My job was to seek out the homeless, and talk to them.
By Alex Noether
During my freshman year I took a course on homelessness from Dr. Dennis Culhane, associate professor of social welfare policy, and later became an officer for Penn Musicians Against Homelessness (PMAH). But my interest in the subject stopped there—until I received an email from Rev. Charles Howard C’00 asking if any PMAH members might be interested in pioneering an internship with his young non-profit, the Greater Love Movement. Curious—and desperate for a summer job—I responded and got the position.
Rev. Howard insisted I call him Chaz. He was younger than I had imagined. His bald head and soothing voice gave him a monk-like calmness. It was hard not to feel comfortable around him, and as we sat outside Houston Hall, we struck up a conversation about homelessness—and the program I had blindly signed up for. Three other students and I would start sifting through the streets of Philadelphia to seek out the homeless and talk to them, Chaz explained.
The plan wasn’t unreasonable, but it was unsettling. Like most urbanites, I was accustomed to them targeting me everyday: pleading for change whenever I left a Wawa, asking for quarters outside the grocery, stretching out hands in the streets of Center City. They were the ones positioning themselves on the pathways to class and to work. They were always after me. Now a stranger was asking me to take a risk.
The program started with a week of introductions and a couple of lectures from researchers and advocates (including Culhane) that made me feel more like a student than an intern. Then I hit the streets. My first day on the job brought my partner and me into conversation with a toothless, mentally ill man in 30th Street Station. For two hours he furiously rushed through the details of his life—poverty, violence, war, drugs, and homelessness—while we tried our best to decipher his speech, too afraid to ask him to slow down or speak more clearly. It was obvious we were amateurs as a street outreach team, and travelers in the station glared at us as if we were naïve youth, stupid to get close with a bum. Nevertheless, this crazy man jerking around and talking to the air had become a person with a story to tell, and we had at least given him an audience.
That first connection led to many more. As the summer rolled on, we combed the streets and entered various shelters to converse with homeless men and women.
The internship’s purpose started to become much clearer. While the people we encountered gave us insight into their lives and information that cannot be learned from a textbook, we did our best to fulfill their simple requests. Some wanted hope or prayer, others a conversation, and some just wanted the water and snacks we brought along. We were helping run a modern charity that used personal connections, rather than money, to support an underprivileged group. It was a job, but it was fun.
At times it was also frightening. One shelter resident named Thomas High, who went by the nickname Deak, instantly intimidated me. Deak was tall and menacing; any grey hairs were not signs of fragility and age, but of authority and superiority. Worst of all, Deak had a powerful stare, and no reservations about focusing it on me. His cold, grey-blue eyes threatened me weekly, backed up, on occasion, by words. Once, when I was helping to serve food, Deak decided to “invite” me outside for a “chat.” Scared for my safety, I would always avoid a confrontation.
One day, sitting in the shelter’s day room, I felt a few taps on the back of my chair. I turned to see Deak towering behind me. “You should watch your back around here,” he whispered.
Adrenaline suppressing my caution, I walked up to Deak and managed to squeak out, “Why don’t you like me? What did I do to you?” I braced myself for the consequences of my stupidity, but instead Deak’s menacing stare turned inquisitive.
“I don’t dislike you,” he said. “I have no reason to dislike you.”
Confused, I sat down and talked to Deak like a real person for the first time. I learned about his rough past: violence, even killing, poverty, and decades of jail time. I also saw a man who had reformed, and actively worked to better his community. After Deak’s release from prison, the foundation of his home started to sink. The city razed his place and Deak eventually moved into the shelter. Yet regardless of his difficulties, he gave speeches to youth headed in the wrong direction, worked on political campaigns, helped run motivational classes in the shelter, and defended the homeless within the system.
I now trust Deak and value him as a friend and colleague. We have put together numerous discussions between college students, experts, and homeless men and women, helped bring Penn’s gospel group to the shelter for a performance, and brainstormed about how to raise awareness.
My experiences with Deak illustrate the major theme played out in our interactions with the homeless, which invariably begin with fear and rejection. We see someone asking for money and our bodies tense up. Whether we choose to give or not, the situation is uncomfortable and it can blind us to the fact that these beggars are people, too—often with families, bachelor’s degrees, hobbies, stories, and problems. The main difference is that their problems have put them in the street.
Those who live in shelters face overcrowded, dilapidated, poorly staffed, and ineffective centers that are little more than roofs with a kitchen and bathroom. To top it off, shelters are notorious for prison-like hierarchies and strict rules that deny men meals and a cot for being a couple of minutes late.
Not surprisingly, many homeless men and women choose to remain in the streets—even though, in doing so, they take their lives into their hands. I heard many tales of theft, violence, molestation, drug use, and abuse—even stories about homeless people being set on fire.
As Dr. Culhane’s research has shown, most of the homeless are only temporarily out on the streets; they are less removed from our society than one might think. Even those who are “chronically” homeless have not forgotten what it is to be human.
So why does such a barrier exist between us and them? It is easy to walk past a homeless person knowing that you’re a face in a crowd and that you may never see them again. However, Chaz’s internship has connected me to the homeless through inescapability. He made it our responsibility to help them and often we would run into the same people again. It was no longer an option to ignore them.
Alex Noether C’06 is an economics major from the Hartford region. He actively works with Penn Musicians against Homelessness, the Religious Life Liaisons, the Greater Love Movement, and the Bethesda Project to assist the homeless.