A Chat with Philly's Homeless

They come to many of Philadelphia's neighborhood in droves. Sometimes they come as couples and occasionally they have a dog in tow. They set up camp in the strangest places: in front of convenience stores, pizza shops, Dunkin Donuts, and dollar stores. They canvass traffic at stoplights with large cardboard signs. Talk to them and you'll find they have slightly different stories. Some come from good homes, like Anthony X who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs where he played the guitar and sang so well that his music can still be seen on You Tube. Anthony studied film production in LA and produced a number of short films before his life crashed.
His life crashed because of heroin. Anthony left LA for Philly where he met a beautiful girl who had a knack for making a quick buck under the El.
Couples bonded by heroin addiction rarely celebrate 5th or 10th anniversaries. Heroin is a jealous mistress; it wants no other lover. Anthony and his girl soon planned a road trip to Texas where they dreamt of a bohemian existence with Austin's music community. The road trip began with a bang. They posted Facebook photos of themselves eating tacos on Greyhound, and then Texas photos showing them bathing in a creek. Anthony's girlfriend then met a man with a lot of money and Anthony was history. Devastated, the former film student disappeared into that overcrowded nightmare known as the state of California.

Most but not all of the homeless are drug addicted. Some homeless people are just down on their luck and rebound quickly when offered a job and a place to live.
Some of the homeless are road trippers who travel from city to city. Like the legendary American hobos of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, they ride the rails and sleep in boxcars, following a rustic tradition that has its roots in American literature. The poet Carl Sandburg and the novelist James Michener, for instance, both lived as train hobos for a while. Generally, road tripper types have no intention of settling in Philly. Consider the case of Garth, 25, a native of Vermont, who came to Philly with his guitar because there was trouble at home. Garth is a light party drug type (no heroin), but his lifestyle has made him homeless. Maybe it's his long hair, but Garth says that cops will ask him to leave popular panhandling spots while ignoring born and bred Philly homeless who panhandle for drug money.
He complains that everyone he meets assumes that he's on heroin. He also doesn't like it that people seem to not like him because he's not "from around here."
Recently I introduced myself to two homeless guys after telling them that I was writing a book on the homeless problem
The two men, Chris and Ron, said they usually hang out in lower Kensington by the Somerset El stop where they panhandle for drug money. Chris, 28, has a beard that's reminiscent of Francis of Assisi. He looked quite at home perched on top of a metal recycle bin as he told me that he had just come from a hospital where he tried to get himself committed. As if to prove his story, he showed me the hospital Johnny under his shirt. He tried to commit himself, he says, because he's tired of life on the streets.
Chris has been on the streets for 3 years although he says he showers and keeps himself clean when he visits friends or finds a hospitable spot to wash up. Chris' friend, Ron, who has been on the streets for a year, grew up in the Northeast.
Chris says he misses his family "something awful" though he's careful to add that his family problems have nothing to do with his drug addiction. Ron won't even talk about his family. His eyes tell me that it's just too painful to go there.
Both Ron and Chris love the idea of getting clean. This comes into play when a guy their own age walks by and hears them talking, then offers Chris a job as a dishwasher for ten dollars an hour at a local Fishtown eatery, Chris asks how he can apply. "Online," the manager says, "It's easy." But it's not easy. How is Chris going to get access to a computer unless he goes to a city library? Gone are the days when you could just walk into a place and fill out an application. He would also have to get clean before he starts work. One of the disadvantages of being homeless is that you are always losing or getting your state ID stolen. "Well, maybe I'll see you," the manager says, "Remember, ten dollars an hour!"

Chris and Ron continue to talk about making ten dollars an hour long after the manager leaves. Chris says he would save his money and find a "nice place to live" but Ron doesn't say much. Perhaps Ron sees that housing in today's world is just too expensive for people with low income jobs.
We are joined by a homeless man with a black eye (he just had a fight with his girlfriend) who's pushing around a set of golf clubs.
The scene is becoming as bizarre as an independent foreign movie.
The man trying to sell golf clubs obviously stole them. At least that's what Chris thinks. "Who golf's in Port Richmond," he says. "Nobody here wants golf clubs!" Chris is right, of course. Port Richmond and Fishtown have nothing in common with Haverford or Bryn Mawr. Besides which, the clubs look like really cheap golf clubs. "This might work if they turned Cione Park into a golfing range, " Ron scoffs.
The man with the clubs dusts off all the knobby tops like they are Lions Club trophies. He looks around the parking lot for potential buyers but there are only a few people headed to their cars drinking Big Gulps and ten Puerto Rican kids riding by on bicycles with their front tires in the air. The golf guy reluctantly shoulders the clubs and leaves but no sooner does this happen than he's replaced by a pretty woman with braided hair in green camouflage pants and a corded vest that must have once been on the racks at Nordstrom's. .
She has a striking profile and, together with Chris--after a hot shower and a pedicure--they could make a living as Calvin Klein models. The girl sits down by the front door with her change cup as another homeless person comes up from the rear. I ask Chris if this is some kind of homeless convention and if he knows any of these people. He shakes his head no. The newcomer carries a triple tiered knapsack straight out of the Apollo Moon Landing. It's a wonder he can move under its weight. There isn't enough time to get his story, but I introduce myself anyway and tell him that I am gathering stories.
The whole world seems to have gone Mad Max. Suddenly there are more homeless people at this convenience store than there are customers, but I'm glad the police aren't chasing them away. Still, I can empathize with the police: if 100 homeless people came here, would that be good for business? I think not.
Life gets stranger when another homeless man approaches and asks if anybody has a cigarette. He's a tall guy with a scar on his right arm and, lighting up after finding a butt on the ground, tells Chris and Ron (the girl won't join us) his story. He says he's the only person to ever survive jumping off the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Ambrose Bierce couldn't invent stories like this, but what I'm telling you is true.

He lifts his shirt up and shows everyone the scar on his stomach from the operations he's had since he jumped. Everyone wants to know how he survived the long drop to the water. He says he lost consciousness immediately after jumping and "woke up" underwater with his shoes planted in the mud on the bottom of the river. Somehow he managed to free himself and swim up to the surface where he saw a patrol boat. Lucky for him, the people on the patrol boat saw him jump, so they were ready. He says all the nurses and the doctors at the hospital call him the Bionic Man whenever he goes for checkups.

Surviving two or three years as a homeless person in the city is an endurance test of the highest order. But if there's anything "good" about being homeless, it's this: If ever there's a world calamity, it will be the homeless who will lead the way because they've had so much practice surviving on the streets. They will become survival mentors for the rest of us, showing us how to pitch a cardboard tent in an alley, how to make a bed out of newspapers, how to brush your teeth with your index finger, or how to select "safe" dumpster food from the nasty stuff.
They will be the masters of the new age.