Homelessness and Respect, Part One

(I’ve changed the names of my friends to protect their privacy).

It’s been 39 days since I have heard from Jack. I’m assuming that his wife, Vicky, has died. I’ve called and texted him repeatedly but received no response. I’ve tried to reach our one mutual acquaintance, but she has not responded to my email inquiring if she has any news. I’ve looked online for an obituary or death record but found nothing. I’ve even considered calling the police in their town but have decided against that. Jack and Vicky are uncomfortable with the police. I doubt that law enforcement would give out any information anyway. I’ve wondered about showing up at their apartment building to see if the management will tell me what has happened.

I wanted to be there for both Jack and Vicky at Vicky’s death—be there from a distance, at least, because Jack turned down my offer to come in person. Instead, he promised he would keep me posted about all developments, and then, 39 days ago, after texting that Vicky was having a better day than she had for a long time and wondering if that signified the calm before the storm, he dropped off the radar screen.

I fear all sorts of traumatic developments. Perhaps Jack broke down after Vicky’s death, could not cope with the loss, and was hospitalized. He cared for her almost entirely by himself since her last hospital stay—90 grueling days and nights, aided only by minimal hospice support. I even imagine that he might have given her a lethal dose of morphine to end her suffering and has been charged with causing her death. I’m good at imagining the worst.

Or maybe he’s been evicted from their apartment, which they could only afford because of a Section 8[1] housing voucher issued in Vicky’s name. (All attempts to get Jack’s name on the voucher failed.) Perhaps he is homeless again, without a cell phone, so he is not getting my messages. Maybe he is even in jail. Who knows what grief may have led him to do after Vicky’s passing? Or perhaps he wants nothing more to do with me. I promised Vicky I would stay in touch with Jack after she was gone, but possibly he wants to be left alone.

Out of respect for their privacy, I’ve waited years to write about Jack and Vicky—the story of our relationship and what I have learned from them. Knowing them has been an intimate encounter with homelessness, its causes (personal and systemic), and its effects on the body, mind, spirit, and family. The story is not only theirs; it is mine also. Getting deeply involved with a homeless couple challenged and changed my life.   

I can’t pretend to know anything more about homelessness than what I have learned from Jack and Vicky. Those who work with the chronically homeless may find my interactions with this couple and my observations on homelessness naïve and simplistic. If so, my only defense is that my responses probably represent many educated white people with relative financial security and a network of friends and family who offer us support in difficult circumstances. (Jack and Vicky are white, by the way.)

So, let me begin with how they came into my life. About ten years ago, Jack was panhandling at an intersection I passed through each day on my morning and evening commute. It bordered the town where I worked and was the final stoplight before the highway leading west to my home. I met him for the first time at about 7:00 p.m. during rush hour on a dark, cold winter evening. As I inched along toward the intersection, I saw a medium-height man bundled in a bulky winter coat several sizes too large, with a wool cap pulled down over his ears. Because of the ice and snow, he shuffled slowly and carefully back and forth along the line of cars stopped for the light. He held a cardboard sign—I don’t remember what it said.

A panhandler was a familiar sight to me. At that time, I saw them regularly at any number of intersections in the Boston area. But it was unusual to see them as late as 7:00 p.m. or in such cold temperatures. Panhandlers were usually not that dedicated. I slowly approached the head of the line and rolled down my window, rooting through my purse to find a one-dollar bill.

“Hi! Cold for you to be out,” I said

“Sure is. How are you tonight?” he responded with a smile.

The light turned green, and with a brief, “Fine, how are you?” I held out the bill and then pushed the up button on the car window. He smiled again, waved, and started walking back along the line of cars.

We repeated this impromptu rendezvous nightly for months. Whether I left work at 5:00 or 8:00 p.m., he was at the intersection, walking up and down the line of cars in worn-down sneakers, offering a smile and a greeting to everyone in the traffic queue. His eyes did not have the dull glaze of an addict, and his discipline and commitment far outweighed any other panhandler I had met. After a week or so, I made it a habit to save all my one-dollar bills and keep them ready to hand so I would not have to search for one in my wallet. Over time we exchanged first names, and he would speed up to get to my window when he saw my car approaching. I noticed he was having more extended conversations with the drivers in front of me. He’s made some friends, or, perhaps, regular clients, I thought. That pleased me.  His hard work and perseverance were paying off. I admire hard work, am a disciplined worker, and understand the toll it takes on the body and spirit. I felt Jack and I were kindred spirits, in a way.  Both working long exhausting days.

Spring inched along like the line of cars, and, depending on the traffic lights, I could keep my window open longer and have more than a two-sentence chat with Jack. Off came the wool cap to reveal medium-length curly greying hair. His mustache, oddly enough, was always neatly trimmed, though sometimes his beard showed several days of growth. He looked skinny beneath his oversized winter coat. I reckoned he was about my age, perhaps a little younger.  Even though his face was weathered, it was not wrinkled or scarred but attractive and babyish, in a way.

I don’t remember how long it was before my curiosity about who this man was and why he was panhandling overcame my shyness and reticence to pry—maybe six months, perhaps a year. I decided to invite Jack to dinner to ask him about his life. I chose a restaurant near his intersection and made the invitation. When I think about it now, he must have wondered who this weird woman was, inviting a homeless man to dinner. He seemed skeptical and hesitant. Why had I imagined he’d be enthusiastic? I guess I thought he’d welcome a hot, filling meal. Finally, I owned up to wanting to hear his story, and he reluctantly agreed on a day and time. For the next several days, I reminded him each time I saw him, but on the agreed-upon evening, I stood outside the restaurant for more than half an hour before I gave up and drove home. When I passed through Jack’s intersection, he wasn’t there.

The next time I saw him, I asked what had happened, joking about him standing me up. He looked embarrassed and made some excuse which I don’t remember. Suddenly I felt embarrassed. Perhaps he thought I was trying to start a romantic relationship. I wasn’t, though under different circumstances, I admitted to myself I might have considered it. There was something compelling about Jack. So, I gave it some time, and things became comfortable between us again—easy chatting for a few minutes each day, freely asking about each other’s wellbeing.  

A few months later, I tried a dinner invitation again, and Jack accepted readily and showed up this time. He was uncomfortable when he arrived, but I figured his curiosity got the better of his caution—curiosity about this strange woman who wanted to get to know him, of all people. We ordered, and I dug in, but he only picked at his food and ate little. Finally, I asked him to tell me why he was panhandling. When I think about it now, I am shocked at my intrusiveness. What right did I have to pry into his life? None, but I intensely wanted to understand what motivated him—someone, whose life was so different from mine but who seemed to share the same work ethic?

He told me about Vicky, his wife, who was sick, saying that they lived in a nearby motel. They had been homeless for a long time, more than a decade, since a place they were house-sitting was sold out from under them. They had both lost their jobs. I’m now unclear why, but I vaguely remember he said the company he worked for went out of business. They had stayed temporarily with friends, but ultimately, this motel was the only place they could find consistent shelter together (they hate the homeless shelters, which separate couples unless they have children.) It cost them about $70.00 a night to stay there, so Jack worked all day, every day, panhandling to raise that amount. Many days he didn’t reach the required total, fell into arrears, and they were always afraid of being thrown out. If it were just him, he said, he’d sleep outside except in winter, but Vicky couldn’t do it.

His story was rambling, and it was hard to keep him on track. He wanted to know about my life, too, so I told him where I worked and that I lived in a western suburb, was married but had no children—the bare minimum. My spouse, you see, was extremely nervous about me getting involved with a homeless person—afraid that Jack would show up at our door demanding money or break into the house. It had been the source of several arguments between us, and I knew she was anxiously waiting at home for me to return from this dinner.

That night when we parted, I handed Jack five twenty-dollar bills, explaining that I had kept him away from his work for over an hour and he would have lost income. This cash was to make up for that deficit. He seemed shocked and flustered but accepted the cash. We said goodbye, and he shuffled off toward the intersection. I got into my car to drive home. On my way, I passed the motel he had mentioned and looked at it for the first time. It was a fleabag. I was appalled they were charging that much per night.

Jack and I continued to see each other through the car window on my daily commute. I learned that he had to arrive at the intersection early in the day to claim his turf before some other panhandler did so. He told me that some of his colleagues were not homeless, and many were addicts. Fights sometimes broke out over turf. Jack stayed all day at his intersection in all kinds of weather and as late at night as necessary to make the nightly motel fee.

He told me people gave him all sorts of things through their car windows: food (from fresh sandwiches to canned soup), bottled water, clothing, shoes, cigarettes (he didn’t smoke, but Vicky did), and money. The food could be pretty bad sometimes, he said. From time to time, I would see him talking on a cell phone. I learned later that it was a burner, and he could only use it when he could afford to purchase a phone card to activate it. That’s how he stayed in touch with Vicky during the day.

I began to tell him when I would be away on vacation and to give him a little advance cash to help in my absence. Once every so often, I would give him a twenty instead of a one. I’d ask about Vicky, and he’d tell me about her health. Sometimes he’d look exhausted, but no matter how slowly, he kept going. He was just as committed to his job as I was to mine for the same reasons.

Our relationship went on this way for several years, two or three at least. And then, it came time for me to retire. I told Jack this was coming and that I would miss seeing him regularly. He didn’t complain, though he would lose a client and a regular income source. Instead, he focused on me—my retirement plans, the things I would enjoy about it. He seemed truly happy for me. I struggled with wanting to stay in touch and whether to give him my phone number. In the end, I did so against the better judgment of my spouse. He, however, did not offer me his. [TO BE CONTINUED]

[1] The housing choice voucher program [Section 8] provides assistance to very low-income families to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Housing can include single-family homes, townhouses and apartments and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects. Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by Public Housing Agencies (PHAs). A family that is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of the family’s choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.