by Richard Kiefer
At The Gathering Place at 2219 Payne in Cleveland, Ohio, volunteers can learn about the life stories of street people. Adults with severe mental illness who are on the street can come in from the cold here for a free meal, free medical attention, and enjoy a clubhouse atmosphere (movies, card games, etc.). Volunteering as an intake worker, which means greeting people at the door and registering them for needed services, in January of 1996, I met two homeless men.
Jon Waters is a homeless man of mixed descent, 6’2" and about 190 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes. He is a nice-looking guy with a good sense of humor and has training as a computer technician.
Waters wound up as a street person because his stepfather kicked him out on Christmas Day 1995 after a fight. He has a long sad, story and startling views.
“I’m sorry my mother didn’t choose an abortion when she was raped back in 1975,” he said. He said he was molested in 1984 by his uncle; in 1990 Waters ended up in prison (for a reason he didn’t disclose).
On November 23, 1991, when Waters was 15, he was shot; he was the victim of a robbery and the bullet that hit him shattered inside his brain. Waters is 19 and seeking help for mental problems.
Waters said he sleeps poorly in the local homeless shelter. “I only had an hour and a half of sleep because I’m a light sleeper and people snore,” he said. “I had a dream last night where I’m falling from a cliff and just before I hit bottom, I woke up.”
Waters said that he feels like fighting some days. “It ain’t fun being homeless,” he said. He showed off pictures of his step-kids, Tamara and Tonya, 3 and 2. He shared happy memories of his family and growing up. He said he misses them. He remembers being a thief stealing clothes, tools, and fishing tackle from a store and contemplating suicide at 9.
Waters suggested to know him better, someone could spend a day with him. His description of his day is: getting up then smoking a cigarette, and sitting in a garage with friends.
Bill Black, 52, has been homeless about six months. A black man, 6’3", 249 pounds— he completed only the ninth grade; a psychiatric attendant with first-aid training, he is also a professional hairdresser.
I asked him if he is afraid of being a forgotten person and he said he is getting back on his feet. Black characterized street life as, "People bumming me. People with loud conversations. I’m glad they spit on me instead of hit me."
"They’re homeless too!" Black said. "Everyone is homeless the minute they leave the house and get into that tin can! I guess I’m just sick and angry; life on the streets is breaking my back!"
Black told me he longs for a regular life again. "I dream about a beautiful apartment—three meals a day, a girlfriend, and a disability check," he said.
"You get hungry; you can’t get food unless you steal," Black said, "My worst critics say I’m a diamond in the rough but a fool."
At the end of the interview Black tearfully commented, "This world of ours is just totally crazy to me." After our meeting, Black went back to his life. At night he sleeps on the street, and during the day he sits in the local coffee houses of Cleveland.
Editor's note: The names have been changed for this article to protect their identity.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine published Spring 1996 – Issue 15