Dorri and I stood in front of the Jacksonville Public Library. The streets were bustling with people. Some individuals were hurrying by; others sat with their backs against the library wall, waiting for the doors to open. Immediately, we noticed the homeless presence. The numbers seemed staggering. On other days, Dorri and I would have been in the group of people rushing by, not genuinely allowing ourselves to become a part of their world as it begged to be noticed. Today, we stood with our eyes wide open, ready to shake hands with people we had previously refused to see.
Dale Linn, our guide that dedicates much of his time to the people he lovingly refers to as street friends, introduced us to not only some of the homeless community but also to people that dedicate their time to help them. Because of Dale, we were able to set up interviews with several street friends. One of the first people we were privileged to meet was John. Dale introduced him, allowing John a moment to share his name with us. On some days, John refers to himself with his female name, but today he was John.
John’s demeanor was friendly and sweet, but also a bit timid. He wore a patterned dress over long jean shorts, adorned with two necklaces and a bracelet. Even though John stood out in the crowd, he also seemed comfortable in his skin, not hard and beaten down, but content with who he knew himself to be.
Shortly after our meeting on the street, John came into the quiet room of the library. He settled into a seat next to me, and Dorri sat on the other side of the table. All of us were new to the interview scene, and at first, the questions and answers flowed slowly and carefully.
Soon, John began to paint a picture of his past, factual, not angry, or even sad. “I’ve been adopted all my life…I never met my sisters or brothers (after being given up). My mom gave me up when I was five-years-old. She said she couldn’t afford to feed fourteen children.” John was abandoned at a train station by his mother. He didn’t say if he was the only one of his siblings that his mother deserted, but being the last born, he was the first to be discarded.
Imagine, at the age of five, being taken to a public place and suddenly realize that you are alone. What were John’s mother’s final words? Did she whisper, “I’ll be right back,” before drifting off into the crowd? It’s impossible to imagine a person choosing to abandon their child, knowing they would never look back, never see them again.
He was then sent to live in a foster home. John said that the foster home was loving but did not offer any other details. By the age of ten, a caring family with a boy and girl of their own adopted John. His life with them began in New Jersey, which is where his adopted siblings live to this day. John no longer has contact with them due to proximity. Unfortunately, he had a falling out with his adoptive mother, leaving the relationship estranged. “She lives in Kentucky on twenty-eight acres,” John announced with a sense of pride resonating in his words.
I asked John about his schooling, and he answered with enthusiasm. “Oh, I loved school.” His favorite subjects were math and home economics. His high school dream job was to scoop ice cream, which he announced with a childlike grin. And why? The obvious reason-he loves ice cream, even the new flavors; pickle and Captain Crunch.
John left home at the age of eighteen and moved to Miami sometime after that. His first job was working with ice, and then he got a job with Goodwill mowing lawns for the stores near Lake Okeechobee, which he held for many years. Despite John’s rough beginnings, John got on his feet, found a girlfriend, a job and an apartment. Life was going well for the small boy abandoned many years before, and as much as he feared the hurricanes in southern Florida, he called it home for thirty-nine years. That is until everything changed four years ago when John was mowing the grass in Florida’s humidity and sweltering heat.
At the age of fifty, John succumbed to the extreme conditions and suffered a stroke that made it impossible to continue working. After being denied disability two times, John found himself living on the streets for the first time in his life. John hopes that his benefits will be approved on the third attempt. If all goes well, he will be able to afford an apartment with his girlfriend.
At the time of the interview, the hurricane season was upon us. John announced he would continue to seek shelter under the bridges where he would attempt to get much-needed sleep and protection from the harsh weather. “There aren’t many people living there because if you are messy, you get kicked out.”
When asked if there is a sense of community on the streets, John quietly responded that there was not. “Some of them don’t like how I dress. They say nasty stuff to me.” But that’s not the hardest part of street life. John emphatically answered that the hardest part was, “Getting wet!” Still, he prefers the streets to the shelters due to the rules. Many shelters, such as CRM and Trinity, take your belongings, which anyone can walk out with when they go to leave. Also, if one stays at the shelters, they need to check-in by about two or three in the afternoon. He would much prefer to sleep at Sulzbacher, a facility near the police office.
John easily departed from talk of the harshness of the street. A smile brightened his face as he spoke of his love of cats, dogs, and alligators. He enjoys living in North Florida, but when I asked John where he would like to be in five years, he said in California. “I like to go there and be on The Price is Right sometime. I like to meet Drew Carey.” He’s also a fan of Let’s Make a Deal.
Dorri and I generally end our interviews by asking about the services that are helpful, as well as what needs improvement. The positives include having Medicaid and Stay Well for medical care. The food for the homeless is plentiful even if they need to travel from place to place to get their meals. St. Mary’s gives them about five bags of food. They are given one meal a day at either CRM, Trinity, The Salvation Army, or Sulzbacher.
But there are things we can do to help the homeless community. John would like to be able to take a shower every day versus once every Wednesday. There are two wash houses for laundry, one on Tenth and the other on Ninth. You can only wash your clothes on Mondays, but John feels every other day would be better. He goes into the library to cool off, but if you fall asleep, you get three warnings, and then you get kicked out. John also thinks there should be more clothes closets so that the homeless can have clothes for interviews. Along with clothes, they need the training to help them with interviews. “They also need to have their pants pulled up,”according to John.
Watching John shuffle back into the hallway and into a world where our paths may never cross again, I felt a weight of concern. I could only hope that the little boy that inhabits a piece of the man dressed in women’s clothing is dealt a few well-deserved breaks. A part of my heart followed John to his spot under the bridge. As I pulled up to my home, my mind spun as I considered John’s past and his future. The journey ahead of him would have many cliffs to climb. Where to start can sometimes seem an insurmountable problem that freezes us in our tracks yet starting is the only option. The first step is what I focused on instead. I had decided to try to understand and to open my eyes. And for today, I accepted that as a victory for both of us.
***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.