As the wind howled through the streets, the sun setting behind the city and the Indy skyline casting shadows on those below the 40 degree air temperature felt much colder than 40. It had been about 3 hours since I set out snapping pictures of a city I know a little bit about but am not at all familiar. My hands were numb and I shivered as I stood still waiting for the green go guy to illuminate telling me it was safe to cross. So ready to get back to the warmth of the indoors I walked right passed a gentleman holding a sign that read, “Homeless Vet – Pleas Help.” He set there on a bench as I stood freezing, waiting to perambulate the crosswalk. How silly I felt feeling cold when knowing this man lived on the street.
I turned around.
After throwing some money into his cup the man thanked me, said “God bless,” and looked on. I could tell he wasn’t expecting to have a conversation with a passerby so when I asked, “What’s your name?” a look of surprised appeared on the bearded man’s face. He gave me a warm smile…”Scott.” As I stood there speaking with Scott I noticed he seemed little phased by the chilly weather while I couldn’t conceal the shaking of my shivering legs. Perhaps one becomes accustom to the conditions in which they live but I can tell you those are conditions I’d rather never become accustom.
I could immediately tell that Scott was an intelligent man and after speaking with him for a few minutes I made a comment about how articulate he was, he laughed, and said, “I guess you would call me a smart dummy.” To let him know I wasn’t there to judge I immediately followed his self-assessment by saying that making poor decisions isn’t the same as being a dummy and I told him I could tell he was no dummy. Like other homeless people I’ve encountered and spoken to I always wish later that I had asked better questions but in the time I spent with Scott I was able to learn a lot about a man, a human, someone with a story.
Scott grew up in Indianapolis where he went to Southridge High, the oldest high school in the city according to him. He was the second of two sons, his older brother was really an older brother, he was 27 when Scott was born. Soctt’s father passed when he was only a toddler and his mother passed when Scott was 21, his brother passed not long after his mother leaving him with no blood relatives to spend time with or ask for help. Like many of the homeless I meet Scott is a veteran. After serving three years and doing a couple of tours in Vietnam Scott returned home and attended Indiana University. In the midst of asking him questions he asked where I lived and where I grew up. When hen I shared I grew up near Lafayette, Indiana his face widened with a big grin as he said, “Purdue country! You ever hear of a ball player named Rick Mount? I played against that guy.” (Mount was a star basketball player at Purdue and the first high school player to ever be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.)
It wasn’t clear to me if Scott graduated from IU but while speaking about basketball and college Scott moved the conversation to a job he had with the University of Detroit Mercy. While working there he was married, his wife worked in financial aid while he was the head of campus housekeeping. He shared that he was married for only 6 years and when I asked what happened with his wife his face dimmed, his smile faded, and he said, “alcohol.” I’ve spoken to a fair amount of the homeless over the past year and alcohol and drugs seem to be pervasive in those living on the street. Unfortunately, that gives many of us “normal people” in society the right to judge and write people off because “they brought it upon themselves.”
Scott shared that he had been in programs, kicked the habit, only to fall victim again to drinking. He was sober when I spoke to him and he said that many of the shelters won’t allow you to stay if you’re drinking or on drugs so he tries to stay clean. Shelters are only a temporary abode as many of them will only allow people to stay for 10 nights unless the temperature is so cold it is deemed a hazard. Some shelters require you to work in order to stay the night and Scott shared that though some of the shelters claimed to be Christian that they often “treat the homeless very un-Christian like.” Scott shared that he will occasionally stay in shelters but his main dwelling is under a bridge in a tent village of sorts with other homeless. To stay warm he layers clothes, gets into a sleeping bag, and covers up after spending time huddled around a fire. At that point in our conversation I had about all the frigid wind I could take and I thanked Scott for speaking with me. As I extended my arm to shake his hand he firmly placed one hand in mine while grabbing my forearm with the other in a gesture of gratitude for taking the time to speak with him.
Like a pageant contestant I would love to be able to come up with a solution like “world peace” for the homeless and help them off the street. Unfortunately, trying to eradicate homelessness is exactly like trying to find a solution for world peace, it will never happen. But, we shouldn’t stop trying, we shouldn’t ignore these humans on the street, these are people not street fixtures, like me and you they have a story too. It’s just a little different.