Franklin Street is home to a number of trendy restaurants, hang-out spots and pop-up shops, all frequented by UNC Chapel Hill students and residents of the surrounding areas. On weeknights it's a great place to go with friends to find a reprieve from homework, and on weekends it's the prime place to be for a fun night of going out.
What about when those adventures are over? Students return to their dorms for a comfortable night of rest in their beds, and families head back home.
But for some, Franklin Street just happens to be home.
Homelessness is the most understated epidemic in America, with an average of 500,000 Americans living in the streets on any given day.
In large urban areas, the statistics are observable; however, in small towns such as Chapel Hill, the epidemic is slightly more nuanced. On streets that bustle with students and families, it can be difficult to see the individuals who call those streets home. These people are ignored, scoffed at, and not given the dignity of responses. Though sometimes the situation can seem threatening, most of the time the people who beg for just a kind word are direct victims -- of familial issues, of substance abuse and of bankruptcy, to name just a few.
So why are these humans who are condemned to the streets treated with such animosity? I took to Franklin Street to find out. I set out to humanize the dehumanized.
This information is published with explicit permission from the individual with whom the interview was conducted.
I walked up to Franklin Street on a blistering Wednesday afternoon, my back drenched in sweat from my backpack. It was unbearable, just hot and sticky and generally uncomfortable. I took my camera out to take some test shots of the lighting, and that's when I saw him.
As I would come to find out, I was looking at Charles Gear, a man who has been living on Franklin Street on and off since the late 1980s.
For all those years, he has called the small area outside the University Presbyterian Church his home.
He seemed skeptical as I walked up with my camera on my hip, so I gave an amicable smile. The last thing I wanted to come off as was threatening. As unobtrusively as possible, I took a seat next to him on the low stone wall where he typically resides, and he gazed up at me with stormy eyes.
I introduced myself and described my reasons for seeking him out. Though he seemed eager to chat, his responses were often limited to short answers, with some things sounding trite for him.
Almost immediately, he made sure to let me know that his whole day isn't spent sitting and watching the bustle of Franklin Street. He seemed uncomfortable with the notion that I may judge him for not being productive on a daily basis. After nearly three decades living on Franklin Street, not knowing where his next meal is coming from, and talking to various reporters and interviewers, he seemed rehearsed in quickly spitting out in a raspy Southern twang, "[I sit] right here. Not all day. I go to the hospital and visit where the sick children is sometimes."
As a man with a heart for humanity and human interaction, Gear told me all about how he loves being around people. His eyes lit up when I asked if any students ever come up to talk with him. He nodded, saying that he "typically talks with them about the Bible." Fittingly enough, he said that residing outside a large Presbyterian Church gives him hope for the plans that God holds for his future.
His past, however, is dark.
Gear started fidgeting when asked about his history, and the speculations as to why are endless. He didn't give much insight, for reasons of shame and discomfort. I, of course, didn't want to pry too much into this man's life on a random Wednesday afternoon, but he did imply that alcoholism may have been partially to blame for his current state. He said that there is a widely-spread notion that homelessness is the direct result of an addiction to drinking or drug abuse, or even both together. His eyes cast down to the ground and he quietly muttered, "Ain't it?"
He declined to relay any more about his personal journey.
I asked Gear if I could get him anything, or if there was anything he wanted the public to know about the homeless culture.
"Take [the homeless] out to eat sometime. Give us, like, a pair of socks. A toothbrush. People don't do a whole lot. It don't take a whole lot."
After a few more minutes of chatting, Gear mostly interested in asking me questions about the journalism school at Carolina, I snapped a few pictures and then headed to class. He waved goodbye and gave a crooked half-smile as I walked away. He thanked me for being so kind to him.
Since that encounter with Charles Gear, I have noticed a change in my own behavior. When coming in contact with homeless individuals, I used to be one of the majority who pass by with downcast eyes, neglecting to show any kind of interaction. Now, I walk by with a smile, and if I have any change, I'll give a dollar or two.
I don't have a lot of money to give right now, especially as a first-year college student, but as I learned, it doesn't take a lot to help.
I now find myself humanizing individuals on the streets and treating them with the same respect I would treat my peers. One's situation does not dictate character, it's how that individual deals with the situation that truly shows who he or she is.
So now, I walk on Franklin Street with a new perspective. I greet the people who call those blocks of concrete their homes, and if I have time to stop, I'll ask if I can get them anything from the convenience store down the street. The majority of the time they smile and say it's not necessary, even after I insist. These are real people. They're not part of the scenery. They have needs. They have lives. They have dreams.
And, of course, every time I walk down Franklin Street now, I make sure to greet Charles Gear. He always asks if I'm still writing good stories.
Hopefully, this one is up to his standards.