Building Houses Not Jails Was the Message

by Kate Uhlir

“Lookee here Man, you lookin’ for a building? City don’t buy buildins. Not for the homeless. No buildin’ for you buddy. Galleria Tower City kicks you out all the time. Nobody wants to see you, Man. If nobody sees you, maybe you ain’t even there!” Ben, a volunteer, dished out vivid reality with bean and hot dogs at the Memorial vigil for deceased homeless, Cleveland victims in the “war against poverty.”

The vigil, in downtown’s Jesse Owens Park on Lakeside Avenue, provided a social setting for nearly 100 who attended. Along with hot dogs, there was sweet melon, a little laughter, and tears glistening in the flickering light of a dozen broken candles pressed into the cement at the foot of their personal “wall of memory,” which revealed names of those who lived and died in the streets of Cleveland.

On a park bench, Hildario hunched over a larger soup pot and hummed quietly. He mechanically chopped carrots on a dirty cutting board and slid them into the pot. I asked, “What are you thinking, Hildario?” “Don’t think no more, ma’am. Whaddaya gotta think about? [It’s] always the same. And then ya die.”

Mourners rapped, read poems, and tried to sing—something holy, something sacred or hallowed in honor of dead friends whose whispers haunt the night wind. They reached for the right words to speak their yearning loneliness, their admiration long ago they rejected their dreams.

“Hey, here comes Cinderella!” A fancy white horse, pulling a white carriage, turned the corner and trotted down Lakeside Avenue. Somber faces followed fringed surrey and the clopping horse. It didn’t look real. But it moved and snorted like real. The hollow clopping intruded into their meager commemorative—a prancing, snorting, frilly, white movement, another monument to over-entertained Clevelanders who cloister themselves inside an extravagant bubble.

As the carriage rolled down Lakeside Avenue, 44-year-old Amos shouted, “Cinderella! She’s got a house. Wonder what kinda house she got?” The young carriage driver, who wore high leather boots, a nineteenth-century waistcoat, and a three-cornered hat, snapped his reins and hurried away.

“There’s money for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, new stadiums, new museums; but there are more and more homeless in Cleveland,” stated Brian Davis, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless. He looked at 37-year-old Jack, who added, “When you don’t got a home, it’s a one-way street, goin nowhere.”

A loud shout came from the direction of the jail in the Justice Center across the street. “Hey man, somebody’s trying to get out. Stay there, Buddy. Leese ya got three squares.” Rahim squinted as he studied the Justice Center, a many-storied, $22 million concrete stage. He grunted softly and crawled into a tent . . . while a white horse and young driver, wearing white gloves, high leather boots, and tri-cornered hat, pulled a white surrey through the night streets of Cleveland’s “new” downtown.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #17, August-September 1996