Every day, I take the train into work from Boston. I get in at South Station, and walk about two minutes to my office alongside hundreds of other commuters. While they all rush to get to work on time, they hardly pay attention to anything or anyone but themselves. On average, I see about five homeless people each morning. If I'm too late to stop, I'll make a point to smile and say 'good morning' to all of them.
Ever since I read The Street Lawyer by John Grisham, a book about a corporate attorney who quits his job as a lawyer for homeless people in need, I vowed that I would never walk by another person on the street again because of how much the book taught me about the homeless population. And I haven't.
I typically spent my lunch break on the Dewey Square Park, which was right behind my office building. To get there, I had to pass the corner of High and Congress, where a man named Joe sat everyday. Though I tried my hardest to stop for everyone, Joe was the person I got to know the most. I began by giving him an extra granola bar, or an extra dollar, or simply saying hello when I had nothing to give. Each day, my conversations with him grew longer, and I learned more about him.
Towards the end of the summer, I was approached to apply to be a content creator for The Odyssey, and when I was accepted, I immediately knew that I wanted to write about an interview with Joe. I asked him if he would be okay with it, and after some consideration, he agreed. I was hoping that by talking to him about how he ended up as a panhandler and what he had to say about his life would shed some light on the subject for the people who immediately dismiss homeless people as human beings. I had no idea what I was going to get from this interview, and if it was going to support my views or not - I only knew that I would get the honest truth.
I asked him easy questions at first, like where he was from, what he wanted to be when he grew up, and where his family was. I then asked him things like how did you end up here? and what would you change about your life?
This is what I learned:
Joe has only ever lived in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain, and he has been homeless for thirty years. When I asked him how he got here, he said "at age 18, I thought it would be cool to hang on the corner and drink with my sister and her friends, and at age 48 I'm still here." He doesn't know where his family is, because they moved away when he was in jail for 10 months in 1993. His crime was non-violent, and alcohol-related. He has been sober for 23 years. The most recent interaction he's had with his family was a brief visit from his sister 12 years ago, when she came to tell him that his father died, and that she was getting married. He wasn't invited to the wedding, and doesn't know his sister's new last name, so he is unable to contact her. If he could change anything about his life, he wouldn't have started drinking. He gets his clothes from an outreach van once a week, if he's able to catch it. He has two friends: one named Panda, who he's known since the 1980s, and one named Peter, who lets him sleep in his van every night. When I asked him why he doesn't sleep in a shelter, he told me that there are too many diseases, bed bugs, and thieves. He's tried to stay in shelters a few times, but has never had a good experience. On one instance, his laundry was stolen from him, even though he was sleeping with it under his head. On another, a man tried to steal his sneakers, and sliced both sides of both shoes with a knife, while he was still wearing them. After that, he decided he was content with Peter's van.
He sits on the corner of High Street and Congress Street, because that is the most lucrative place: right in the center of Boston's Financial District. He sometimes makes up to $750 every week. When he sits in more touristy places, like Faneuil Hall, he makes a significantly smaller amount of money. He uses the money he makes for food.
One day in the middle of July, he was looking especially upset. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that his girlfriend was moving to New York City to be closer to her daughter. They dated for 10 years, and he stayed with her as often as he could; but it was hard because she lived in Section 8 housing and it was against the rules for her to have guests. I asked him why he wouldn't go with her, assuming he didn't have a permanent life in Boston, and he said that he was 'too terrified of New York.' When I brought this up the my interview, he told me why. He had gone to New York City once when he was sixteen, and it 'scared the hell out of him,' because they 'randomly beat up homeless people.' This made me curious about how safe panhandling in Boston was, so I asked him about it. He told me that there was only one instance where someone was remotely violent with him.
After I had been talking to him for 20 minutes, I told him I had a job, and he knocked the cup out of my hand telling me I didn't need it. I see him every day.
A common misconception about the homeless population is that they are all alcoholics or drug addicts who are lazy and can't find work because they're too busy spending their time getting drunk or high. Though Joe did originally become homeless due to a problem with alcohol, he does not fit this category. He has been sober for the vast majority of his adult life, and he has worked many minimum wage jobs in an attempt to get himself off the streets. Because he wasn't paid a living wage, he still had to take to panhandling to make enough money to survive on his own.
The last questions I asked him were about his views towards the homeless population and how they are treated. He began to get emotional as we discussed this. He told me that the one thing that bothered him most in life was being ignored.
I would rather a 'hello,' or even someone to just look at me, acknowledge me. That means you didn't ignore me, that's good enough for me.
He wishes people would be more considerate of the homeless. He guessed that roughly 30% of people who walk by acknowledge him, and that 15% of those give him something (he likes to refer to peoples' donations as 'help'). He hates when people assume things about him without getting to know him, and he hates even more when people associate him with addicts.
At the end of my interview, I asked Joe to say something to my readers about his view of the homeless population and what he would like them to know.
Don't walk by and say 'sorry.' I've started to say to them it's so easy to say, but I know they're not sorry. Get to know them. Learn more about them. Don't judge them. Ask people why they're doing this, there's a reason they're out there doing this, so take the time to find out why. Ask them 'why don't you get a job' rather than rudely saying 'get a job' as you walk by. Acknowledge us, that's all I ask for.
I learned a lot from my interview with Joe. Yes, he was an alcoholic. Yes, he spent time in prison. But no, he isn't a horrible person. And no, he should not be constantly judged for the rest of his life due to mistakes he made when he was younger. You've made mistakes too, but you've been blessed with different opportunities than he has. Now, I'm not saying that the next time you see a panhandler or a homeless person, you have to give them everything you have or spend half your day talking to them. Simply acknowledge them. Recognize that they are people too, and they deserve the same respect you do.