First Night On the Streets

Dear Editor:

            On the same day back in 1991, my beloved dog died, and I was evicted from my home.  It turned out that my roommate was a con man and a thief. The bills didn’t get paid, and he made trouble with the landlord.

            I reacted with shock, and ended up in the psychiatric hospital with a complete mental breakdown.

            My canine best friend, as well as my trust in another human being died the same day.  I was out of work and barely getting by on welfare.  Trusting in God that things would get better.  Suddenly I was homeless.

            Two nights on the street (before I got help from my church), have taught me how fragile our sense of well - being and sanity can be. It was just a matter of time before I would find work again, I thought, and there was a good chance I would get financial aid for school with BVR.  My roommate did con me.  I took him in like a Good Samaritan.  He was down on his luck like I was.  He was friendly and intelligent and we had a lot in common…and he really seemed trustworthy.  My dog as a puppy was found the previous year abandoned on the stairs of my home.

            She became my friend and my child, and she died from a horrible disease called parvo.  I come home grieving, to be greeted by my landlord with an eviction to get out the next day.  After time in the psych hospital, I was discharged onto the street, exhausted, hopeless and despairing.  No job, no home, no one seemed to care.  A garbage bag full of clothes and a couple of dollars was all I possessed and owned.  I was getting hungry and there was nowhere to sit, let alone sleep.  My first night on the street was one of no food, and my stomach ached.  I was surrounded by houses and apartment buildings with no one to turn to for help.

            Finding me resting against a 7-11 store at one in the morning, the police patted me down and searched my bag, ready to arrest me for vagrancy.  I lied and told them I was waiting for a bus and not going to camp on the street.  It was very humiliating.  At 2 a.m. I got diarrhea and had to relieve myself behind the store.  Because store policy did not allow non-employees to use their restroom.  Despite my pleas to the clerk.  NO toilet paper, no wash sink, I sat on milk crates.

            Sleep that night took place next to my dog’s grave on a patch of grass in a parking lot behind an old tavern building.  My second day homeless I stood sweating in the hot summer sun in a line of other homeless men, waiting for a bunk bed and a meal at the old City Mission downtown.  About two hours.  When the doors were opened and line was let in, I was the last person to be let in and I watched as others after me, who had waited as long as me, were turned away.   What if it had been winter, I thought.  The stink of unwashed men, crammed into a room before dinner was great.  Before we could eat, though, we all had to attend the Mission’s church service.  We had to stand and bow on cue for prayer and hymn singing.  It was insulting to me as a Quaker, who worships in stillness and silence.  But I needed to eat, and a bed is better than the street.

            Dinner following the service was very good, and there was enough for seconds.  And I took the time to ask those around me how they got to where I got.  The following, not in any order, were their answers: evictions, loss of job and income, severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, medical bills (doctors and hospitals are not cheap), fire destruction of home, just got out of jail, addiction to alcohol and drugs.  To be down (from the blues to clinical depression), on one’s luck (from the Chinese word meaning heaven) is to experience a loss of paradise, in health, home, income and sanity.  Bedtime was preceded by a mandatory shower. 

            Homeless people stink, because only people with homes have showers.  And being unable to shower and change into clean clothes makes it impossible to be presentable to the public for help.  Who wants to be around someone who stinks?  We put our dirty stinking clothes into plastic tubs for the night, and pulled from a bag a pair of cut off pants and warn shirts to sleep in for the night.  Sleep did not come for two hours.  The homeless had lots to talk about with others.  There was laughing and joking like kids at summer camp, and when I did get to sleep, I dreamed of comic book super heroes.  The next morning we returned our shirts and cutoffs, and put back on our dirty stinking clothes. After a brief breakfast, we had to leave. Another day but no dollar.  My third day homeless I got help and support from my church.  But the person without family, friends, church or community help will be back on the street indefinitely.

Bob Tothman

Cleveland, Ohio


            Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine  Issue 47 May-June 2001