Cecil cautiously walked into the quiet room at the Jacksonville Public Library. He wasn’t out of place. There were, in truth, many Street Friends, as they are lovingly referred to by the local mission groups, enjoying the air conditioning. He didn’t mention if this was the first interview he had ever given, but I suspected it was. His white t-shirt with the words EC Bound appeared crisp on his brown skin. He also wore a pair of fresh-looking khakis and a baseball hat. His frame was slender, and a gray goatee hinted at his age, which I learned to be sixty-one. He had just come from Wash with Care, which is where I had initially met him. While there, many people passed Dorri and me, giving us little attention, but Cecil was quick to offer hugs and compliments.
Cecil settled in the seat across from me, and I began the interview by asking how long he had lived on the street. Cecil didn’t need much prompting. “You want the real story?” he began. His journey started with a young woman becoming a mother too soon. Cecil arrived before she had the know-how and finances to deal with a child. Even though I can’t be in the mind of that young woman, better described as a child herself, I can imagine the fear and sadness she must have felt as she left her child on a doorstep. This day would not be the only one she made the same decision. Cecil’s mother also abandoned his brother two years earlier. Unbeknownst to Cecil’s mother, she was being watched from afar. This person was able to bring Cecil to his aunt’s home. It was this aunt that raised him.
Maybe Cecil, being too young to remember, would have recovered from this experience if his hardships ended there. But they did not. Although Cecil did not go into detail about all he endured while growing up in his aunt’s home, he did tell how the experience ended, which paints a picture of his childhood. “I heard the slap from the other room,” he began. As a sixteen-year-old, his aunt’s alcoholic boyfriend had become violent once again, and this time, Cecil decided to put an end to it. “I told him never put your hands on her again.” These words were the start of an altercation that sent Cecil to a boys’ home where he lived for a year or two until he ran away and onto the streets. It wasn’t long before Cecil was all too familiar with alcohol, marijuana, and crack.
Eventually, Cecil married a woman named Audrey. Audrey works and does not live on the street. All the details were not clear due to him not feeling comfortable sharing, but Cecil never mentioned a time when he lived in a home as an adult. What is a marriage like when your life begins on a doorstep? How do you learn how to love when violence rules your home? What do you learn about being a part of a healthy family while living in a boys’ home? What does a relationship consist of when each one you’ve seen has been lacking stability? Exactly what one might expect.
Cecil said little of his marriage except that it was finally ending. The only feeling he expressed about the ending of his marriage was anger toward his wife. Cecil did not want to share one detail about the break-up. The detail was what his wife did that made him angry enough to raise his fist at her head. The remorse wasn’t about frightening his wife; rather, it was the fact that he scared her enough that she lost his son that she was pregnant for at the time.
Cecil’s marriage is over besides the legal details, and now, he says he will avoid relationships on the streets. Without a job, he feels he has nothing to offer a girlfriend and therefore sees no reason to have one. He mentioned that when he was first on the streets, there were very few women out there, but now there were many. Often these women are sexually desperate, and he explained a couple of encounters where the women were aggressive to him, trying to fill needs that were often left ignored. “You got someone ain’t got something in a long time,” Cecil said, explaining the desperation for human touch and love that is often experienced by the homeless.
Cecil worked varying jobs throughout his life, some through the labor pool and one as a janitor. Once again, an altercation changed the path in his life. After another employee commented on Cecil’s relationship with his wife, the two men went at it. Both men were fired. He now remains unemployed, but when asked what his dream job would be, Cecil mentioned construction work. He admits he has a hard time finding people that he can work for and that will deal with him. With several of the stories he mentioned, I got the sense that as much as Cecil was quick to hug, innate anger was often boiling beneath the surface of his friendly demeanor.
One such story involved an altercation with a man that yelled something to him from his porch. Cecil, as I mentioned, has been living on the streets since about the age of eighteen. He is a thin man of average height. Physically, most people would not find him a threat. It’s not his physical nature that has allowed him to reach the age of sixty-one living under overpasses. It’s the fact that he hasn’t backed down. Sometimes, as in the case above, the argument involved a knife. Sometimes just the threat of one, as he described what he would do to a woman if she didn’t start staying out of his business. Cecil is working on dealing with his interpersonal relationships. “I’m getting where when people get under my skin I just keep on walking. Whatcha gonna prove?”
These shocking actions and comments are what Cecil feels it takes at times to survive over forty years in an environment where the person sleeping next to you might have just done crack or heroin, their minds altered, their inhibitions non-existent. I can only imagine the fear, although Cecil says the concern is long gone now. He has found his few friends he refers to as his family. They have their spots where they can sleep through the night, knowing they have each other’s backs.
This topic leads me to sleeping conditions. Sometimes, as a strong Florida storm rolls in, I’ve wondered about the homeless and where they go to find safety and comfort. I didn’t know much about the shelters in Jacksonville, but I knew they existed. Surely, they would find refuge in one of them. This choice is not nearly as easy as I once thought. From the homeless people’s perspective, there are many issues. For one, you are not allowed to bring personal items with you to your sleeping area, and no one watches your belongings. That means anyone can walk out with them. Some shelters have rules where you must check-in by 2:30 in the afternoon. Some make you show that you have had a TB test. Not that easy when living on the streets. Those facts make many people choose to find a quiet place to sleep outside instead. Where is it legal to sleep while on the streets? Nowhere. Cecil finds places where a routine sound will wake him before sunrise so that he won’t get caught. Libraries have AC, but once again, they must leave their personal belongings outside, and they are not allowed to sleep while inside the building.
Cecil spoke of seeing new faces every day and the need for change. As I walked outside amongst Jacksonville’s street friends, I was shocked by how many homeless people shuffled along beside me. Cecil’s suggestions for change included not allowing homeless people to come to Jacksonville from other states. “Jacksonville needs to deal with their own,” Cecil says. He also felt that there needs to be a better system when donating clothes and other items. “People are taking things they don’t need. I find them in the garbage cans, perfectly good pants I could wear.” Cecil’s other suggestion is creating better shelters that include counseling. “There are so many people out there addicted to drugs” he says, “that can’t change their lives until they change their addictions.”
I was curious about this apparent increase in numbers Cecil felt was happening and found an article in The Florida Times-Unionto help with the understanding of the issue. According to the article, the numbers are decreasing, but we cannot relax on the subject. Take a walk downtown near the library, and it is easy to see that there are still hundreds of homeless in the area.
Dorri and I hope to bring those faces, the ones we generally try to avoid eye contact with, into our presence long enough that we can understand, help, and soften our judgments. So many of us were given warm homes, not without issue because we all have them, but supportive enough to act as a base allowing us to take flight into a world in which we were taught to survive. We are born, by chance, with a mixture of helpful characteristics such as inner drive, intelligence, confidence, and/or appealing looks. We are placed in environments with financial stability, role models, warmth, proper nutrition, and/or good schools. From that combination, we choose the tool that will help us handle each situation that comes our way. We cannot always take full credit or blame for each mistake or success. Instead, we need to give thanks and show understanding that some of us were not given the same tools to reach for when handling life’s challenges.
Sometimes acts of kindness can come in the form of a momentary band-aid such as a blanket to warm someone as they slumber in their dark and lonely hideaway, hoping they are not awoken and told to move on. Sometimes kindness gets to be more. Sometimes kindness reaches through the darkness and finds the struggling souls that were praying for a hand to help them reach new heights, to believe in themselves for maybe the first time. May we never forget the power we all hold in even the smallest of actions.
***The interviews are told from the interviewees’ perspectives and are not verified beyond their word. If there are untruths and inconsistencies, there are also many truths, enough that we as readers can step into their world and understand the need for change.