A Sopping Sleep Out

by Brian Davis

Weather is the day-to-day enemy of the homeless. Every single day our brothers and sisters on the street engage in a battle against the elements that harkens back to a time before cell phones and electricity when man’s hold on life was less tenuous. Intense heat, extreme cold and even the windy downpour of a summer’s day are traumatic events that direct a homeless individual’s itinerary.

 The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless along with Food Not Bombs staged a Memorial Day weekend sleep out to call attention to the growing homeless population, and the misplaced priorities in Cleveland. It rained, and rained, and continued to rain.

As we gathered at Jesse Owens Park in downtown Cleveland, strategically located across from the Justice Center and within earshot of a $247 million dollar project to bring another entertainment complex to the city, the skies became overcast. There were occasional scattered raindrops during our memorial service for those who have died on the streets or died as a result of poverty. Basically, however, it was the culmination of a beautiful day as we ate hot dogs, spaghetti, bread, and Food Not Bombs’ famous Tofu Stir Fry donated by a wonderful group of volunteers.

We discussed some of the misplaced priorities of the city, and ideas for spending $247 million dollars to improve the lives of its citizens. Ideas ranged from converting old schools to shelters, building affordable housing, and opening a day drop-in center. Pops, a self described leader in the community, wanted us to not forget about education. We all knew that it was going to rain, and we hoped that it would hold off until the morning.

As we all settled down with a little music, some poetry, and talk about previous accomplishments, and an uncertain future, fifty-eight people chose to brave the night, forgo the area shelters and sleep out under the stars. The Coalition, with the assistance of two Cleveland Heights sewing groups, were able to provide 40 sleeping bags, and a couple of volunteers brought tents for the demonstrators.

Just before we were about to distribute the sleeping bags, one of the guys I was talking to turned and ran off. He returned later, and said, “Sorry I had to leave, but I lost my wallet. I wanted to retrace my steps to see if I could find it. Now I am homeless and I do not exist.” I had to add to his troubling day by telling him that all the sleeping bags were already given out. We did have space in a tent for him.

At just after midnight, it began to rain. It rained for the next twelve hours. It steadily got colder with a crisp spring wind coming off of the lake. When it started to rain a couple of the people sleeping in the park decided to seek the “comfort” of a doorway or overpass to get out of the rain. One guy gave me his blanket, and said, “You’re going to need this if you are staying out here.” I thought that I had come prepared with two blankets and many layers of clothes, but I took the third blanket anyway.

At 3 a.m., I woke up to find that I was sleeping in a puddle. Being new to the life, I had foolishly chosen space under a tree to lay my blanket. The rain gathered around the tree, and turned my bed into a tub. The blanket on which I was sleeping was soaked, as was the blanket on top. Luckily, I had that third blanket which had remained fairly dry. I put aside the two wet blankets and wrapped myself in the one dry blanket, and got up to survey the situation.

Only eight or nine people were still out in the open inside their sleeping bags. There were 21 still in their tents with some of the tents quickly taking on water. The rest were under the Shoreway Bridge or across the street in doorways, with some returning to the shanties or other temporary locations that for the most part are out of sight. I wandered around thinking and talking to a volunteer who could not sleep.

Life changes when there is no place to go. At 3 a.m. in Cleveland on the weekend there is no place for a homeless person to go to get out of the cold. The shelters have long since closed their doors, and every place else has a big unwritten neon sign that says “Homeless People Not Welcome!” I quietly used a port-o-john at a nearby construction site, and returned to the park. I knew that I only had a couple of hours left, but what about my brothers and sisters in arms? It is dangerous to say, but many have accepted the life on the streets and do not see a future. Once my neighbors on the streets lose that anger and hope, it is a quick slide into a life with personality disorders and mental illness marked by paranoia and delusions.

I did learn that the blanket of choice for a homeless individual is an acrylic blanket. Cotton and wool both absorb water and get very heavy. I covered myself in that acrylic blanket that the more experienced homeless man had left me. I lay down on one of the benches and closed my eyes. When a homeless person is on the streets or in an extremely crowded shelter, their nightly ritual really cannot be called sleep. Sleep should be a relaxing and rejuvenating experience, which prepares us for the next day.

Closing my eyes on the streets is a gamble that the body demands, but the mind advises against. Will I be awakened forcibly by the police? Will I be robbed? Is it even worth resting on a hard piece of concrete in the rain and cold?

I stayed on the concrete for another hour or so until the volunteer who I walked around with at 3 a.m. came over to conduct a sunrise service of reading the Bible. Religion is a big part of a homeless person’s life. A few find their way out of the cycle of poverty through religion, while most are told that they can find a way out through religion. Many services are operated by religious denominations, and so preaching, praying, and crosses are a part of the life. I will tell you that at 6 a.m. in rain soaked clothing with a difficult day ahead, it was impossible to focus on the words of Jesus Christ.

I put the wet blanket with the others from the night, and went looking for food. A few of the donuts that Daniel, a local humanitarian, had dropped off the night before were not wet. But I needed coffee. I wandered up to Terminal Tower, and asked a couple of the guys up there for information. They laughed and said, “Go back to sleep. Nothing opens until 8 a.m.” I went into Tower City with my pious volunteer friend looking for a bathroom and a warm place to rest.

The bathrooms were locked and the security guards moved me along when I tried to rest. They said, “No loitering in here.” I told them that I would be happy to buy something and sit, but nothing was open. It seemed that orders are to keep those that look like walking poverty indicators to keep moving, because every time we sat down we lowered property values. I am convinced that if I were clean cut and wearing a suit that I could set up a campsite in there.

At 8 a.m., a couple of restaurants opened, and I got a cup of coffee. This would all be a lot easier if I knew there was some place to go later in the day or some place to sit down out of the cold. On the weekend, there is absolutely no place for a homeless person to go to get out of the elements. Think about this. The 3,000 to 5,000 people who live on our streets every night in Cleveland do not have any options of a place to spend the day on the weekend. There is no place to get their life in order, or make telephone calls, or store their clothing, or get away from the weather. It is no wonder that chemical addiction is such a huge problem. There is a certain amount of warmth inside a bottle or in the haze of an illegal drug. And once our friends plunge into the bottle is there any hope for a brighter day if they choose to crawl out?

We arrived back at the park, and now a few people were stirring. Those living by the schedule of the overflow shelters were accustomed to a 5:30 a.m. wake up call. A few of the guys figured out how to use a coffee maker in the rain to brew hot coffee without shorting it out. The only problem was that the sugar is all wet, and had solidified.

We congregated under the awning of a nearby building, and waited. We waited for the rain to stop. We waited for a local church to open for their noon meal. We waited for a second chance. We waited for a miracle. There were no deadlines and no discussions about the world around us. We talked about only about things that impacted our lives and the injustice of it all. To outsiders, we would talk about sports or politics just to be polite. But standing in the rain waiting, we only talked about “important” things. There is an unwritten rule to never get too close to anyone on the streets. Both physically and emotionally, the rule is to keep a certain amount of distance. It seems that the thinking is that, “I am facing enough personal tragedy without having to deal with a relationship crises.” We quietly looked out on the world and waited.

No matter how many times a homeless person told me that the city needs a drop in center or told me that there is no place to go to the bathroom in this city, it took on sense of reality and urgency when I experienced it myself. The sleep deprivation that all of our fellow citizens experience when living on the streets is debilitating. I knew that it was my responsibility to begin to clean up, but all I could think about was sitting down in a warm spot and actually sleeping. To be able to push yourself to accomplish anything after spending the night on the street is an amazing feat. I did get a glimpse into the reason behind that distant stare in some homeless people’s eyes. I think that I had that distant look of physically standing in a rainy park while mentally sleeping in a nice warm bed with a space heater.

There are many reasons for a person to be homeless including poor decisions to domestic violence to a fundamental lack of education. Each person has some degree of responsibility for the direction that their life took, but in a land of such wealth and opulence is it really necessary to have our fellow citizens sleeping on the streets?

We are entering another millennium, and just as we take that step into a new era we will see an explosion in the homeless population caused poor decision made on the federal level. Both welfare “reform” changes and the reduction in subsidized housing will decimate our urban centers by the year 2000. The time to put poverty back on the top of our lists of priorities is now. The choice is housing or homelessness, and believe me the bill for preventing homelessness is a fraction of the bill we will all receive for providing services to a families who are already on the streets.

 Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Newspaper Issue #22 August 1997; Cleveland, Ohio.