When passing by the nameless faces on the street, it is easy to condemn, look away, or possibly shake our heads at our fellow humans’ bad choices. Drugs, alcohol, and crime, all these factors separate their worlds from ours, keeping us safe from the intimidating inhabitants that coexist on another plane resembling ours but so different. Hasn’t it been mathematically proven that two planes running parallel to each other never stand a chance of intercepting? But somehow, they did just that to Michael. After thirty-five years of working construction, Michael’s world didn’t just brush up against the other world. The two worlds collided.
“I was in my Lay-Z-Boy after working, and I woke up. It was like when you sleep on your arm, and it falls asleep. Come September, my left leg would go completely numb. I couldn’t lift myself up. Anyway, I had to quit my job at CFG construction. I couldn’t climb ladders anymore, so I went to a temp agency. You got to make money to live; I got to pay bills and pay child support. Come October I couldn’t work at all. I’d fall down in the bathtub. I couldn’t control my bowel movements. I tried to go to work one more time in December and couldn’t make it until noon.”
That was the beginning of Michael’s story. After reassuring himself that it was only a pinched nerve, he continued to get out of bed and go to work every morning until the day came that his right leg ailed him so severely that he could not perform his duties.
Michael, age fifty-four, had planned for his future. He had four months of saving. Surely, in that time, the doctors could get to the root of his problem, and Michael would be back at the job he enjoyed. In the meantime, he would apply for disability while he healed. Everything would work out. But it wasn’t that simple. Months passed, and disability was denied two times.
After an MRI, the doctors told Michael that he had a cluster of veins wrapped around the base of his spine. After several treatments, Michael felt no relief. The numbness continued to increase. He was no longer able to sense the changes in temperature from the waist down, and worst yet, he could no longer control his bathroom issues.
The money was dwindling. Michael soon found that people who can afford lawyers stand a much better chance of being awarded a disability check. By the fourth month, Michael lost his house and the tools with which his trade depended.
In only months, Michael went from falling asleep in his La-Z-Boy chair to becoming a man he didn’t recognize. “I couldn’t control any bowel movements. I really looked like a drunk, homeless person, and people would cross the street to avoid me.” The numbness and weakness in his lower extremities cause other issues as well. “It feels like I have ankle weights all the way up my leg. I don’t sweat or get cold down there. I can’t feel nothing down there. I once fell asleep in an ant pile and woke up with bites all over me.”
Michael did not show emotion when sharing his story, but his words told showed his pain. He was a proud man, a strong man, thrown into the unknown where judging eyes looked at him as if he were a drunken bum.
One would think a turn of events such as this would destroy a person, but that is not the case for Michael. Determined, Michael insists that the disability will come through for him, and he will at least figuratively get back on his feet. He believes God had some lessons for him to learn and wants to eventually give back to the organizations that have helped him along the way. It pains him to see the suffering of others on the street. “I’ve seen a guy in a wheelchair that was trying to get to the bathroom in his wheelchair. They found him in the middle of the street, and he had peed all over himself. You could tell he was upset.” Being forced into his new reality has given him the compassion he lacked beforehand.
He spoke a good deal about New Dawn Outreach. This organization does what many others do not. They go the extra mile to help those that are ready to be helped. New Dawn Outreach offers GED classes and computer classes. They also have volunteer doctors and nurses that visit the homeless. In addition, they have clothes closets for interviews. Sound impressive? Visit their Facebook page to hear more about them- https://www.facebook.com/NewDawnOutreach/. If you get a chance to go to The New Dawn Deli Café, you can feel good knowing that all their proceeds go to support New Dawn Outreach.
Dorri and I learned a great deal about the many programs available to our street friends. From food, showers, shelters to church services with dinner. It’s impressive. There will always be room for improvement, and we hear about these areas from the people that access these services. By discussing what the people on the streets find as flaws, it is by no means to discount the hard work, love, and support many people give. The number one concern that we heard was organization. Certain people, for reasons only they know, take more than what is needed and then discard those items or horde them. Michael would like to get a better system to help prevent this issue.
As for the shelters, some people take advantage there as well. The Liberty Center provides extremely cheap housing for people trying to get on their feet. According to Michael, this was never intended for long-term housing, and some people continue to stay, paying only $25 a month and never trying to move on so that a room would be available for the next person. Michael had a low paying temp job at the time he lived there. Because Liberty only considered his salary and not his child support, the price set for his rent was unaffordable, $500 a month. As we heard from others, the rules of some of the shelters make them unfavorable to go to, especially the fact that they need to leave their possessions unattended. These views are from the patrons and not from the shelter employees. There are most likely good reasons for each of their rules when dealing with the general population. They can’t have different rules for each person. Michael says Trinity houses nearly two hundred people with a couple of bathrooms. Another shelter is known for its bedbugs.
For those reasons, Michael chooses to sleep on the streets. He lives under a bridge where he stays dry and safe, besides the one time someone stole his walker. Theft is a common problem due to people on drugs. According to Michael, they will do anything for money to get their next fix.
Michael says that he sees new faces every day and wonders why everyone wants to come to Jacksonville to be homeless. Each person we spoke to agreed that it’s impossible for the homeless to go hungry here. Michael does not believe that people would choose to live on the streets for the ease of being fed. As much as he appreciates the food, it’s comparable to prison food, enough to survive on, not necessarily enjoy.
When Michael’s body gave out on him, he had about three years until he could retire. His home is gone, his savings empty, his body nearly crippled. He was looking at the finish line, one he had trudged toward for the past thirty-five years, only to see it fade away in a distance that must seem unattainable. Maybe one day, you’ll find yourself walking down the streets of Jacksonville, and you will pass Michael or someone just like him that life slammed like a tidal wave. He’s not asking for money, because in his words, “give food not money,” but even more than the food, maybe we can offer a small amount of understanding because none of us can control the waves heading our way.
***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.
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