Strength Found in Struggles

In Issue 72, we published an article titled “Local Homeless Man Lives Outside of Shelter System” which introduced readers to a man named Joseph Smith who had been living in an abandoned building in the Flats rather than stay in shelter. The impending destruction of his home on Carter Road motivated Mr. Smith to attempt a move to Kentucky in search of warmer weather and new beginnings. He recently wrote to Grapevine staff and discussed his life since moving out of Cleveland.


Commentary by Joseph Smith

       Here is the next chapter, I don't know if you can use it or not, but I'd like to get it off my chest. I went to Frankfort to find work on a farm, but there was no work to be found. They say Mexicans have the market cornered. I stayed there for a couple weeks. There has been record heat in Kentucky, 95-100+ degrees most days. Shelter hours are from 7pm-8am, and there is a library nearby but I still have to spend most of the day in the heat.

      I started to take ill, my legs began to swell and I was finding it hard to sleep and impossible to lay down. I got in an argument with the shelter staff; they refused to let me sleep in chair, which was the only way I could sleep at this point. The staff told me that if I was sick to go to the hospital, otherwise I had to sleep in the bed. I expressed a plan to go up the chain of command to the board of directors, who alone had the authority to grant my request, and I am banned for 2 weeks. This is the only shelter in Frankfort, so I got a Greyhound bus to Louisville - bigger city, more shelters, same problems but worse. 

      At this point, it was impossible to lay down. The pain and pressure on my chest were intense and the only cold water available in shelter was plenty hot! I was admitted to hospital for dehydration and an undiagnosed condition. The doctor wanted to treat me for asthma! I refused treatment and medication; I know I don't have asthma. I walked out of the hospital only a little better than I walked in. Very shortly afterward I was put out of the Louisville shelter for the same reason as before -unable to lay down, must sleep in a chair. Upon my move to the next shelter, on the first night I was sent to the ER by staff because of nasal discharge. I stayed in the hospital for 5 days, at which time I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

      Upon release, I went back to shelter and was given blood pressure medication that acted more like poison than anything else. It must have doubled the pain I was already feeling. I couldn't sleep more than 2 or three hours but refused pain medication at two different hospitals and a clinic on the grounds that “I want to use your pain as a gauge to tell me how effective our treatment is.” Have you ever heard such nonsense? 

      Anyway, sometime in November, after about three months of suffering from pain and lack of sleep, I was prescribed sufficient pain pills so that I could finally sleep. Anyway, back at the shelter my symptoms worsen - legs swell till I can hardly walk 20 yards without stopping for air. It was partly my fault for refusing to take water pills for a while, but I take them religiously now; they make me pee like crazy. 

      It was also partly staff at fault, they served the worst food I have ever eaten. On the average day I have witnessed them systematically dry out food until it reaches the consistency of beef jerky, almost as bad as those dried skins you buy for dogs. Few meals were ever fresh and they accept leftovers from all over the city to feed us, no matter if it's good or not. They just heat and serve and often it is not even hot. I learned to anticipate and even enjoy vomiting because I was forced to eat this stuff. Because I had no income for the first six weeks, my stomach was constantly swollen with gas and painful to the touch.

      To make matters worse, the only source of cold water in the shelter was two large thermoses for around 100 people, and it was the policy of one of the security guards not to fill it up. He said it wasn't his job. Consequently, we would run out of water after about two hours. He blamed people like me for this. I had a one-liter container which I would fill up and drink from. He hounded me from time to time about the size of my container. I filed a written complaint against him and was told by the director that my thermos was fine. The director would have a talk with the guard who never changed his behavior... he would just wait a while before resuming it. Meanwhile the days are hot enough to cause sunstroke and people in the city are dying from the heat. I got the worst case of sun poisoning I had in my life, my legs are filled with water and feel as rough as sandpaper and so dark they look like they belong on someone else's body. 

      At one point, I am admitted into the hospital again, where they drain more than 20 pounds of water off my legs in 5 days with strong medication. The guard would let residents fill the water thermos if anyone volunteered (many residents had money and preferred cold pop). They do this at a small faucet against the wall about two feet from the urinal in the men's room. From time to time, somebody will come and put their hand in this water to get ice out. Many of the residents are mentally ill, and though they rave half the night or run around the facility naked they are still admitted the next day because there is no other place for them to go. Anyway, most people develop a cough and colds are everywhere, yet they let anyone, even the clinically insane fill up this water without supervision. I have observed and have heard about people putting snot on the spout and in the cups (how nice!)

      So finally, the guard who was responsible for blaming thirsty people for the lack of water was let go. It was a few days after my third written complaint to the director. The guard covered my thermos with his hand as I tried to get water in my director-approved container. I still have yet to see staff fill up this water and now one thermos broke and only one remains. They still have several in the kitchen (same policy in there, all nuts are welcome to cook), but for some reason they never use them to provide drinking water aside from meal time.

      Now for the good side with all of that said, whew! Despite the power-tripping security guard and other things, I've had a lot of fun. I have been a one man party more days than not, amusing myself always and even some others on a regular basis. I started out collecting cigarette butts off the ground to re-roll with papers I brought from Cleveland. It was November before they ran out.

      Eventually, I got food stamps, which brought me great relief. Since then I have eaten very little of the food here in the shelter. I also traded small food items for cigarettes and stopped picking up butts. I applied for and was eventually awarded SSI and am awaiting a disability hearing. I am now a man of means by homeless standards. I've bought myself a Sony CD player and the best headphones money can buy. I have a portable DVD player which I use to watch free movies from the library every other day, and a Sega Dreamcast which I salvaged from Cleveland. I also have a bank account, debit card and even a little money stashed away. I even have a small propane stove to fry an occasional steak. Eventually, I plan to buy and outfit a van and drive out west to look for gold, but that's another story I'll write you if you express any interest. So like I was telling you last time I saw you, there's something magical about new beginnings. Things were awful but within six months I got an income to last for years, maybe even a lifetime.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 75 March-April 2006 Cleveland, Ohio.