Right now lots of extra people are homeless due to Hurricane Sandy. But I’m going to write about some of the long-term homeless in Austin who I meet while waiting for a green light on my many drives around town. If for no other reason than that I already had most of this post ready before Sandy hit.
According to The State of Homelessness Report 2012, close to 640,000 people were homeless in America in 2011. (Apparently this is a 1% decrease from 2009.) I don’t know how they count the homeless (I’m too lazy to read the whole report), but I expect that it’s rather hard to keep track of the homeless who don’t ever show up at homeless shelters.
Take Steve. Most days I see him holding his sign saying “Anything Helps” at the last traffic light I pass before hitting the highway on my way back from the kids’ school. He doesn’t ever go to the homeless shelter.
I don’t know why he’s homeless. I don’t think he’s on drugs or that he’s schizophrenic because he’s always in the same mood. Maybe he drinks every night. He could also have Korsakoff’s Syndrome, a kind of early-onset dementia caused by excessive alcohol abuse. People with Korsakoff’s Syndrome can seem perfectly normal and capable, but they can’t follow even the simplest instructions and they have a very short working memory. All of this makes doing even the simplest jobs completely impossible.
For a while he had it pretty good. He lived on the covered porch of a house right by the crossing. The house had been for sale for a long time, and the bushes in front of the porch had grown so high that it was all but invisible. That made it a fairly safe, dry place. Every now and then he’d wake up to find himself face to face with a raccoon, but predator-scavengers of the human kind overlooked him.
About six months ago, though, the house was sold, and he had to move. Right now he lives under a highway overpass. Not as dry, I imagine, and probably less safe. He told me, in one of our many few-second-to-one-minute exchanges, that he was amazed at how much stuff he had amassed, having been in the same place for so long. It took him several trips to the bridge to get all his stuff off that porch.
For three months during the summer I hardly see him, because of the school vacation. Around the beginning of September I asked him how he was doing, because he wasn’t looking too good. He told me he hardly slept at night because of the heat. I’d never thought about that. People can give him warm clothes and sleeping bags for the winter, but nothing can replace air-conditioning in the summer. So I was relieved for him when the nights started cooling off a bit.
Steve has piercing dark brown eyes and, until recently, long, greasy, graying hair and a wild beard. He looked kind of scary when he wasn’t smiling, like he had just stepped out of Deliverance. About two weeks ago his head and beard were shaved off, and he now wears a big straw hat. I have to say it does make him look a lot friendlier, which might help with donations.
Ironically, the reason he is now beardless and short-haired is because he was in jail for ten days. I was relieved to see him again, because I was wondering what had happened.
According to Steve, someone had been “robbing cars” under the overpass (it’s a parking place for people who want to take the trail along Town Lake) and the only description the police had was “a guy with a beard”. Since Steve lives under the overpass and had a beard, they arrested him, but he was innocent. Nevertheless, he spent ten days in jail.
I had a scare the other day, because when I asked him how he was doing, he had just enough time to tell me that he thought he might have eaten something bad a few days ago because his stomach was hurting real bad. Then the light turned green and I had to go.
I had a lot on my mind, so it wasn’t until a while later that I thought: wait a minute. He ate something bad a few days ago and he still has a really bad belly ache? That could be a ruptured appendix! Since the whole ordeal with B, I know all about that, and I realized that he could die if he thought he just had to tough it out and didn’t seek medical attention.
I drove by the crossing again (right now I have to be at school three times a day), but he wasn’t there anymore. He wasn’t there the day after, nor the day after that. I felt sick just thinking about it. I should’ve turned right around when he told me. I should have told him to hop in and I should have taken him to an emergency room. Maybe he died somewhere under the bridge and I could’ve prevented it, but I had had other things on my mind. The fourth day he was there, doing just fine. Phew!
It’s getting cold at night and I wondered if his stuff had still been under the bridge when he came back from jail. After passing by three days in a row because the light was green, I managed to ask him and he said it was.
But maybe his stuff was already greatly reduced compared to his porch days before he went to jail, because today I asked him if he was staying warm at night, and he said, “Kind of”. Then he told me, beaming, that he found a couch out on a curb the other day, and he took the cushions, so he now has a mattress. I asked him if he could use another sleeping bag and he said that would be great. So I promised to look out for a sleeping bag at Goodwills.
Since I see Steve about four times a week, I’ve spoken to him the most of all the homeless people I drive by in Austin, and I know the most about his circumstances. And yet I know nothing. It’s mind-boggling to think of the difference between his life and the lives of those who drive by every day.
The next post in this series is about homeless people’s pets.