June 23rd, 2007 05:45 EST
Outcasts ( A day in the life of a homeless person )
My stomach was growling, and I felt faint from the heat of the sun. A plate of any type of food and a drop of water would have been a great treat, but what I really wanted was a smile or a friendly greeting from one of the clean, normal people. Instead, they gave me stares and frowns, which hurt more than the thought of having no food or money. It was as if I were a leper, who had broken the rules by daring to be seen in public.
Sleeping on the streets, in gutters, under bus shelters, on the cold steps of a courthouse or under a tree is a terrible way to live. But one of the biggest tragedies of not having a home is that the homeless are treated like outcasts, as if they are no longer human beings.
I realized this truth first hand when I walked the streets of downtown Miami posing as a homeless woman.
I was not dirty. I know that I did not smell badly because I had put on deodorant and brushed my teeth. But my hair was wild and knotted. I used my fingers to comb my hair. I wore a shirt with holes, stains and sleeves uneven in length. My shorts also had holes, and reached below my knees. They were pants before I cut them. My toenails were half-painted and looked as if I clipped them with my teeth.
I was unkempt enough to fit the image of a homeless person, which was reason for the "normal" people to look at me as if my existence was a disgrace to the human race. Women stared at me with the same indifference as men. I had wrongly thought that they would show pity since we were of the same gender.
Maybe, more people would sympathize with the homeless if they realized how close they could be to sleeping under a bus shelter or on the cold, concrete steps of a courthouse.
Statistics show that about 700,000 people in the United States have no place to rest their heads at night. Over the next twelve months it is estimated that 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in our country. Even more chilling, these numbers only account for people in shelters and other organizations, or ones who can be easily found on the streets. There are many others who are barely surviving in temporary housing arrangements. They are not included in the statistics.
I soon realized that homeless people have to find something in common with each other. They cannot survive on the hope that a passerby will feel sympathy and offer them a helping hand. Many people do not socialize with the homeless and blame them for being in an unfortunate situation. Too often, people think that addiction to alcohol, gambling or some other vice is the reason that a person is on the streets or in a shelter. The fact is that there are many other causes of homelessness.
Poverty remains the largest contributor to homelessness, although domestic violence, family disputes and unemployment are other reasons that a person can end up begging on the streets. Often, homeless persons become addicted to drugs or alcohol once they find themselves on the street. They start to lose hope that they their lives will ever go back to normal. Drugs and alcohol are useful for dulling pain and making harsh realities seem less dim.
It is important for a person on the street to find something beneficial to pass the time. Ivon Peterkin, who has been living on the streets for some months now, explained that he reads books to keep his mind off his unfortunate situation. "It`s easy to go crazy out here," he said. "Little by little, you start to lose some of your senses unless you do something."
I knew what he was talking about. I remember sitting on the floor at the Government Center with my back against a pole for only an hour when I started to feel desperate and hopeless. I wanted to cry. I stopped myself several times from begging the people passing by to help me. Help from what? I still cannot describe what I wanted. Then something amazing happened.
Ivon, a forty-seven year-old man who I had never met, approached me. Immediately, I felt immense relief. "When she is finished, they give out food," he said referring to a woman who was preaching in Spanish some distance away. Even though I was at first scared to speak to him, his kindness and obvious yearning for companionship compelled me to respond. "Ok." I would have said more except that my tongue seemed to be stuck. That was my first word in over an hour.
He used the payphone next to me. Then he told me that I had to get a number to get food. Without meaning to, I got up and followed him to one of the park benches. "I`m Ivon," he said. I complimented him on his name because it was the only nice thing that came to mind.
Right away, Ivon wanted to serve as my protector. He kept telling me that I was attractive and that men often take advantage of women who look like me. Only then did I begin thinking about how hard it must be for women on the streets.
On top of having no place to live, homeless women have to deal with stereotypes associated with their gender. Women are seen as weak and easy prey. Tragically, they sometimes find themselves working as pr*stitutes, either for a pimp or freelance.
"Men will offer to take care of you, and then they use you," Ivon said. "I ain`t like that."
It was hard for me to trust him, but I needed the conversation. Besides, he encouraged me.
"No matter what you are facing, don`t give up," he said. "Always know that you are worth something."
Ivon got three numbers from the lady who was passing them out. He eventually gave the extra one to someone without a number. Incredibly, four people tried to snatch the paper from him, but only one was victorious. It reminded me of a bride throwing a bouquet.
I had to wait for them to call number 63 before I could get my food. When the lady handed me the plate, I felt ashamed, embarrassed. I wondered if she thought that I was inferior to her; I wanted to run to my car and go home. But before I knew it, I received my food: a soda and a little container with vanilla pudding. I did not have to look at the woman anymore. The feeling of shame receded.
Ivon suggested that we walk a few blocks to Bayside. When we arrived at our destination, Ivon told me he desperately had to use the bathroom. He began to take something from his waist that he wanted to leave with me. I thought it was a phone; it was a knife. "You never know when you have to use this," he said.
I ate alone. It took all my strength to eat the food, which consisted of tomato sauce, sliced hotdogs, rice and bread. It felt dirty. To make matters worse, I was afraid to have my head down for longer than a few seconds. Ivon scared me by implying that in broad daylight someone might try to attack me.
After about twenty minutes, Ivon came back. He suggested that we move nearer to the Miami River where it was cooler. I carried the sheet that we were using as a picnic blanket, as well as the plastic bag with my food. We settled down under the shade of some coconut trees. He pointed out some police officers who were blocking off an area where the homeless used to sleep.
"I guess they didn`t want us next to the hotel. You can`t have people looking out of their windows and seeing us," he said.
Ivon is right. Every society tries to hide its homeless population. These unfortunate souls are banned from one place after another, until they all have to hang out in the same spot away from the tourists and residents. Subtle changes to public benches, like partitions, discourage them from sleeping in certain places.
Ivon started to take some things out of his bag. He had his whole life stuffed in there " clothes, toiletries, books, pills and food. This was amazing, for I had a similar bag in school and could barely carry all my books.
I felt angry that people had to live like this and could not handle being around Ivon, or any other homeless person anymore. I was depressed because I was powerless to help them. I told Ivon that I wanted to return to the Government Center and even thought about an excuse to get him to leave me alone. I did not want him to discover that I was not truly homeless. Gratefully, he told me that he was going back to Bayside and I was relieved of that burden.
As I drove up the ramp to I-95, I began to realize that I was going home to my shower, my refrigerator, my job and my bed. I felt human again.
This feature was published in The Local Buzz Magazine on October 31, 2005.