“Get a job you lazy bum.” If you’re like me, you grew up hearing this phrase shouted at the people who stand on the streets begging for food or money. It’s almost a common understanding that if you’re homeless then you must be lazy or you’re not trying hard enough because everyone else is doing it right. “You don’t see me here asking people for money, I work hard for what I’ve got.”
But no one ever got everything on their own. Life just doesn’t happen like that.
I used to think that homeless people weren’t trying hard enough, and that if they really wanted to work they could get a job and stop begging other people for money. I had never met a homeless person though. I thought that I knew so much about these people. “These people”… As if for some reason they’re something else other than a person who deserves the respect and compassion that all people deserve. Because like I have written before, my parents raised me to treat everyone with respect. Because it isn’t something that must be earned, it is something to be given.
When I moved to Chicago, I knew there would be homeless people. I knew that every day I would see homeless people on the streets asking for money or food. I knew they were here. I just never knew how much they would change my perspective on life and my passion.
I met Marcus a few months ago. I first said hello one day as I was walking past him in the alley behind my house. He seemed nice enough, he always helped me get out of the alley and would stop people from walking in front of my car as I drove out. Marcus is in his late 40s, but his skin has been weathered and he looks to be around 60 with a long grey and white beard. Eight years ago, Marcus’s job was terminated during the recession of the late 2000s. As a result, he was evicted from his apartment after using up all of his savings to stay there for another three months while he searched for that elusive new job. I sat down with Marcus to chat a little bit about his life and to listen to his story. Because everyone has one to tell. We talked for a little more than 2 hours while we just watched the cars pass.
Marcus grew up in Uptown, the neighborhood I live in now, and lived with his dad until he graduated high school. His mom left him and his father when he was young and he doesn’t remember much about her. After high school he got a job working in sales for a company based in Chicago. He worked there for 16 years. He said it wasn’t a job he enjoyed but it paid the bills and sustained him. When he was 25 his dad passed away from a heart attack leaving him with no family, and nobody to turn to for support or advice. When he was fired, he applied for jobs all over the city but the work was scarce and having only worked at one job his entire life he fell behind many of the others in his same situation.
He told me the worst thing that happened to him was being evicted. He couldn’t get an apartment because no one would take him, and he refused to go to a homeless shelter for the first few months because he didn’t want to admit to himself that he was homeless. When he was a evicted, he left behind most of his things like his bed, most of the clothes he owned, and any possessions that he couldn’t carry along with him in his suitcase. He told me about his first few months when he would go to 24 hour stores and fall asleep in their bathrooms then use their sinks to wash up since he didn’t have a shower. He talked about how much he hated other homeless people back then. He said they seemed like savages to him, digging through the trash looking to eat other people’s scraps.
Marcus went on to explain that his first few months being homeless were mostly spent wandering the streets looking for help wanted signs and eating whatever food he could find. Back then he didn’t have many options and had resorted to digging through garbage behind local grocery stores for food that had expired. He didn’t have a dollar to his name and didn’t have much of his dignity left. He slept wherever he could find a spot to lay down. Sometimes he’d find a mattress that had been thrown out in an alley and just sleep on that for a while. He talked about waking up to rats sleeping in the bed with him and cars getting within inches of running him over as they sped through the alley. I asked him why he didn’t just go to a shelter where it was dry and he was safe from cars or animals. He told me that he was more afraid of losing the few things he had left to people desperate for clothes that would steal in the shelters.
He didn’t go to the shelters until 2013, three years after he first ended up on the streets. That winter he lost a friend of his to the cold. The friend was another homeless man who he would spend time with when he saw him. He had gotten sick during one of the many days that winter which stayed below zero. He had created an insulated hut using cardboard, sheets of plastic to shield the wind, and blankets that had been tossed out. Apparently it wasn’t enough to protect him from the Chi-berian winter that froze water midair on the lake and shut down much of the city for multiple days due to the extreme temperatures. Marcus walked to 3 different shelters that were all full due to the weather and finally found one that had room for him to stay after trekking through the dangerously cold weather to find refuge. He said he only goes back to a shelter when it gets too cold because he’d rather not risk losing his stuff. He would rather just keep well insulated.
I asked him about whether or not he keeps up with what’s going on in the world and I was surprised to find out he still reads the newspaper. When I asked him what he thought about the election we just had, he told me he thought it was funny how people were willing to donate tons of money to help a rich person they don’t know and never will know to get more power but aren’t willing to help the person standing right in front of them get a sandwich. I asked him if he thought the President was going to make the country great again, to which he sarcastically replied “If he’s able to convince his tax bracket to stop hoarding all the money and actually do something, then sure.” This surprised me a bit because it was the first time in my life I had talked to a homeless person about the very systemic problem that contributed to his ultimate position in the first place. We went on to talk more about how things like wealth inequality are getting worse and yet more and more people seem to believe that they have a chance at living a decent life.
Marcus told me that he thinks the reason people are so unwilling to give is because they don’t have much to give in the first place. At least those he meets on the street don’t. “The people who have the money to help others are too concerned with accruing more money. They won’t help. Those who do want to help don’t have the means to do so.” He also told me that he thought that people think they have a shot at actually becoming one of the wealthy when in reality their odds of becoming homeless are greater than them ever becoming a billionaire.
That kind of struck a chord with me. I had never really considered the odds of becoming homeless as compared to the reverse. It seems odd that we idolize the wealthy because we dream of one day being in their shoes, but we look down on the poor even though it’s more likely that we will end up in their position. This made me think of my own wealth. It made me think about the $47,000 of student loans I have from getting a bachelors degree, and how I’m less than a stones throw away from his position, yet nowhere near being a billionaire.
Our conversation ended with me thanking him for talking to me and him thanking me for looking at him like a real person. Hearing that crushed me. It hurt to think about the number of people who go by him each day that don’t see someone they should care about or even think about, but rather who see a creature to avoid like a rodent or vermin. We say hello every day now and he asks how my day is going, or at least he did.
I found out from a neighbor that he was arrested for sleeping in the vestibule of a bank during the severe thunderstorms we had a few weeks back. I like to think that he’ll be back soon. I don’t know much about what happened and I’ve looked all over to find out. I hope that being in jail would be easier than sleeping on the street. I find that incredibly disheartening though to think that instead of spending more money on giving homeless people a home to help them get back on their feet, we’d rather put them in jail which is going to make getting a job even more difficult.
I’m lost with what to think about my conversation with Marcus. I’m happy I got to learn more about his life, and sad that I waited so long to get to know him. I’m irritated that he got arrested for seeking shelter, but also happy he has a place to stay that’s warm and dry. I’m mad that I spend so much of my life not understanding that I’m no different than he is, and being afraid to talk to homeless people. I’m furious that I’ve been in the car with people who’ve taunted homeless people and did nothing to stop it.
After our conversation I’ve been thinking a lot more about the role our sham version of capitalism has played in putting people on the streets and taking away their humanity. It’s really forced me to think about the role I play in that system. Now I just hope I can figure out how to take what I’ve learned and do something about it.