Prophets Among Philly's Homeless Population

While the reasons for homelessness are varied, the condition of the homeless can lead most to assume that the homeless are people without aspirations. While many people attribute homelessness to drugs or being lazy, it's usually something much more complex and very often has a component of mental illness.

The homeless in 19th Century America were called many names: hobos, tramps and vagrants. In 1909, a man named Edwin Booth pretended to be unemployed and toured America's homeless shelters. Many of these shelters at that time were called Wayfarers' lodges. A writer named Kenneth L. Kusner notes in his book, Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History, that Brown in his research noted that these lodges had similar characteristics.

(1) There was no pretense of bedding
(2) The occupants covered themselves with their ragged overcoats
(3) The food was almost inedible
(4) In Kansas City, the breakfast was dry bread, stewed prunes and watered down coffee without milk or sugar.

While no one expects a homeless shelter to ape the environs of a Hilton Hotel, very often the characteristics described above came with a price. In Louisville, Kentucky, for instance, the homeless had to work for the (free) water, soap, coffee and coarse bread by chopping wood. In most wayfarers' lodges, the (free) meals distributed on a Sunday had to be worked for during the week. The usual lights out time was 10 P.M. when all talking in the lodges had to cease.

Occupants were forbidden to drink, smoke and swear. In many ways, the homeless were forced to live as monastics, although modern day monks are sometimes free to indulge in wine or beer.

The 19th Century was a very judgmental time. The poor were seen as being "worthy" or "unworthy" when it came to receiving charity. The Salvation Army, to its credit, refused to make any such distinctions and served all the poor, or homeless, equally.

A curious Philadelphia connection can be found in The Vagrancy Dockets of 1875. The Dockets surveyed 614 men and 147 women convicted of vagrancy. The Dockets found that 63% of the homeless were not married, while 7 out of 10 were literate with the average age being 34.6 years. About 60% of the convicted were born in the United States while over half of the group was native to Philadelphia.

Why Philadelphia? Was there something in the water here that caused so many to become homeless? The Dockets do not say but they do state that a man in 1875 with more than one conviction of vagrancy could expect to be sentenced to 24 months in jail.

In the 1870s, tramps would often band together in aggressive packs, attacking farmers while giving the police a run for their money. After WWII, the homeless populations in American cities were mostly confined to skid row areas. Philly's skid row or tenderloin district (on Vine Street from 8 to 11th Street), as it turns out, was much smaller than the tenderloin districts in most other cities.

The assumptions many people made about the homeless in the 19th Century (tramps = chronic drunkards), or in our own time (homeless = drug addiction), do not account for those homeless who defy categorization. In many ways, homeless people are just like you and me. Some former homeless go on to become public figures. Consider the personal homeless stories of Sylvester Stallone, Steve Jobs, Halle Barry and Drew Carey. If we look at homelessness through a wide historical lens, the field becomes even more diverse. Elijah, in the Hebrew Bible, often appeared in the guise of a homeless person during his wayfaring days of prophesy.

In our own time and in our own city, we have the person known as Philly Jesus, or Michael Grant. Grant comes to mind because he is an example of someone who conquered his drug addiction and then went on to become a kind of urban wayfarer or what is commonly referred to as a wandering holy fool or a holy fool for Christ. Grant has often talked about his time as a homeless drug addict going from place to place in the city in search of The Drug. In his new rehabbed guise as Philly Jesus, he is still going from place to place only this time it is as a self proclaimed preacher.

Call Grant a desperado hungry for fame and notoriety or even a narcissist who loves getting his picture taken (those way cool pics of a skateboarding Jesus!), but the truth is that Grant tapped into a very old tradition when he made the decision to don theatrical Jesus garb and go out into the streets with a Shepard's staff like Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings.

I first encountered Grant in Center City about a year ago. We were walking in opposite directions when I stopped and introduced myself. I told him that I had written some unflattering things about him in the past but that I would like to try a new approach in the form of an interview. Grant was open to the idea and gave me his cell number but when I contacted him weeks later he was nowhere to be found. Months passed, and I spotted him facing the throngs of ticket holders for the 'Best of' Philadelphia Magazine party on City Hall courtyard.

Grant was standing above the party revelers, staff in hand, on a cement barrier. Whether he knew it or not, he was aping Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, a Syriac who died in 459 and who lived 47 years on a platform atop a pillar near Aleppo, Syria. After Saint Simeon's death, a number of other ascetics would escape to the desert to live on pillars. They were called stylites.

In today's world there aren't too many people who live on top of pillars, but here was Philly Jesus in a stylite pose reminding the Philly Magazine revelers of their mortality and that (possibly) a good party won't necessarily get you into Heaven.. Of course, this message seemed lost on the bevy of long-haired woman in killer stilettos and form fitting dresses walking around with cocktails and chicken skewers on a stick. Philly Jesus, obviously, was missing out on all the fun but at least his years of real homelessness had finally paid off. I did, however, finally get to say something to him when the ticket line began to move and I found myself face to face with the pillared Grant. I waved and said, "Hey, you never called me back!" to which he answered, "I am the call!"

All of this reminds me of my acquaintance, Edsel, who's been homeless in the Kensington area for a number of years now and who classifies himself today as "off drugs." Edsel's years as an addict living on the street has affected his ability to adjust to a 9 to 5 routine so he remains jobless, "depending on the kindness of strangers." Edsel likes to compare himself to Philly Jesus, although his street ministry is totally secular. He lives in a tent near the Conrail tracks but he often uproots his tent and travels to other parts of the city. Ironically, The Dockets describes a similar situation with the homeless in 1875: "Well acquainted with city life, many homeless men probably traveled up and down the eastern seaboard states in search of work; Philly was only one stop along the way."

Edsel, who never leaves the city, is always telling me that the world is on the edge of extinction because of global warming. He sees food shortages in the future and he says that when oil disappears, it will become too expensive to operate cars. After cars disappear, crops will be affected and this will raise food prices to an enormous degree until finally only the wealthy will be able to afford to eat.

As you can see, Edsel is no Disneyland prophet, so there's no upside to his dire predictions.