As I write this article, I can look out my balcony and see a number of homeless people asking for food and money on Green Street in Champaign. People pretend to send text messages or cross the street just to avoid confronting dingy-looking adults. We all have problems, so why not ask someone, “Will you allow me to help you?” It took a first-hand perspective and some guidance from a man named David Pirtle for me to understand the gravity behind this concept. Pirtle started his journey here in Champaign, where he once attended Parkland College. While battling with schizophrenia he wandered the country for several years and found himself homeless in Washington DC. Someone finally reached out to him, helped him get cleaned up, and he now works with the National Coalition for the Homeless advocating for the rights of individuals within the homeless community of the District of Columbia.
I met Pirtle in January, during which a sponsored group of University of Illinois students pretended to be homeless for 48 hours in the nation’s capital. He asked the thirteen students in my group for a ballpark estimate of the number of homeless people in Champaign County. Over 550 people are homeless, one-third of those are children, and the number is increasing. I was stunned. How could I be so unaware of such enormous misfortune in my own backyard?
I got to know many incredible people associated with the National Coalition because of the opportunity presented by The University of Illinois’ Alternative Spring Break. The program provides students with seasonal opportunities to travel somewhere in the US to volunteer for a social cause. I chose the DC trip because it uniquely offered the opportunity to directly confront both a local and universal issue: homelessness. I’d traveled before and accustomed myself to foreign cultures. Never, though, had I sat down and considered the devastating nature of the oft overlooked homeless community.
I prepared for my Alternative Spring Break by eating less and reading statistics about poverty. My bags were packed, but I was far from ready for the next seven days. Our trip began when our group arrived in downtown DC and made our way to hear stories from a Faceless Panel at the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). On the way, I experienced a moment of tremendous impact. Outside DuPont Circle Station, a homeless man sold Street Sense newspapers for a suggested $1.00. On the pages, I noted a verse from Walt Whitman’s ‘The Wound Dresser’, “…I sit by the restless all the dark night. Some are so young, some suffer so much. I recall the experience sweet and sad.” I felt remorse for all the longing people suffered I’d never even acknowledged. Anthony, homeless and now a friend, made his money selling issues of Street Sense. I share Whitman’s bittersweet sentiment when I heard from the vendor that even though few city residents buy the paper, homeless people feel empowered by the voice it provides. Street Sense is an NCH-founded publication, written and distributed by the homeless people of the city in an attempt to spread awareness of the homeless community and raise money for its cause.
Later that day, my group heard ‘How I became homeless’ stories at the NCH from Dave Pirtle and ‘Little’ Steve Thomas. The two mentors moved us with their narratives, hailing the importance of keeping an open mind with strangers. With pride they told us how happy they were for Ted Williams, the homeless Clevelander who found a new life thanks to a passerby’s consideration.
“Stories like this are great,” they said, “but many [homeless people] are out there with serious mental and physical problems. The key here is that one homeless man found his way, but the spotlight is quickly lost for the homeless community.” Not all homeless people have marketable skills, so walking by a ‘normal’ homeless person and thinking, “Isn’t it a shame,” won’t cut it. The way Steve told his story, I could see into his past; I could see his memories in his thousand-yard stare. He told us about his missed opportunities and how he didn’t appreciate them.
“You’re one bad decision away from homelessness,” he told us. “I probably started over more times than any three of you will.” It was on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, the most powerful place in the world, that Steve first understood the reality of homelessness. His voice was so traveled, it was hard to imagine what he looked like thirty years ago. “Has he ever been on a vacation?” I wondered. Hard times stole a piece of his personality for a time, but Steve eventually found his way back to a healthy mind with the help of a caring stranger. Forever indebted to the man, Steve now helps others. For the next two days, my group embarked upon our ‘vacation’; we begged during the day and slept on cardboard at night. There were mixed feelings about our motives, to be certain. We were on our own, with no way to contact anyone, buy food, or even sit comfortably for a prolonged period of time. Nobody wanted us anywhere. Some of our group members even got yelled at when they were trying to rest at a church. Library cards, job interviews, and Neosporin for a hurt friend were all out of the question. I felt humiliated asking for food and money, but I didn’t know what else to do. The spark in our eyes faded quickly.
With little to do, no sense of location, and people refusing to acknowledge our existence as panhandlers, we began to live moment by moment. Our hunger, lack of sleep, and low body temperature kept us from doing anything really productive. There wasn’t a single point where we were able to do what we really wanted to do. There was no privacy and we felt terrible about begging all the time. We certainly weren’t living the lives of homeless people, but we got a brief glimpse into their reality.
One of the happiest moments in recent memory was when an employee named Marquat disregarded a long customer line to sneak me and my friend some warm food. After a long, cold, hungry day walking around the city, this was a godsend. Though few and far between, these Samaritan acts gave us hope. Imagine going years without anyone knowing your name, though.
I am by no means Mr. Perfect when it comes to lending a hand to the homeless. But after experiencing homelessness on a first-hand basis in DC, I’ve realized it’s possible to be a perfect friend to those in the most trouble, even if just for a moment. Of course, it will take institutional reform to reduce the effects of homelessness on a larger scale. However, you –and I mean YOU – can take Steve’s advice and acknowledge that “inside every homeless person, there’s a superstar waiting to get out.” Help them rediscover their identity.
Some Suggested Resources
Find out more about advocacy, projects, facts, and news from the National Coalition for the Homeless at www.nationalhomeless.org. On the site, you can find a link to an NPR interview featuring David Pirtle. To find out about Homeless shelters in your area, check www.homelessshelterdirectory.org. Street Sense, the magazine by homeless people in DC, can be found at www.streetsense.org/ Check out www.hud.org for national, state, and local government-sponsored projects and news Roth with a NCH guest regarding homeless people.