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First-Person Homeless: A Few Stories

Bread of LifeThere are three kinds of writing about the lives of people experiencing homelessness, and, naturally, the most authentic kind is a story told in the first person. When a street person tells the stories of other street people, that should count too, in the “first-person” category.

Ace Backwords writing about B. N. Duncan, for instance. Because these stories are often so similar, and because the lives of the storyteller and the subject intertwine, it’s the next best thing to an autobiography. And certainly a lot closer than anything attempted by a reporter.

Kirsten Anderberg is an outstanding chronicler, and we have mentioned other recorders of the homeless experience, like Mark Horvath, founder of We Are Visible and InvisiblePeople.tv. Horvath’s protracted escape from homelessness finally resulted in a “normal” life — but then he was homeless again, and then housed again.

In June, we reported the most recent development:

Mark Horvath will soon be technically homeless again, this time voluntarily. With another extensive InvisiblePeople.tv road trip coming up, it doesn’t make sense to keep an apartment. The furniture is going to newly-housed families, and the homeless advocate is hitting the road until November, and leaving things open-ended after that.

About one of his new acquaintances among the homeless, Horvath says,

This interview may be the most ‘interesting’ so far since I started InvisiblePeople.tv three years ago, and I am sure it’s at the top of the most colorful. I could have sit and listened to Brotha BlueStocking all day. In fact, this video does not even cover all the wonderful thoughts this man has to share. We have to work on getting people like Brotha BlueStocking their own cameras and laptops so they can tell their own stories, and we can all listen.

Now let’s enter the time machine and share with Mark Horvath the true story of his first night as a homeless person, way back in the mid 1990s. He wrote:

All of a sudden and without warning, I found myself homeless in Koreatown near downtown Los Angeles. I was sober, but I had no money, no place to go and no one I could call for help. I was officially homeless. This was all new to me. I had no homeless training. I had no clue how I was going to survive… I knew that the worst crimes in the city — muggings, beatings, shootings — happened at night to people living outdoors. I knew that when you sleep outside, you are vulnerable to just about everything. I was scared. Probably more scared then I have been or ever will be.

And then, there’s Michael Sullivan, the formerly homeless author of the novel Necessary Heartbreak, who vividly recalls the moment when he knew he had sunk low and his old life was truly gone:

My hair was grimy and my clothes smelled from having been worn for three straight weeks… It was holiday time and the train was packed, but it was my home at night during the winter of 1983-84. I was exhausted from walking so much, searching for a job. A seat opened up between two passengers and I sat down. A well-dressed woman gave me ‘the look.’

Ah, yes, the look that says, “You are something I should be scraping off my shoe.” For a self-aware person like Sullivan, the worst part of the experience was knowing it was the same look that, once upon a time, he had used on other people.

He says,

I was conditioned at a very young age to view all homeless people as worthless alcoholics and drug addicts. They were not human — they were thugs and murderers and a burden to society… During those bleak, frigid winter evenings and mornings, I realized that people who shared those subway rides probably thought of me in the same way.

Another author is Richard LeMieux, whose book is called Breakfast at Sally’s, and who was interviewed about it by someone from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. A formerly a successful businessman with three cars and three boats, he says,

On my 50th birthday, when I was traveling first class… the prospect that I would become homeless just eight years later would have caused me to double over with laughter… I considered myself a self-made man, successful by my own hard work and good judgment. I was confident and believed I had an answer for almost everything.

But when LeMieux first hit the streets, his answers came from the panhandlers and dumpster divers who gave him survival lessons. Suddenly, he was one of “them,” part of the ragged and faceless horde of wanderers, and, among “them,” he unexpectedly found sharing, protection, and respect. Even more so from the church workers.

He says,

When I lived on the streets I met many ‘angels’ who fed and clothed me and many others like me. I have known groups of women who have walked fearlessly down paths into the woods to bring food to homeless people in camps. Those women took dirty clothes out of the woods, washed them that night, and brought them back the next day with milk for homeless children, diapers for babies…

Like many others, LeMieux seems almost mystified at the disconnect between what’s happening at the bottom and what’s happening at the top. Face to face, one on one, he has met literally hundreds of people who were glad to help a down-and-out stranger. Yet the government bureaus and financial centers appear to be staffed by heartless robots intent on causing yet more destruction.

He says,

We live in what we call the greatest country on earth, yet we choose to let men, women, and children live on the streets, in the woods, and in parking lots as if they were living in a Third World country.

It’s a puzzler, isn’t it? And until we get it figured out, here’s what we have for now:

The benefit of the Universal Living Wage is that it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “Chronicling Homelessness: Mark Horvath,” House the Homeless, 06/21/11
Source: “Brotha BlueStocking,” InvisiblePeople.tv/blog, 10/03/11
Source: “My First Night Homeless: A True Story,” The Huffington Post, 04/20/11
Source: “I was homeless; ‘the look’ judged me worthless,” CNN.com, 01/26/11
Source: “Take Five! Q & A with Richard LeMieux,” EndHomelessness.org, 01/29/09
Image by mahalie (Mahalie Stackpole), used under its Creative Commons license.

  1. Thank you for highlighting this very serious problem Pat. It’s becoming an even more serious problem due to the terrible economy. I wish everyone has a warm place to stay this weekend.

  2. Pat Hartman says:

    Thanks Michael and very best wishes for the success of your book which looks fascinating.

  3. Thanks Pat. Keep up the great work. It means a lot.