Spending Nights Under a Bridge: “Homeless Like Me"

Profile By Darian Henderson

             It was a warm summer night, about 10 p.m. and I had just picked up Stanley from Jacob’s Field, made a quick stop and we were on our way to find our shelter from the night.  This night, we were going to crash at Stanley’s place.  Stanley’s unique apartment does not have four walls or a bathroom, but instead features a open air and a concrete slab to sleep on.    Yet, the moment I stepped into Stanley’s world, I felt comfortable.  He was a wonderful hoar, always concerned about my safety.  He wanted to make my stay as comfortable as it could be, considering that we were sleeping under a bridge in Cleveland.

             Stanley’s full name is Stanley Williams.  He is a twenty seven year old native of Chicago who has been in Cleveland for three years.  In the last three years, he has endured Cleveland’s four distinct seasons outdoors in a spot that I was fortunate enough to be invited to stay.

             He is a graduate of Job Corps and has many skills of which he utilizes in his many endeavors.  In addition to his job as a Grapevine vendor, he is a part time crane operator.  [Editor’s note:  Stanley works for a temporary service as a crane operator for an extremely low income wage for such a semi-skilled position].  Stanley has a demeanor about himself which affords him the opportunity to be a very successful vendor, and what I feel potentially to be a very successful man.

            I had planned to stay a night on the streets for quite some time, but was unsure of who I would go with and what I would do.  Stanley has become a friend, someone of whom I have come to respect.  He seems to be a kind person, as many of the homeless men and women that I have met are.  If he has five dollars in his pocket and you are in need of food, he is the first to offer.  The evening I spent with him we talked for hours about life, family, the future, his hopes and the reality of the world.

           My desire is to stay a night on the streets was for my own benefit.  I wanted to catch a glimpse of what it was to live on the streets.  I had volunteered the last year of my life for a homeless advocacy organization and felt this would be a good end to my service.  I felt that the experience solidified no endings’, rather, it provided the beginning of a life dedicated to accountability and responsibility.  Somehow, I hope that Stanley gained something as well.  I know he gained a friend.  One thing I did learn is that I will be seeing Stanley and some of the other transient compadres down the road of life when they get back on their feet.

           Stanley asked a couple of questions, “Why did you want to stay on the streets and sleep under a bridge in Cleveland?  What are you trying to prove by staying out on the streets for a day?  Do you really feel as if you will obtain any substantive understanding of what it is to be homeless in the City of Cleveland.?”

           I respond by discussing a book that was written over thirty years ago called Black Like Me.  He book was an account of a white southern journalist and his efforts to obtain personal knowledge of what it was like to be black I the South during the early to mid 1960’s.  The journalist, in an effort to assimilate into Southern black culture, obtained a pigment which he used to darken his skin color and hair dye to change his hair color.  He boarded a bus and traveled the Deep South, documenting al that he had seen and done, remembering the people, the comments, the smells, and the environment.

           When the tour was complete, and the book was written the journalist realized, although he was viewed as a Blackman in the Deep South and he experienced the harsh reality of the racist environment of the country, he would never truly know what it was to be black in America.  He knew when his experiment was complete and the dye had washed out, he would go home to sleep in his bed to wake up in the morning as a white journalist with a family and a job.  Yet he came to realize his life would never be the same.

           When the journalist woke up the next morning, he viewed his body in the mirror and saw white skin.  When I woke up in the morning, I went back to my bed and took a shower.  As I looked out my window, I felt warmth from the heater and the knowledge that at least somewhere I have a place to call my kingdom.  Like the journalist, I have now realized my life will never be the same…..

  Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine October1997-Nov. 1997 Issue 23