Homeless for the Holidays

30 Nov 12
homeless in sleeping bag

Over 30 million americans are homeless. For a few days, editor-in-chief Will Harlan joined them.

I went homeless for three days around Christmas. It was an artificial homelessness, because I knew that after 72 hours I could go back to a warm bed and a fridge full of food. But the people I met — and the misery they experience — were very real. They were not the lazy alcoholics and drug addicts I’d assumed them to be. They were ordinary people looking desperately for jobs and finding none. Many have kids they call from payphones. All were ashamed of their situation.

Homeless people are the ultimate endurance athletes and outdoor adventurists, I realized. They hike for miles every day and camp out under the stars each night. They can start a campfire with a single match and a few twigs, and they can forage for food and wild edibles better than most mushroom-gathering hippies. They are thru-hikers without a Katahdin, trudging daily through rain and snow in search of their next meal or job interview.

I decided to go homeless because I wanted to feel human again. For a few days, I wanted to close the widening gap between rich and poor, suburbanite and street dweller. Wealthy Americans consume over half of the world’s resources, while one billion people starve. Within our own borders, one in 200 Americans sleep on the streets or in shelters each night, and nearly 20 percent of Americans go hungry. Most of them are children.

For too long, I’d rationalized away these kinds of statistics: they need to get jobs and make better choices, I figured. It wasn’t until I spent three days on the streets that I realized the hollowness of my rationalizations. These facts have faces. These people are human beings, just like me. Many of them were born into their situation, through no fault of their own.

The least I could do was step inside their worn, slip-shod shoes for a few days.

Beggar at the palace gates

On a frosty December morning, I stepped out of my suburban house with absolutely nothing in my stomach or my pockets. I tried hitching a ride into town, but no takers. So I hiked into town. By the time I arrived in Asheville, I was already feeling the first grumbles of hunger.

Biltmore Village — a stone’s throw from the Biltmore Estate, the most magnificent mansion in the East — seemed as good a place as any to beg for money. I found a piece of wet cardboard in a dumpster and borrowed a marker from the drive-thru manager at Arby’s. Then I hastily wrote in blue capital letters: NEED FOOD, WILL WORK.

For the next three hours, I stood on the median beside the turn lanes to Biltmore Estate. Scowling motorists filled the far turn lane, sometimes even waiting through an extra light cycle to avoid idling in the turn lane nearest me. They stared at the stoplight, or fiddled with the radio, or talked on their cell phone.

I avoided eye contact, too. I’d never felt so utterly ashamed and humiliated. I fixed my eyes on a wad of chewing gum stuck to the pavement, while passing drivers threw insults and cigarette butts out the car window: “Get a fucking job!” “Filth!” “Come paint my house, asshole!” Exhaust and hunger were making me dizzy.

Two people handed me dollar bills, and one girl poured a fistful of change into my hands. By dusk, I’d scraped up $4.48, an orange slice, and potato chips from “Jesus.” Then, as I was about to leave, a woman rolled down her window and handed me a big container of black bean soup she’d bought down the street.

“This was going to be my dinner,” she said. “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.” She smiled and drove on.

After devouring potato chips smothered in black beans, I hiked downtown. Outside a laundromat that advertised, “American flags dry-cleaned for free,” a homeless man was carrying a heaping pile of wet clothes and blankets.

“Hey, buddy,” he said to me. “Can you dry these for me?”

“I don’t have a dryer. I’m homeless, too.”

“Well shit.” He dropped the damp clothes in the parking lot. “I paid every penny I had to have these things washed, but the manager there wouldn’t dry them for me.”

I talked for a few minutes to the homeless man, a Vietnam vet who sleeps regularly beneath a bridge on Tunnel Road.

“Pretty patriotic, eh?” he laughed, nodding at the sign. “They’ll wash flags for free but won’t dry-clean a homeless vet’s blankets.” I handed him one of my crumpled dollars.

It was dark. I passed panhandlers and prostitutes beneath an interstate bridge. Down to $3.48, I began planning how I’d spend my money the next day. Three bean burritos at Taco Bell? Breadsticks at Pizza Hut?

Finally, I curled up on a bench near Pack Place and tried to sleep. I was sniffling and coughing — the first signs of a cold coming on. Music from downtown bars floated through the night air. Shivering and nearly frozen by midnight, I snuck into the bathroom of a late-night pizza parlor, where I warmed my body and refilled my scavenged plastic soda bottle with tap water. Then I foraged through their dumpster looking for leftover slices. No luck.

On the park bench, I huddled into an egg — pulling my jacket over my knees — and tried to sleep again. A homeless woman who called herself Sister Marie squatted beside me for a few minutes to chat, and later a dreadlocked derelict woke me hoping to bum a few cigarettes. Then, around 4 a.m., a cop flashed his blue lights, and I hightailed it down the street. For the next few hours, I wandered zombie-like around town, watching newspapermen fill bins and joggers shuffle beneath streetlights.

Help not wanted

Later that morning, I decided to take the advice of passing motorists and Get a Job. I visited over a dozen fast-food restaurants and grocery stores to ask for work. Every one of the conversations went something like this:

“Hi, I’m temporarily homeless and I’m looking for work. I’ll clean toilets, mop floors, haul boxes — whatever needs to be done.”

“Sorry, pal. We can’t pay you for a few hours work unless we hire you, and we don’t have anything open right now. Plus you’re a liability risk.”

I was angry and frustrated. But really, who could blame them? Why hire an unshaven homeless guy with body odor? I didn’t even have a permanent address. And managers feared if they helped me, pretty soon I’d start bringing my homeless friends to beg for jobs, harass customers, and hang around the store.

Around noon, I spent my $3.48 buying a box of Cheerios and a quart of milk from Ingles. I also stole a plastic spoon and styrofoam bowl from the store’s salad bar. After slurping down three bowls of cereal, I kept the leftover Cheerios in my pocket, rationing out a handful per hour.

Jobless and penniless, I hiked back into town. I plopped down near the library and scoured the classifieds of every free newspaper I could find. Reading was a pleasant distraction that kept my mind off food and cold.

But as the day wore on, the immediacy of homelessness crept back in. Where would I sleep tonight? Where will I get food? I couldn’t think past my next meal, and it was starting to wear on me. How could I look for jobs when I still needed to find tonight’s food and shelter?

My supply of Cheerios was nearly depleted, and rain clouds started to gather overhead. I put down my newspapers and wandered first to the Salvation Army Shelter — filled — and then to Asheville-Buncombe Christian Ministry’s Shelter — closed for the evening. I wiped my nose on my shirtsleeve. Cold rain drizzled down.

Shelter from the storm

To stay warm, I walked laps around downtown, passing yuppies in coffee shops sipping lattes and discussing the college bowl championship series. That used to be me, I thought to myself.

At 5 p.m., I’d read in one of the free newspapers, a nonprofit was serving free meals to the homeless. I arrived early and waited in line with about 50 other homeless folks. Ahead of me, two guys talked about homeless shelters they’d stayed in while hitchhiking.

“Juneau, Alaska, has the greatest shelter, man. I show up — BOOM — they give me a hot meal that evening, no questions asked. The next day, I go to their employment office — BOOM — three job leads, plus tokens for the bus to get around town.”

“It ain’t like that here,” the other guy said to Boom-er. “Asheville shelters are overcrowded, and job leads are pretty hard to come by. Shit, I spent all day walking from the mall to the bus station applying for jobs — and all of them were already filled by the time I got there.”

I wolfed down three veggie burgers with soy cheese and tofu mayo. When it started raining again — harder this time — Boomer’s buddy directed me to another shelter. By the time I arrived, a line stretched all the way around the building. I waited in line behind a middle-aged man wearing a dirty brown suit. He had been laid off two months ago and hadn’t been able to find work. Ahead of him stood a school boy from Honduras, a woman wearing make-up and carrying a Gucci purse, a guy (I think) with long frizzy hair dressed in a tight white Elvis one-piece, and a tubby man with a voice like Fat Albert. This was raw humanity, colorful and diverse — and desperate.

We filed into a makeshift chapel with a lopsided wooden cross, threadbare carpet, and a few folding metal chairs. It smelled like dried vomit. I sat on the floor beside a shaggy-bearded carpenter named Nelson, who had a swollen left hand streaked with red marks.

“Snake bite,” he explained.

Last week, while sleeping beside the French Broad, a black watersnake had curled up beside his blanket to stay warm. When Nelson reached for his vodka bottle in the middle of the night, the snake coiled around his arm and bit him.

“I killed that snake,” he said. “Skinned ‘em and ‘ate em too.”

Nelson’s parents had died when he was 16, I learned later. He’d gone to college but couldn’t find a job after graduating. With nowhere to go and no family to help him out, he had been in and out of shelters for the past four years.

“Here’s my family, right here,” Nelson said, gesturing at the 70 homeless men and women milling around the mission.

Everyone staying at the mission was required to attend an hour-long chapel service. Nelson muttered through the missionary’s sermon, which was about becoming a follower of Jesus in this “very special time” of the year.

“It sure as hell ain’t special for us,” Nelson mumbled under his breath. “The only thing we can look forward to around Christmas is more people crowding into shelters to escape the cold weather.”

After the service, women and children were transported to another building to sleep, while the men bedded down on the chapel floor. I was crammed between Fat Albert and a homeless chef named Paul. Both stayed up until 2 a.m. talking over me.

“Man, there are a helluva lot of drugs in Asheville,” Fat Albert said, shaking his head. “Deals goin’ down in the library, in the Waffle House bathroom. But man, I’m not sellin’ no more. I’ve seen some pretty wicked shit go down lately. I’m done with it. Tryin’ to turn things around, you know.”

“I hear you, man,” said Paul the chef. “I’ve only been here a few days. You find a job anywhere?”

“Naw. But they’re hiring at the Days Inn downtown and some hotels out near the mall. I didn’t have no luck there, but maybe you might.”

“I’ve been looking everywhere, man. Today, I go to Denny’s and say, ‘Let me cook for one hour. If you don’t like what you see, send me away without pay. Just give me a chance.’ Manager said he already had enough cooks.”

Then, after a long silence, Paul said, “I’m trying not to get depressed about it all.” Finally he rolled over and stared at the ceiling.

I couldn’t sleep, either. My head was throbbing, my throat was sore, and every time I lay flat, my sinuses got completely clogged. Sleeping in a windowless room with 70 other sweaty, smelly, snoring men didn’t help, nor did the television blaring in the hall. But at least I was warm and dry. Wind and rain lashed against the building all night.

In the morning, the mission provided beat-up boxes of Frosted Flakes and milk past the expiration date. I didn’t care — it was food, and it was filling. After breakfast, I stumbled groggily out onto the wet streets, hacking up phlegm the whole way home. Cars honked, people stared, parents whispered to their children as I passed. Neighbors glared at the muddy bum trudging along their well-groomed street. These were the same neighbors that used to smile and wave at me on my morning runs.

I didn’t care anymore. Nothing mattered except making it home. I had no money left, and I was too tired to stand on the corner with a cardboard sign. When it started raining again, I swiped a plastic trash bag from the McDonalds bathroom, poked holes for my head and arms, and wore it like a long smock.

Later that afternoon, I stumbled home and fell into bed. When I woke up seven hours later, I was still wearing a plastic bag and waterlogged shoes. I looked out the window at blinking Christmas lights, and then closed my eyes again. I counted sheep – and blessings. •

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  • Blue Ridge Outdoors is always interesting and useful (even though nowadays I use it to fuel my reminiscence of my years outdoors in the Blue Ridge.) But the most interesting and useful it has ever been to me is when I read your account of your homelessness experience, a fresh perspective on outdoors living. It raised my consciousness and compassion (and esteem for your publication and its Editor in Chief)
    Thank you for doing it and sharing it in such a real and poignant way.
    How can the paper do more of that kind of reporting, I wonder…?

    Lois Lommel   03 Feb 13, 10:32 am

  • I would really like to have a copy of this thoughtfull article in PDF or something.
    How do I get it?

    Cliff   02 Feb 13, 10:51 pm

  • One of my favorite scriptures is Matthew 25: 40 ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ We are called as Christians to care for those who need care, unconditionally. Unfortunately there are many groups of people in our society who fall outside of “acceptable,” including the homeless, mentally ill, disabled, and addicted. Many of these conditions are created and exacerbated by society yet society does not consider it important to contribute toward solving the problems. I happen to be blessed with a job, home, supportive family, everything I need to get by so I consider it my responsiblity and priviledge to help others in need through contributions to agencies, volunteering, giving directly to those asking for help, and through my job with students with severe disabilities.
    Christians are not the only people that believe in caring for others. If every self-professed religious person would take responsibility to help even one person we could solve so many of our “hopeless” situations.

    Billie B   14 Dec 12, 4:41 pm

  • Great article, thank you for detailing your experience. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia where there are many homeless people and is causing a controversy here on the downtown mall. Since we see the same faces year in year out many assume they are too lazy to get a job or hooked on drugs. Your probably right that there’s more to it. I know some are taking advantage of the system but this is a timely reminder there are good honest, decent people down on their luck with no family to turn to.

    Mike T.   14 Dec 12, 12:11 pm

  • We always pick up Blue Ridge Outdoors for outdoor activity ideas (particularly hiking in the Blue Ridge). The article Homeless for the Holidays was an inspiring surprise. I’ve recommended it to PACEM, not only for the volunteers to read, but also to inform the congregations that are part of PACEM. Thank you.
    Jeanette McCarthy

    F & J McCarthy   10 Dec 12, 4:18 pm

  • Thanks, Lee. I agree with your friend. From what I have seen and learned, the majority of homeless folks are on the streets because of bad luck, a bad economy, and a really bad health system. The mental health system is woefully underfunded, and as budget cuts continue, institutions often are forced to turn unstable patients onto the streets. The cost to society is far greater than investing in a sound health care system that keeps people off the streets, away from crime, and out of the prisons.

    Will Harlan   10 Dec 12, 4:14 pm

  • @Will Harlan – Based on your brief experience and volunteer time, do you have an opinion on what causes the majority of the homeless situations? I have a friend who believes that a “good chuck” of the homeless are suffering from mental illness, and that this is a bigger issue that needs to be solved. Great thought-provoking article!

    Lee E.   08 Dec 12, 10:45 am

  • @ Dale D. – We are putting on a local production of a play next weekend, and I think you’d be great for one of the parts. Could you please send me an audition tape, saying the following lines, so that I can pass it by our producer?

    “Are there no prisons? And the union workhouses – are they still in operation?”

    From: http://www.stormfax.com/1dickens.htm

    Lee E.   07 Dec 12, 7:51 pm

  • OK. Thanks for responding. I agree with you about following Jesus. I also agree that it is wrong to require people to listen to a message before meeting their needs. I do not think Jesus did that.

    Cale   04 Dec 12, 7:01 pm

  • Thanks for your feedback and for your work with Least of These. Your efforts are heroic and life-saving—both for the physical and emotional nourishment that you provide.

    I did not intend any negativity toward Christians; I relied mainly on Christian charities for my sustenance while homeless, and Christians are engaged in more work worldwide to help impoverished and underserved populations than any other faith. I deeply appreciate their work, and I personally try to follow in the footsteps of JC.

    My only gripe with one shelter was its requirement that all homeless people sit through a church service and then be preached at before they could eat. It seemed more like brainwashing than inspiring true faith. But I think this particular shelter was the exception rather than the norm.

    Thanks for setting a positive example and showing others that real action matters. There is nothing more spiritual than one’s daily bread, and by sharing yours with those less fortunate, you are showing what’s possible when faith is put into action.

    Will Harlan   04 Dec 12, 7:00 pm

  • Agreed. I acknowledged at the beginning of the story that a three-day trial in no way comes close to capturing the real experience of being homeless. I simply wanted to step inside the worn shoes of others and try to understand better the experience of being homeless—as well as what causes it. Already I volunteer a lot of my time and donate money and food; this experience only deepened my commitment to helping others. But you’re absolutely right to point out that words don’t fill empty bellies–only action does that.

    Will Harlan   04 Dec 12, 6:52 pm

  • It really drives me crazy do TRIAL ,homeless status ,trying out living on food stamps etc .No matter how hard you try you cannot replicate and feel what this people are feeling or experiencing .At the end of the day you know your going home ,you know you will go back to food shopping as always .How about taking all this time and energy and applying it to volunteering , fund raising, telling the peoples stories and maybe work to change the system.

    Diana Seal   04 Dec 12, 6:26 pm

  • Great article. It really made me think.

    Mike McCall   04 Dec 12, 2:56 pm

  • Just finished the December 2012 “editor’s note”. Very illuminating.

    I am part of a group called “Least of These” who set up a kitchen in an Asheville parking lot each Saturday morning and cook breakfast for whoever shows up.

    I think I detected a slight negative flavor towards Christians in the article. If I did, I am wondering why?

    Also, I am wondering if you would share your thoughts about how helping the homeless in Asheville could be done better.

    Your article helped me to empathize better with the homeless I see every Saturday morning. I know their lives are tough but most of them are very upbeat and do not complain.

    Thanks for writing it.

    Cale   04 Dec 12, 2:47 pm

  • wow, just wow. amazing how people treated you so very differently by the way you looked. i have volunteered at A-Hope and it is really sad to see all the folks that came through there. We could all be in that situation one day………………..just in the blink of an eye. very good article. definitely thought provoking. thanks for sharing……..

    rosie   04 Dec 12, 2:00 pm

  • I can appreciate this article, but let’s face it. There are only 2 motivators in life, pain and pleasure. These are the same motivators for the rich, middle class, the poor, and even homeless people. Typically people will do more to avoid pain than they will to gain pleasure. I grew up in rural WV in a poor home with 8 siblings. If you wanted school clothes, bike or other things, you had to earn it. I remember many times not having food in the house to eat. The pain of having nothing to eat, a lack of clothing, and very modest home environment drove me to who I am today. The bible teaches us that you must work to eat. The US constitution teaches us that we are only entitled to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No where in the bible or the constitution is someone to be given things for nothing. I have empathy for the homeless, but not sympathy. If I can change from the environment that I grew up in to the so called, “Yuppie” I am today, than anyone can. All you have to do is man up and do whatever it takes to change. This is still American and you can still have whatever you want, if you’re willing to what it takes to get it. My hope is that someone will read this, then take some personal responsibility, and like I had to say to myself,” I’ve had enough of this, I can change, and I will change it!”

    Dale Daugherty   04 Dec 12, 12:55 pm

  • Thanks for your feedback. Such thoughtful, heartfelt responses to stories really makes our efforts seem worthwhile.

    Homeward Bound is a great Asheville-based organization that helps the homeless and underserved find jobs and housing. They also run a day shelter that provides coffee, snacks, counseling, and encouragement. They would definitely welcome any time or expertise you can offer. Their web site is hbofa.org.

    Will Harlan   04 Dec 12, 12:18 pm

  • GREAT article on what it’s like to be homeless in our community! My experience has been that most people who have stable housing don’t understand homelessness, so it was really refreshing an article from someone who does.

    Just wanted to say thanks for publishing content that dispels myths about the deservedness of homelessness; it’s not a message folks in our community hear often enough.

    E.B.   03 Dec 12, 11:22 pm

  • I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated reading the recent article about your experience living on the streets in Asheville.

    When I picked up your publication, the last thing that I expected to see was this story that you wrote of your experience in Asheville and being homeless for 3 days. It really touched me, the article that you wrote gave me the inspiration that I think I have been looking for lately to persevere.

    I can appreciate some of the comments you made in regards to those who were so humiliated and embarrassed about their position. I feel that too so much these days, especially during the holidays.

    After reading your article I had to look at myself and say. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself” there are so many people that are out of work and want to work but they are living on the streets. My situation has not come to that, not yet at least, and with the inspiration that came from your article I read today, I am looking at things a different way. So, thank you so much for writing that story. I hope that others will read it.

    I don’t have money to donate to these organizations that are in need that help people in these situations, but at the moment, I do have time when I am not looking for work. I wanted to see if you knew of any organizations that may need some help. Whether it is to help someone look good for an interview or help with getting them some clothes, maybe if I am able, help bring some hot chocolate or coffee to an area that people are in. find blankets or just something. Maybe give them a safe place to sleep at night? Please let me know. Maybe if more people were inspired with stories such as yours~ we as a community could actually do so much more. And not just during the holidays.

    Again, thank you so much for writing that piece. It’s truly one of the best Christmas Stories I have ever read.

    Beth S.   03 Dec 12, 11:18 pm

  • I live in a small town about 45 min. from Asheville. I see people never look at the homeless. And i think one day that could be me or you. I give for toys for tots. Maybe someone could start something for the homeless. Blanks, warm clothes. gloves stuff that keep them warm in the winter. The stuff don’t have to been new. Just wish i could do more. We live from pay check to pay check. So i do what i can when i see them.

    Karen Connor   02 Dec 12, 2:05 pm

  • I see the homeless people standing with there signs all the time and i try to give them money. if i don’t have cash i go through drive thur and get them some food. It breaks my heart to see them and all i can do is give them a little cash or food. I don’t have alot but i do have a place to live and food. If i every win the lottery i would find some land and build a big place so they come come sleep eat that showers wash & dry there clothes. Maybe that would help them more so they could get a job. I pray that they will make it for another day.

    Karen Connor   02 Dec 12, 1:58 pm

  • I am living on Mother Earth in Northern California and guess we have it a little better than East Coasters, except for this endless rain….I could write a novel about my experiences and the people I have met……..(if you are interested)

    Bev   02 Dec 12, 12:30 am

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