accept… Then, when the moment comes that a person hits a tipping point, there’s someone who knows them and can take the opportunity that today is the day they will accept help.
Last year, outreach made about 8,000 placements; in some cases, that’s multiple placements of the same people who come in for a time, then leave; in other cases, those numbers reflect a decisive moment where people start an entirely new life.”
Is there a perception vs. reality problem? People I interview are often negative about available services:
Liz: “Sometimes, people avoid services for good reasons- they’ve had a negative experience once years ago; but most of the time, it’s plain misinformation… We did a survey a couple of years ago of people on the street and there was a lot of negative commentary about shelters; but when we did data matching, two thirds of the people we surveyed were never in a shelter; it’s these myths and misconceptions, word of mouth that build these stigmatic narratives.
As advocates and government, we have to do our part too; we have to build out systems that respond to the diverse human condition; we have to communicate what help is available effectively, not just to people on the street but also to social workers, government leaders, advocates, and to the general public; and we have to have many different routes to the many different ways each individual defines success.”
It is clear that Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services thinks about homeless people as humans with individual needs rather than as statistics. I tried to impress this on people I interviewed but sadly most have very little trust.
Living on the Street
During early morning walks in Philadelphia I approached individuals appearing to be homeless: sitting on the ground, panhandling, carrying bags of possessions. I introduced myself and asked how they were doing. I typically gave a $1 to break the ice. Everyone was nice and appreciated the attention. After confirming that they were either living on the street or in a shelter, I explained that I do photojournalism and that I was doing a story to educate the public about how hard it is to be homeless. I asked if they would allow me to interview them for the story.
Of twelve people I approached:
- Eleven agreed to participate
- Eight allowed me to take their picture for the story
- Five accepted an offer of food
- Gender: Nine men, three woman
- Race: Nine black, three white (a ratio that speaks to another ill of society)
- Time living on the street: from two weeks to thirty one years
- Some were very talkative while others offered only a few words
- Two admitted that drugs are or have been an issue
- Two showed some lack of connection to reality
My questions were focused on how they get their daily needs met, awareness and use of city services, hopes for the future. I accepted everything I heard as people’s perception of reality.
Eight interviews are presented below. As you read the stories, look at their faces. They are people who just happened to slip off, or were pushed off, the edge of an independent life. Anyone of us could take their place in a heartbeat.
1. Tara: “It feels like s**t out here.”
She was sitting on the ground panhandling just outside of a train station. She asked me for money as I approached. I handed her $1 and asked if I could speak with her. She was open so I sat down next to her.
Do you live on the street? How Long? “Yeah, I’ve been out here for a month and a half.”
What happened? “I have a girlfriend who is on drugs and she kept ripping the landlord’s doors and windows; he gave me three warnings to get rid of her, but I couldn’t throw her out on the street because before I got that apartment I was on the street so I know how it feels to be homeless- so now we’re out here together.”
What is it like? “It really sucks but I’m trying- at least I’m not out here robbing anyone; I got lupus so it’s worse for me because I’m sick; I had a hip replacement and I just got out of the hospital from pneumonia, so I have to try to get back on my feet; I just hope someone will extend a helping hand; I’m not out here doing drugs, I’m just homeless.”
How do you get food each day? “There’s a place at Love Park called the Hub where they give you showers and coffee.”
(Note: The Hub of Hope is located underground in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station which is a major gathering place for homeless people. As Liz Hersh explained: “It’s a service that people use who have been on the street for a long time; not everyone likes it but a lot of people use it.” )
“There’s a community center around the corner that gives you sandwiches, so you get basically fed but it’s just that one time; you can go to little churches to get something, but it’s like too blazing hot out here to walk, so I rather stay here in the shade and try to get something to eat myself by panhandling… It’s been a while since I had a good meal.”
Where do you go for the bathroom and to keep clean? “I won’t lie to you, sometimes I have to pee out on the street but I won’t p**p out here- for that I’ll go in a train station or a restaurant, but some won’t let you unless you’re a paying customer; so you buy a cup of coffee and then use the restroom- that’s how we keep clean out here.”
Are you covered for medical: “I haven’t taken my lupus meds for a while because the coverage I have doesn’t cover the meds.”
How hard is it? “I don’t mind being out here panhandling; a lot of people are out here robbing people- I just sit out here and beg… If someone twists their face up and says no, I just thank God for the ones that do help; for the ones that don’t, I thank God and pray for them too!”… At that moment someone walked by: “How you doing- you got any change today?… OK, thanks anyway.”
What are your hopes for the future? “I won’t be out here for long- I have a feeling; I’m such a good person so I know it won’t be long… My hope is to get a house; first I would try to get a job but it’s hard to get one- it’s as hard as getting an apartment when you have bad credit… The world is hard!”
After the interview: We walked into a fast food restaurant where she ordered breakfast. We shook hands and I left hoping the best for her.
2. Jamie (no image): “It’s a hard life but don’t feel sorry for me.”
She was sitting at a table in a train station. She was covered in a long white blanket, hunched over lying on the table. As people walked by she called out almost frantically for money. I initially walked by but when I looked back she called out to me. I gave her $1 and asked if I could sit down. She smiled, but looked haggard. I sat down at her table.
Do you live on the street? How Long? “For two weeks; I stayed on the street last night but I should have stayed at the shelter I was at the other night.”
What happened? “I got high.”
What is it like? “I beg but people don’t respond, particularly when you start looking bad; I just hope for what comes- I got $3.”
Where do you go for the bathroom and to keep clean? “You come to a place like this, but you don’t keep clean and that’s the worst… Outreach did help me- they take you somewhere to clean you up.”
Are you covered for medical: “I get medical under welfare; if I get sick I go to the hospital and they throw me out… I can see a doctor but I don’t usually do that.”
How hard is it? “It’s a hard life but don’t feel sorry for me.”
What are your hopes for the future? “I don’t know- you take a step at a time; I would like to have a job, my own place and be drug free.”
After the brief interview: I offered to get her food but all she wanted was coffee in spite of not eating for a few days. When I returned with the coffee I was holding the receipt in my hand. She wanted the paper to wrap the few dollars she had… It was heartbreaking.
3. Cheese: “My life won’t change.”
He was sitting on the ground in front of a convenience store. It was raining and he was wearing a plastic poncho which he took on and off as the weather changed. I gave him $1 and asked if I could sit down to talk with him. He was very open and nice.
Do you live on the street? “I have my own room covered by SSI.” (Note: it is common that people will find stable housing but still spend their days on the street.)
What is it like? “I sit out here on the street trying to get money for food, cigarettes, and beer… ‘Can you spare some change?', but most people just walk by.”
How do you get food each day? “My main problem is getting food because SSI only covers things you need- every week I can only pull out $40.”
Are you covered for medical: “I have a Blue Mercy card- they pay for everything you need.”
How hard is it? “I never thought it would be this tough when my mom was alive; when she died life took on a new world- she died in 1986.”
What are your hopes for the future? “My life won’t change- life runs its course but it doesn’t change.”
After the interview: I went inside the convenience store to survey breakfast options. He made a selection which I delivered to him. He seemed happy. He’s a very sweet guy.
4. Jose: “Out here they treat everyone like bums- they treat you like garbage.”
He was lying on the ground under a tunnel. When I first walked by he didn’t ask for anything. I walked back, handed him $1 and asked if I could speak with him. He was very open and friendly. We had a long chat and I learned some amazing things about him.
Do you live on the street? How Long? “I’m on the street most of the time but I sleep at St. John’s Hospice- it’s pretty nice; they open at 10:00 at night and take twenty eight people; they put you on a list- if you miss a night they put someone else in and then you have to sign up again and wait for a space… I’ve been to (name of shelter) but it’s more like a gay thing over there so I don’t fit; I slept there and there were a lot of fights… Outreach will pick you up from here and they take you waaaay past Temple University, then they kick you out at 4:00 AM so you have to walk back- it’s not worth it, I might as well stay here.”
What happened? “I lost everything when someone hit me on the back of the head with a rock (he showed me the wound); it was two months ago and I spent nineteen days in the hospital… I worked in construction and had my own place; my boss fired me while I was sleeping in the hospital; I have no family and no nothing.”
What is it like? “I was never homeless before this- it makes you appreciate life, that’s for sure… When you’re up here (gestured with his hands) you’re not thinking about the little people- you’re just thinking about going to work and doing this and doing that; when you’re down here that’s when life changes; then you start appreciating everything- every little meal you get, every pair of pants someone gives you.”
How do you get food each day? “During the week I get lunch at St. John’s but usually on the weekends I don’t eat- you gotta adjust… I don’t panhandle.”
Where do you go for the bathroom and to keep clean? “I go to one of the train stations and I shower at St. John’s… Hub of Hope is just horrible- once you go down the stairs all you are going to see is drug addicts and they’re trying to rob you- it’s not safe at all- not at all.”
How hard is it? “It’s really hard- really hard…You just got to put up with some stuff out here on the street; out here they treat everyone like bums- they treat you like garbage.”
What are your hopes for the future? “I’ve been in construction for twenty seven years; I can still work but the problem is that when they hit me they took everything I had- my ID, social security card- they took everything; so I have to wait to get it redone at City Hall; I have one officer helping me and he said they will have it by Wednesday… I’ve got job offers everywhere.”
After the interview: I went to fast food restaurant and got him a breakfast sandwich and coffee… As we continued to talk, he told me that he had worked at Ground Zero for eight months after the attack: “They gave us evidence bags so every time you found something, you put it in the bag, put it in your backpack and then turned it in… I saw some pretty awful sights like shoes with feet still in them- I still dream about it every night… I’m not a hero but I was invited to over two hundred funerals because I gave families closure even if it was just a finger… For the first two months I didn’t have any HAZMAT equipment- we just went in there and now I have vision problems; my dog was trained to find human remains but he got sick and died.”… This man IS a hero!
5. Teddy: “Life can only get better because it can’t get no worse.”
He was sitting on a concrete bench on a bridge. I sat down next him and he was very open to speaking with me. He asked if I would get him something to eat which I did after we spoke… He was excited to learn that we have the same first name: “There aren’t many Teddy’s left!”
Do you live on the street? How Long? “I been out here for about a year; I either sleep here or at the other end of the bridge; when it’s cold sometimes that building over there will let me sneak inside- I can’t tell people because the first thing they say is: ‘How do you get in there and I can’t?', but they don’t know the tricks I know… I went in a shelter a couple of years ago and they treat you so terrible in those places; I told’m I’ll never come back here no more; I’m a grown man and they tell you to go to bed- you don’t tell a 65 year old man when to go to bed, and they throw you out at 4:30 in the morning- it’s better to be outside… I don’t use any city services but every now and then Outreach comes by- they give you a bottle of water and tell you to have a good day."
What happened? “When my wife died I just gave up and that was the wrong thing to do- I gave up my house and everything.”
What is it like? “It’s up and down- some people have good attitudes and some don’t like blacks.”
How do you get food each day? “Sometimes I’m out here panhandling… I went to (name of a mission) one time but I didn’t like the food- it was Mexican food and I can’t eat it… I try to eat every day- sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.”
Where do you go for the bathroom and to keep clean? “I go in the train station but sometimes they kick me out so I have to do what I have to do.”
Are you covered for medical? “I go to the hospital and if I’m dead they take me down to the morgue… I’m healthy as far as I know- I don’t never complain.”
Are you on any public assistance: “I’m going to try to get SSI but you have to go through so much red tape.”
How hard is it? “You know how it goes or maybe you don’t; I hope you don’t never have to go through this- it’s rough out here.”
What are your hopes for the future? “I could always use a job- people tell me I have a good personality; I was an X-Ray technician and I’m thinking of going into that field when I get my life back together- getting off the streets and being a civilized person… Life can only get better because it can’t get no worse… I don’t want no one taking care of me.”
After the interview: We walked to his favorite food cart where he got a breakfast sandwich and coffee. Whenever I cross that bridge I look for Teddy, but I haven’t seen him since we spoke.
6. Tommy: “It’s hard- life is hard.”
He was standing at a corner with a sign that asked for help. He looked frail. I handed him $1 and another a few minutes later. He was very friendly and we had a nice but very short talk… I realized later that I had seen him just an hour before at Love Park waiting in line for the “Same Day Work and Pay Program.” (Note: Four days a week, twenty people are chosen by lottery for a few hours of work and $50 immediate cash payment- it’s a great program!). Tommy was not chosen so he quickly went back to panhandling.
Do you live on the street? “I sleep in a shelter… I was in the Marine Corps from 1969-1974, serving state-side; I don’t get benefits because they say I was a reservist.”
How do you get food each day? “I panhandle and go to different places like St. John’s; I go to the Hub, but it’s full of s**t- they say they want to do something for you but they don’t come through.”
Are you covered for medical: “If I get sick I go to the hospital.”
How hard is it? “It's hard- life is hard; it can happen to anyone- I knew a lawyer and he’s on the street now.”
After the interview: He asked: “Did you get your picture?” It made me melt!
7. Muhammad: “I’m not comfortable but I’m used to it because I’m hard as nails.”
He was standing at a gathering point for homeless people. I walked up and introduced myself and he announced that he was homeless. He was willing to share his story if there was something in it for him and my offer of food was accepted. We went into a fast food restaurant where we talked while he ate. He had a lot to say about many topics.
Do you live on the street? How Long? “I’ve been homeless for over thirty one years; I sleep on the street a lot but sometimes I get a room or a rental.”… He talked about the many places he has been as a homeless person… “In the winter I make sure I don’t freeze- I go into stores or down in the Hub; when it’s freezing you have to stay in a shelter.”
What happened? “I don’t want to discuss that- you know what I’m saying?”
How do you get food each day? “I panhandle- people are generous to a degree with what they can… I don’t eat food at the shelters anymore because it’s out of date and can give you dysentery and kill you.”… As to whether or not he eats everyday, he laughed saying: “I need to lose some weight- I’ve eaten pretty well over the years.”
Where do you go for the bathroom and to keep clean? “Sometimes I go down to the Hub to have a shower or a cup of coffee- it’s clean; sometimes I go to Pearl Street (Sunday Breakfast).” Other than that he does not use city services.
Are you covered for medical: “I’ve lived on the street for so long that I’ve built up a lot of immunity so I don’t get sick very often.”
How hard is it? He gave the impression that he is comfortable with his life: “I’m not comfortable but I’m used to it because I’m hard as nails; there’s no value in beating your head against the wall or crying over spilt milk- let sleeping dogs lie!!”
What are your hopes for the future? “I hope it will change and that I can get work; I know to a degree it will get better, and then it can get worse.”
He added about city services: “There are social services and food stamps but nothing more than that; you can have a cup of coffee and a shower… They’ve closed all the housing and you have to be seventy two years of age to get anything… Programs in Philadelphia are OK as far as the Hub; as far as shelters, they’re not so fine- they’re old, cramped and you only get thirty days a year.”
8. Amy (no image): “I’m out here until I figure out something else.”
She was sitting on the ground with a panhandling sign. I introduced myself and asked if I could sit with her. She was hesitant because she was “working.” As we chatted a car stopped at the curb and a hand came out of the window with a $1 bill. After that she stood talking with me. I followed suit with $1. She spoke openly for a while.
Do you live on the street? How Long? “I’ve been out here for four months and I sleep in a shelter; I don’t qualify for housing because I don’t have drug or mental issues or a past issue of homelessness so I sleep in a shelter; I slept outside once and it was scary... I learned that it’s better to be in a shelter that’s not run by the city; I stay in a shelter run by a church- they don’t let nasty people stay there; the people that go to city shelters have bugs and they smell- I’m sorry to say it but that’s the way it is.”
What happened? “I lost my job after eight years and my family wasn’t very helpful; I’m out here until I figure out something else.”
What is it like? As to whether or not she can take care of herself, she was clear: “Oh yeah!!”
How do you get food each day? “I eat at cheap places like Wendy’s because places where they feed people are so nasty… I panhandle to eat and to pay for the bus to get to job interviews and things like that.”… I offered to get her food but she didn’t want it: “It’s not personal but I’ve been poisoned twice so I have to be careful of what I eat; a guy bought me a sandwich but I looked at it and there were blue pills broken up inside of it.”
“There is a lot of food around, but I have to be careful… And it’s weird that at one of the places they hired an amazing chef person and he makes meals that I don’t know what it is, like they made quiche- WTF is quiche?”… At that moment someone handed her a package of food- she said thanks: “But I won’t eat it.”
Where do you go for the bathroom and to keep clean? “There are all sorts of places to go to; there’s a nursing home near here and there’s Hall-Mercer on Spruce Street.”
How hard is it? “It is so hard out here; I never knew how expensive it is to take the bus until I had no money; Outreach used to help with tokens but there are no tokens anymore… And there's sexual harassment by homeless people if I go to places to eat, so I just take care of myself- I carry pepper spray in case something happens… My biggest challenge on a daily basis is getting money to eat and go places.”
What are your hopes for the future? “To get a job; I go to a place called CareerLink or I go online… I asked if she knew about the Same Day Work and Pay Programs: “I heard about it but it’s not real.” I let her know it is real and gave her the details: “That’s not bad- I’ll check it out.”
Added thoughts: Amy is very strong willed with no sign of despair: “I don’t want to be in that mindset; I used to be a very shy person but not anymore; if someone comes up to me and says: ‘Give me your money or I’m going to punch you,’ I say: ‘You better punch me REAL hard because if you don’t knock me out, I’m going to pepper spray you and punch your face in.’”
The one word I would apply to these people is resilience. They have to be resilient and street smart to survive, and the long-timers have become pros. Begging on the street is their day job and they get good at it. While the City of Philadelphia asks people not to give money, a certain percentage do and it can work for people who make the effort.
Of the eleven people I spoke to, two were recently homeless and seemed frantic about their situations. Two were very committed to getting back into the workforce. The others seemed to accept their chronic homelessness.
As hard as the City of Philadelphia, along with non-profits and religious organizations, tries to offer services to make people’s lives better or at least easier, these aren’t luxury accommodations by any means. I had an opportunity to see the sleeping room in a large shelter and it took by breath away- nothing short of a human warehouse. The approach to Hub of Hope announces itself with the smell of urine. And guests aren’t always the most pleasant of people. It’s no wonder that many homeless people prefer being on the street and panhandling to get food that they can trust won’t make them sick. These are common themes in this sample of interviews and in my general experience speaking with homeless people during the last five years.
The only real solution, for people who have the wherewithal to do it, is to move beyond this life- to climb that steep and often very slippery hill. It is possible and it does happen, but what makes the difference and how does it start? This will be explored in “Transition,” the next installment of “Navigating Poverty: From Homelessness to Independence.”
One More Thing
In all the years I’ve been talking to homeless people on the street, I’ve never had a bad experience. People are nice and very appreciative of being seen rather than feeling invisible. While panhandling is discouraged for many reasons, giving $1 can’t do any great harm and it will put a smile on someone’s face. Offering a meal from a fast food restaurant or a food cart can make a person’s day. It feels good to offer that little bit of caring to a person who has so little- give it a try!
Published August 31, 2019