Amateur Sociologist Share Observations of Life on Street

By Lydia Bailey

             Ralph Pack Williams seems to view life through the habitual eyes of a would-be sociologist.  A friend of Ralph’s terms it differently”  “Ralph is the Rush Limbaugh of the homeless.”  Having been homeless for the majority of the last 25 years, Ralph Pack has had no shortage of social life to analyze and comment upon!  He is one of trinity’s frequent Sunday Lunchers, and I’ve spoken to him often.  Here is some of Ralph’s ongoing live prospective.

             There has been a strong upswing of people sliding through the cracks, becoming homeless in the past 10 years.  The reason for this is twofold:  loss of unskilled jobs, and loss of affordable housing.  As Ralph says, “The manufacturing age was primarily one of manual labor.  In industrial cities like Cleveland, the unskilled, uneducated, even those who didn’t speak English got a job.  Those same people are homeless today, and lucky if they can find 2 days of work a week.  The old style manufacturing jobs are gone.” Ralph moves on.  “we all have to admit how horrifying it is – how almost impossible it is – to afford not even decent housing on minimum wage.  In Cleveland, when I began picking up jobs around age 1, there were tons of cheap hotels, cheap apartments, flophouses.  These were the good days for the homeless.”

             Ralph’s own early life substantiates these observations.  Born in West Virginia, he says, “There was a strain of ‘migrate-ism’ there- my father being the perfect example.  We moved quite a bit. When he came to Cleveland he had no skills so he got a job on the railroad-unskilled, but a job considered middle-class and immediately available.”

             “Here is an example of the old economy versus the new economy,” Ralph points out.  “My father got a job as a fireman, loading the coal into the engine.  When diesel engines came along, they destroyed that job.  So my father hit the road again.  He was looking for an excuse to hit the road anyway.  He had job that paid pretty well but the appeal of the road was stronger.”

             After leaving high school, Ralph Pack held a variety of jobs – in trucking company, on the docks in Cleveland.  “On the docks, anyone could make a living, but then even the docks became automated – the jobs were gone.”  Ralph became homeless in his twenties, almost as a matter of choice (unlike the homeless today, he emphasizes.)  He “didn’t want to settle down, mow the lawn, I became a hopeless drunk for decades and decades.  Even in the ‘good days’ of the homeless it was bad because you were an outsider and because money is so important to American identity,”

                The heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Ralph Pack’s favorite book, represents something Ralph has been seeing homelessness of late.  He describes it as “set in a Southern town – about some poor people who, with each other’s help, raised themselves out of their situation of poverty.  But after doing this, they lose their belonging together.  Belonging together-something of this is missing in today’s poor.  Hard to put a finger on, but it seems a ‘dispiritedness’ in which one just doesn’t rally or have a unity with anyone else.”

             “I would be one-sided if I didn’t mention all the good people who really help the poor,” he frequently adds.  “there is no shortage of food for the homeless – more church meals are opening up, But that was never the issue anyway – you can get a can opener and a can of beans and you won’t starve – but again, so few places to live.  Things won’t change till we realize how vulnerable, how alone, so many of us are.”

             CWRU’s radio station has broadcast several interviews with Ralph in the past year.  In them he speaks vividly of changes that have come about in Cleveland affecting those he’s known.  His descriptions have given me better eyes to see what the advocates for the more credible because of the deep stream of humanity running through them.

 Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine December 2005 Issue 74