This is the first part of a series in which the “Grapevine” will follow an individual as he makes his way through the “system” and attempts to put his life together. We met up with Brian Johnson during his first week on the streets when he attended an event sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. Now after four months, we interview Johnson, a 37-year-old single man, after four months living on the streets of Cleveland.
He has epilepsy and does receive Social Security disability. He grew up in Delaware, but moved to Cleveland when he was in high school. He graduated from Cleveland Public Schools in 1977 but has no further education. He has worked odd jobs in restaurants and hospitals but has basically been unemployed for the last 10 years. This is his story in his words. We will follow up on some of the points that he raises in the next issue and we will check up on his progress. With the assistance of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, we did make suggestions to Johnson about possible avenues to take in seeking a stable address and job.
Johnson has stayed with friends since 1978 and has been on the streets since April. The longest time that he spent at one job was Continuous Family Restaurant where he was a dishwasher for 7 years. “The reason why I lost that job was because I was trying to empty some trash in the dumpster and it fell and dislocated my shoulder. I was getting workman’s compensation and after that I was receiving Social Security. But that was for my epilepsy.” He was diagnosed with epilepsy as a kid.
Epilepsy affects people in different ways. Johnson said, “You can pass out and go into convulsions or you can get the jerks. I pass out every once in a while. In my case (my condition) is pretty much the same, because I have them at least once a month. Even though I had an increase in my dosage of medication I still wind up having them. I do have a hard time getting my medication. I went over to Cleveland Health Care for the Homeless and they do not have the medication that I need. They have to send me over to maybe the Clements Center to get it from there.”
“If you go over to Social Security, they put you on Medicare, but you have to wind up paying for it. Welfare – they give you a health card where you don’t have to pay for (medicine).” He recently got his welfare card. For the last two months he was unable to get a supply of medicine because of the difficulty in finding a doctor and the money for the prescription drugs.
“No one really did explain to me the system. I had to find out on my own. I had to ask people on the streets where to go to get to different places. I had asked people (staff) at the Cosgrove (meal site), who told me to go to Cleveland Health Care for the Homeless.” They did not tell him to go to the welfare office to get a health card, he had to find that out on the streets.
“Transportation is also a problem. I have to go to the clinic on 105th and Superior. There is a doctor there. She’s about to be my regular doctor now. She is the one that writes out the prescription, and how much I take and how long it lasts. Then I go to a Rite-Aid or Revco to pick it up.” Right now he believes that he will not have to pay, but before this he was expected to pay the full price, which was $50, for his medicine. He would pay for the medicine out of his Social Security disability check. “It took two or three months to get Social Security.” He gets mail at a friend’s house so he can receive his check.
“It was quite difficult (to get disability). Because, especially for a person like me who is unable to work in certain places. Then I had to take part of my money for rent, food and my medication. Then if I have to go to the hospital, Social Security will only pay for only half of the bill. The other half I have to p[ay myself. I didn’t realize that I had to pay a credit union for being on Social Security. And they are constantly calling me, wondering when I am going to pay them and all this. I felt this quite difficult within itself.”
Johnson said that the most surprising thing that he found so far was, “When I went to CHCH and they did not have the medication that I needed and they were not funding, I guess, to help single persons and the problems that they have. I felt that that was sort of a rip off within itself. They are only open for a single person every other day. Then if I have a problem on the days that they are not open, then that really becomes a problem. There is nothing that they can do. One time I was at CHCH, and I was about to pass out there and they said they seemed to have lost my file. So if I had passed out there they wouldn’t have known what to do.”
“At the moment I sleep at site A, which is part of Project Heat. It is one of the worst places that I have ever had to sleep. Since I have been homeless, I have never had to sleep on the floor, but there is a mat on the floor, and then you get yourself a blanket, and that’s it. They wake us up at 5:30 in the morning and you must be out of there by 6:30. By me…with my epilepsy…getting up at that time in the morning is really a problem.”
“I was out on the street and a friend that I have known from a long time ago, well, he took me to the sites. At the time, I had all my things stolen from me. I had no I.D. Only a card with my name on it…got me in. They told me that within 10 days I had to get me another I.D. I was quite nervous staying there, because I didn’t know what it was like. I read the do’s and don’ts of this place and what time to be in. I couldn’t understand. O.K. you in this place here and they don’t care that your stuff got stolen from you or my condition. They really don’t care. There is nothing that they can do about it. There were many times that I was feeling bad and I shouldn’t be moving anywhere and they told me that there was nothing that they could do about it. I still had to leave the building. One time I happened to leave the building and passed out there.”
“For someone that is homeless, it is a pretty good thing to get into if you have no place else to go. But the conditions that you have to go through, it is really a problem.” If you don’t know where you are going, there is a problem of transportation and then you have to tell your problems and you don’t know what to do.
For the third time he has had his bag stolen in the last four months. Two of the times he had his medication taken with his possessions. He has to keep an eye on his stuff every moment of the day to prevent it from being stolen. He says that lockers would help. “They have lockers at the site, but we are not allowed to use them. As a matter of fact they got showers there, but we have not used them yet.” He described a bathroom that is about 5 feet by 5 feet as the only facility at Site A. “How can 50 men use that bathroom with only one commode, one urinal and one sink.”
Finding a permanent place that he can afford is his greatest barrier to a stable life. Most of the places ask for more than he can afford on his disability. Johnson said, “The going to CMHA is just a wait. That means I will have to stay in these sites for as long as two years.”
He can afford $300 per month for a single place. If he pays a security deposit, that would be a full months disability plus a little more.
“My barrier to work is my epilepsy, because they are afraid. They don’t have insurance just in case something does happen. There is discrimination about my disability.” He has been fired for not disclosing his disability until after he is hired.
He does not blame the schools for not preparing him for life, but he said they certainly did not prepare him for life on the streets. “Well, I moved to Cleveland in’74 and I only went to Glenville and the classes that I took prepared me more about getting a job and keeping one. But I don’t think it prepared me as far as out on the streets.”
He has been unemployed for the past 10 years. He tried to get a part-time job. He went to the Cosgrove Center unemployment center. “They sent me out for a part-time job and I went to the interview. At that time, he was on vacation for two weeks. When I finally did see him, he said, ‘Oh well, I was out on vacation, I didn’t know that you got the job.’ I said well could you call him to find out what happened. But I still got the run around by him saying that there was no call.”
“I am about to do some volunteer work for Cornerstone Connection (Project Heat). I will be doing cleaning up.” This volunteering is so that he can get his food stamps. “It is something for me to do so that I am not just walking around. I have been spending most of my time at the library. Well, really I have been down in the Flats at the river bank, just sitting around and going to sleep.”
“My dream was being a dee jay. That was my dream job. Because I love music – Rock ‘n Roll and R & B. I love that. I always did have a dream of being one. I even tried to take it up when I was in high school, but they said the class was full so I wound up taking food service instead.”
Over the next few months, Johnson wants to help others with the experience that he has had “to help them better their way. A homeless life is what you really make of it. If you really want to better yourself, there are places where you can go. I am trying to educate others about that.”
“I am just waiting right now.” He does think that some people just lose hope, because of the waiting. “I have met people who are just sitting around, laying around and they keep saying the system is doing them bad, which I can understand to a point. But if you don’t make your first step, how is the system going to help you?”
He has not lost faith that the system will help him. “I can’t understand why a disability person in my condition, the system just forgets about us and lets us go. When I first had a job, they said that I was one of the best and then when a situation happens, there is nothing that they can do except ask me to leave. Is that the way the system works?” He said there is a lot of discrimination about people with a disability.
He hopes that he only has to stay for one more month at Project Heat. “Because I go to this church on Sundays and this pastor of this church is trying to help me get a place to stay. He said by the end of (August) IO should be in there.”
Johnson said that at this time his homelessness and seeing all the people around him that do not have a place to stay has not diminished his faith. He still goes to church and sees a brighter day on the horizon.
Johnson did however say that he sees many people who have lost hope and are in such despair that they turn to alcohol or drugs or just lose touch with reality. Theses are the people that he wants to try to help.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio