By GRIFFIN GUINTA
Light filters through a crack at the top of the rusted bus stop and stings my eyes; causing me to rear back and lean my head against the stiff plastic side. Oddly enough, I feel safe behind these moldy, green walls. I can tuck my feet into my chest, lower my cap to cover my face, and hide from the judging glares of drivers who feel the need to take their eyes off the road and stare at me like I’m a caged animal.
But I soon learn I don’t have to hide. In many ways, I am invisible. I’ve purposefully picked this spot on Hyde Park Avenue this sunny Wednesday afternoon, knowing fully well that many UT students and affluent citizens frequent this road to get to Oxford Exchange or the local Walgreens. So far, not a single person walking by has acknowledged my presence or reciprocated my waves. In some ways, I understand. Encounters with the homeless can be awkward for those who don’t interact with them regularly, and thus the default reaction is to avoid eye contact and keep walking forward.
The motivating reason for this varies, of course. Some feel guilty that they don’t have anything to give, some fear for their safety, and others are simply wrapped up in where they’re going.
The catch is that I’m not actually homeless. In fact, I’ve had class with a few of the students that have passed by, and none have approached me or made a remark about my circumstance.
Not a Savior, Just a Guy Who Likes to Talk
When I tell people I like talking to homeless people, I have to make it clear that it’s because I want to, not because it makes me feel better inside or paints me as a caring, empathetic person. Like many, I was somewhat afraid of the homeless when I first started working at a soup kitchen in high school. While I had pity, I couldn’t grasp why people became homeless or didn’t simply “get a job.”
Slowly but surely though, I began talking to them and was reminded that homelessness can happen to anyone. Yes, there are people who’ve made poor life decisions or suffered from drug abuse, but the overwhelming majority are victims of bad circumstances, like having a lack of family support, being laid off or having to be the sole provider for a plethora of children.
Since then, I’ve made a promise to myself to one day give back in a sustainable way. Through working at the PEACE volunteer center and traveling to Dublin, Ireland to study homelessness, I’ve learned about a system known as Asset-Based Community Development, which conveniently spells out ABCD. This model strives to “build on the assets that are already found in the community and mobilizes individuals, associations, and institutions to come together to build on their assets– not concentrate on their needs.” In other words, provide people with long term opportunities, not band-aids.
The plan was as follows: dress up like a homeless person, walk the streets of Tampa, panhandle, and simulate the experience of being homeless. (Any money gained from panhandling was donated to charity.) To say that my brief time on the streets even slightly resembled what it means to be homeless would be wrong, but I do feel I got a taste.
It was a Wednesday, and once my classes were over, I dug through my drawers, found an old t-shirt, frayed said t-shirt, and smudged it with dirt. Next, I found a pair of dirty jeans, put on a pair of sneakers that were falling apart, and added a beanie cap to further veil my identity. I’d also refrained from shaving to appear older.
I didn’t eat anything before heading out and carried only a backpack full of old t-shirts and towels.
The Journey (Part 2.)
With my tattered cardboard sign in hand, which read “Homeless. God Bless. Anything Helps,” I made my way to the street corner and held it chest-level, occasionally waving it in the air in an attempt to flag passing cars down.
The passerbys haven’t done anything wrong, yet you can’t help but feel jealous that they’re actually going somewhere. At the same time, you don’t know what their lives are like either. All you see are distorted outlines behind tinted windows.
Unsurprisingly, no one gave me anything in the hour I stood there. This isn’t an indictment of people as much as it is a result of circumstance. It’s a busy intersection, the light cycle is fairly fast, and given the amount of people buried in their phones, many may not have even noticed me. Still, I couldn’t dodge the intense feelings of shame. I cringed every time I saw someone swivel their head around or roll up their window upon noticing me.
More than anything, I wanted to walk up to their car and tell them that this isn’t really me.. Sadly, appearances often dictate whether or not people consider us worth their time.
I swallowed my pride and remembered why I was here: to understand.
It was time for a change of scenery. I headed downtown in search of, well, anything.
As I walked glumly across the Kennedy bridge that leads into the city, I made direct eye contact with a woman talking on her cell phone. She glanced up for a moment, seemed to forget where she was going, and quickly rotated 90 degrees to her right; somewhat hiding herself behind a white parking sign.
It was a long walk into the city, giving me plenty of time to rationalize and dissect why some would feel afraid of me even in broad daylight. There’s no official statistic to back this up, as homeless people are harder to monitor, but most social workers I’ve spoken with firmly believe that more crimes are committed against homeless people than the other way around. Food for thought, I suppose.
I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. At the end of the bridge stood the towering, beer-can-shaped Sykes building, and glistening across its slatted windows was the bright orange-yellow hue of the setting sun. I look at this building nearly every day, yet today it held new beauty. It was as if by having nothing, I was able to see everything. On a normal basis, I’m glued to my phone answering emails, making phone calls, and shamelessly posting on Instagram. This forced me to be alone with my thoughts and imagine a world in which those luxuries (or curses) didn’t exist.
I have to reiterate that I’m not trying to glamorize homelessness in any way, or insinuate that I somehow “found myself” because I was homeless for a day. I was just reminded to look up and take everything in.
“BEEEEEEP.” My miniature soliloquy was broken by a loud a car horn. I half-expected to turn around and be cursed at, but to my surprise a hand holding a one dollar bill reached out the window.
“It’s my last one, but you can have it,” a soft-spoken, high-school-aged girl in the back seat said.
“Th-Thank you.” The words did not come easily. “I really appreciate that.”
I never planned on keeping the money, but I felt I had to take it. It was the first actual human contact I’d had since becoming homeless, and something about looking her right in the eyes and sharing that moment gave me an inkling of hope.
Dave and Mike
Remembering that many homeless congregate in Lykes Gaslight Park, I made that my first stop. I spotted two caucasian, middle-aged homeless men sitting on a bench near the park’s entrance as if they were its gatekeepers. Before I could even wave, a shorter man sitting on the left stuck out two stubby fingers and motioned me over.
Was my disguise up? Would he question what I was doing there?
“You might wanna put that sign away,” he said in a gravelly voice. “You’re really only supposed to be carrying those things around on Sunday. And even then the Cops can f**k you up.”
That’s a messed up law. First they make homelessness illegal, now you can’t express yourself on a sign?
“Sorry,” I replied with a slightly Southern twang. “New in town.”
“Oh really?” he replied, running his right hand through this salt and pepper gray hair. “Where ya from?”
“Uh. Des Moines…Idaho.”
Immediately after the word “Idaho” rolled off my tongue I instantly regretted it. “Des Moines is in Iowa, you idiot,” I thought to myself. Luckily, the two men in the bench didn’t seem to notice or mind.
“Must be cold up in Idaho right now. Good thing you’re down here, you’d have freezed your ass off,” the shorter man said. The taller man nodded in agreement.
Before I could respond, the taller, balding man sitting on the right finally broke his silence.
“What are you doing down here anyway?” he said with a half smile, slightly baring the wide gap between his yellowed bottom teeth.
I quickly fabricated how a disagreement with my parents forced me to come to Clearwater in search of refuge with a distant cousin. As the conversation progressed, I became James, a 23-year-old who somehow ended up in Tampa and had no idea what he was doing.
Yet, Dave (the shorter one) and Mike (the taller one), whom I’d just met mere minutes before this, made sure I did know what I was doing. Before I could even finish my story, Dave was unwrapping a styrofoam container and insisting I eat the leftover rice and beans inside. While I declined the food, I sat at his feet listening to his advice like a wide-eyed child meeting Santa for the first time.
“What you want to do is find a place to stay for the night. You should try going to Metropolitan Ministries to see if they’ll let you use the phone. Or if you have ten dollars you can probably stay at Salvation Army for the night,” Dave said. “If not, you’ll probably be sleeping on the street.”
Although my plan never included sleeping out on the streets for safety reasons, I zoned out for a few minutes and imagined what it would be like to sleep on the streets. Where would I go? Snoozing in the park was prohibited, most of the nooks in downtown were already inhabited, and the thought of leaving myself exposed, despite not having any expensive possessions, was admittedly terrifying.
I hesitate to make generalizations like this, as I didn’t get enough of a sample size to prove this point, but on the whole the homeless people I encountered treated me with more human decency than the “regular” people mulling about Tampa. Maybe this is because the homeless saw me as one of their own, or maybe people are jaded. Either way, it’s something I jotted down and underlined several times.
My typical interactions with non-homeless people, who, had I been wearing my nice jeans, leather boots, and sweater would likely have politely waved back, went surprisingly sour. I’d smile and wave to people and be met in return by either a grimace, a look in the other direction, or most frequently, a “sorry, I don’t have any money”– even if I didn’t ask for it. Conversely, Dave was more than prepared to fork over what little food he had left. Mike was willing to thoroughly explain the process of getting a meal and a bed for the night. The interactions were similar elsewhere, too.
After thanking my two new friends on the bench for their advice, I decided to trek over to the Salvation Army and witness the situation for myself. To avoid complications and legal trouble, I didn’t say my name or attempt to get aid from Salvation Army, but I wanted to experience the process of getting there and see whom I might encounter.
Though only about a mile or so from the heart of downtown, the walk involves going through several busy intersections, and one can easily get lost in the mess of unoriginal street names like “Florida Ave.” and “Tampa St.”
By this point, the sky was growing a shade darker, accentuating the bright red “Salvation Army” like a beacon against the mess of gray buildings. Upon approaching, I made out what appeared to be a black blob congregating around a diminutive woman with lofty gold curls. Another powerful visual contrast.
Squinting my eyes further, I saw an older homeless woman with stringy white hair and a puffy ski jacket clasp her hands together and mouth the words “Thank God,” after apparently being approved by this woman to stay the night there. Others weren’t so lucky. I couldn’t get close enough to hear all the details, but it sounded like only a handful of people with very specific requirements (like being part of a family or being a single mother) could be admitted.
Around the building, several (mostly male) homeless sat on wooden benches with harsh metal dividers that seemed to serve as arm rests but most certainly were there to prevent people from using the benches as beds. Not wanting to intrude, I sat on one of the few empty ones and watched from afar. Lively conversations ranging from politics to Clemson going undefeated circulated through the air, reminding me just how important having a community is. These people were certainly not happy, but many still retained joy. Perhaps that is all we can do when we lose everything.
I’m not one to flesh out what the “moral of the story is”; though I think I may have just said it in the last paragraph. Community, no matter where you are, is essential beyond belief. Through this ‘social experiment,’ if you want to call it that, I was reminded that homeless people are just people, so maybe we should rephrase the way they refer to them. It may be wordy, but something like “people who are in a tough situation,” would be more apt.
I also realized that what I did may be perceived as ethically questionable by some. Good intentions aside, I impersonated a homeless person and begged for things I didn’t need. While I didn’t keep any of it, maybe I took food or money away from someone who really needed it. It’s a completely fair statement to say it was manipulation. However, I also learned aspects about homelessness that I never could as a journalist or outsider. When you start prying into people’s lives and seemingly only care about them for the five minutes, they’re understandably not going to open up.
Someday in the future I’ll do this again. Maybe when I’m older and can’t be yelled at my parents for actually sleeping in a cardboard box on a dim side street. For now, all I can do is keep learning and volunteering to understand this situation better. I don’t know if homelessness will ever truly disappear, but it’s certainly not an unattainable ideal.