Wednesday, January 25, 2017
The homeless crisis in Austin was growing rapidly, and there did not appear to be a long term solution on the burner. The Salvation Army statics estimates that there were about 5,000 homeless, near homeless and hidden homeless living in Austin.
I interviewed these homeless people living in Austin, Texas during the early 1990s. The seven participants, part of a series for a local newspaper, were willing to talk about themselves in general terms, but were not willing to delve into their personal lives. Not all of them wanted to be identified by their real names, or have their photos taken. Anonymity was the insurance policy they needed to assure that they could live their lives without interference from friends and relatives. Only two women and one male were willing to use their actual names, but no photos. I also interviewed the mayor of Austin, and program director of Salvation Army. Due to space constraints I am only printing excerpts from four of interviews.
Carl Riley: From working high to homeless low
Riley is an African American male who was gainfully employed at Caterpillar Tractor Company in Chicago. When Riley lost his job he found himself homeless, but not hopeless. Eventually he lost his family. Riley was clean cut, clean and neatly dressed.
Q. Why are you homeless?
A. I became a homeless person about five years ago. I worked for the Caterpillar Tractor Company in East Peoria, Illinois. They sold out to Mitsubishi, which put thousands of people out of work. Everybody moved to different places. I came to straight to Austin. I had been here on vacation in 1976. I liked the sights here. But when I came back I couldn’t believe the economic downfall. When I moved to Texas I got a job and things were going great, but certain circumstances beyond my control made that job go on the slack. I’ve picked up a few more jobs here and there; I’ve worked minimum wage jobs. But in Texas you cannot live on minimum age.
Q. Did you give up after not finding more employment?
A. No. I didn’t give up. I kept on looking, working. I worked for a brand new car wash on Bee Caves Road. I was assistant manager out there. It was only minimum wage. I’m still trying to find something better.
Q. Did you lose your family as a result of losing your job in Peoria?
A. Yeah. When I lost my job I couldn’t get another job right away. Caterpillar ran most of the town. When it folded up the whole town folded. There were no jobs, everybody was out of work. It was a loophole in our contract where we couldn’t draw any kind of employment benefits, and that screwed people around. I had two cars, one was paid for, and I was in the process of losing the other. I didn’t care as long as we had one left. Then bang! The house! Ten years of my life washed away as far as I was concerned. My house was being take away from me because I couldn’t finish paying for it. Once the house was gone I didn’t have no place for my family. That started marital problems. My wife and kids went one way and I ended up in the middle, all alone.
Q. How being homeless changed you? Has it been hard to adjust?
A. It was not hard for me to adjust to the situation, but it did change my thinking about things. When I working pretty steady, buying my cars and my house, I felt like I could do it. I had a whole different attitude, even though I had been homeless as a kid.
‘I don’t blame anybody but myself’
Carol Warner, a 22-years old White female, is outspoken, somewhat overweight, homeless and infuriated about her current situation. She is angry about the negative attitudes citizens have toward homeless people. Warner said she did not like how homeless people are looked at when they walk down the street, panhandle, or enter a place of business. She understands that some of the homeless men and women are rebuffed because they are belligerent, unkempt, and their behavior is frightening.
Warner said she hates the strict rules and regulations she has to follow while living at the Salvation Army in Austin, Texas. But it is the only place she can call home for now. Despite of her self-induced misfortune, Warner said she takes full responsibility for the mismanagement of her life. She has been on a homeless binge since age 18.
“My parents put me out of their house,” Warner said. “I didn’t listen to my mother and dad. So I ended up in some places I didn’t want to be. I don’t blame nobody but myself for where I am. But I can change that.”
Perched atop a plastic crate, looking like a cheerful, freshly scrubbed college student, Warner said she once dragged around everything she owned in the same kind of crate. She said when she was told to get out of her parent’s home she stayed in her hometown for a year, living here and there before she finally decided to leave for Minneapolis, where she lived for a year, floating in and out of shelters.
“I thought about my situation in Minneapolis, and I said, I ain’t going nowhere! But I left and come to Texas. I went to Dallas and then directly to Austin. I went to Fort Worth, and stayed there for a day. I went to this place and got enough money for a ticket to Austin,” Warner said.
When she arrived in Austin, Warner said, “I lived at the old Salvation Army on 6th Street. They told me I couldn’t come back again because three days was long as I could stay.”
Warner said due to nourished misconceptions about homeless people, homeless women are often perceived as prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics.
“A lot of people shun homeless people. We get kicked out of restaurants because we don’t look like the average, normal citizen. We stand out more, but we can’t help that. We have to carry all of our belongings with us,” Warner said, a sad expression on her face.
She said people who are not homeless should “turn their hearts around, and realize we’re humans, too. We have rights just as well as they do.” Warner said being homeless forces a person to live by his or her wits in order to survive. “And pride ain’t got nothing to do with it.”
She said all too often homeless people have to resort to games of emotional manipulation and panhandling. Some women pair up with homeless men for protection. Some times that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Warner said a woman that she was friends with was killed by a man she paired with for protection. They had been drinking all day, and he thought she drank more of the cheap wine that he did. He got angry and bashed in her head with a brick, killing her. Warner said she’s heard of homeless women getting gang raped and beaten, but they were too scared to make a police report.
“I had a puppy, and my puppy was my excuse to get money for something to eat.” She said people are more drawn to hungry animals than they are to hungry humans. “I didn’t buy dog food. I bought hamburgers that I shared with my dog. That was how I survived for a while,” Warner revealed.
Warner, who lived in many shelters, observed that the shelters are doing a very good job of helping the homeless. “Places like the Salvation Army enables people to stay homeless to they can stay open.”
Warner said she is on her way to Waco, Texas where she intends to enroll in a computer training class. Warner said she wish she had money enough to build a shelter in which the homeless would be treated fairly and with dignity.
‘Jane Doe’ was on a journey in search of something
Jane Doe had a different experience. She asked that her name not be used when this article was written. Jane is a Black female and mother of five.
“I lived at HOBO (Helping Our Brothers Out) for seven months. They’re real good. Marion Morris is over it. When I was down there we didn’t have to worry about nothing. The people were so nice to us. The Stouffers Hotel donated over two or three hundred pillows, because they knew we had to sleep on the floor. They donated foam mattresses; they bought us food, clothes, tooth paste and tooth brushes. They gave us everything we needed.
“On Tuesdays they took us to West Lake Hills, where we showered and had breakfast. Our dirty clothes were dry cleaned for us. Everybody pitched in and helped the homeless at HOBO. Sometimes the men fought a lot amongst themselves because they were so full of anger. I truly thought somebody was gonna get killed. They never did bother us ladies. You know how men are. They’re rough. I went to a church mission run by Brother Jones. The people there helped me,” Jane recalled.
Jane said that she was on a “this journey.” She had a reason to call her homelessness a journey. She expected to walk into world of danger and destitution. She did not expect to find kindness from strangers. “I found people are very giving. They were sometimes overly giving. Sometimes it made me sick. It truly did. Sometimes I used to watch people pass by, and they’d throw food on the ground.
“Well, at the time I really didn’t know what that meant. So I got to thinking, maybe that meant eating food off the ground. Well, you see that’s wrong. You never know when you might be down.” Jane Doe reasoned that no one should throw food away. Food is the key to surviving when you’re homeless.
“My five children were with me at first; and at first it was scary and exciting. Kids are very flexible. Nothing bothers them. So the ripping and running was fun to them. It was exciting to me, too. But the only thing is we never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next day. This is going on my fourth year, but now my kids are with relatives. I’ve been by myself for about a year now.
Jane recalled the time someone gave her and her kids a box of doughnuts to eat. “Like I asking this man here the other day . . . I said, ‘Don’t you remember me? A couple of years ago when me and two little bitty kids come to the Salvation Army, and it was the day before Christmas, and you all gave us a giant box of doughnuts?’ He said, ‘I remember you’! That was all we had to eat all day long. But at least we had something to eat. We rode the bus all day long, and then we found a place to stay.
“When this happened to me, I said I’m not going to get in contact with any of my friends. I wanted to see what this was all about. I’m a very independent person. I have friends I can call, but I’m happy. When people look at me and say I look bad, I tell them I’m happy with myself.
“I didn’t decide this was going to be my life. It just happened. Me and my kids got evicted, and everything happened so quick. It was nothing for us to do but live from day to day.”
Tom and Dick are not happy campers
Tom and Dick are two homeless White males, willing to be interviewed but like all the others, did not want to talk freely about their personal lives.
Tom: I stayed at one place one time on a alcoholic ward, and they put you to work, and gave you a lowly two dollars at the end of the day. I’ve been to New Orleans and San Francisco. I’ve seen women and kids turned away ‘cause they didn’t have no I.D. card. Most of these places charge. In New Orleans it’s five dollars to stay at the Salvation Army. If you ain’t got the five dollars you can’t stay there. These Baptist missions are the same way. They’re cheap, and to a lot of people two or three dollars don’t sound like much, but unless you get in a labor pool it’s hard to come up with that kind of money.
Dick: The shelters are supposed to be free, but the majority of them aren’t free.
Tom: You see people bringing all this food and clothes and stuff and these people give it to the churches, and stuff like that. People that really need it can’t get it. They hand out a few things to people that are down and out, but most times you don’t get nothing. In New Orleans I went to one of those homeless programs for Vietnam veterans, and it’s the same problem they have here, getting stuff from different organizations, and by the time it get to the people it’s nothing left. It’s no good that way.
Dick: You get day old doughnuts and powdered milk and a bowl of very runny oatmeal.
Tom: That homeless veteran thing didn’t work either. You could stay in the place for 30 days, but while you were there you couldn’t work. There’s no way to get out of one of them places. But, yet, they was drawing in all that money. They hadn’t told anybody that. That’s like the churches and these places. They’re not just getting donations, they’re getting government grants. That’s why they want to keep you coming in here. They have a day labor program here, but the fact that it’s coming out of the Salvation Army, and it’s a joke.
Dick: This place does more for you than the majority, but it still comes down to the same thing. I stayed in one shelter in Las Vegas for a while and it was really bad. Every six months they gave you a card. You could stay there 14 nights, but your chances of getting a bed for more than two nights was virtually impossible. They’d have a freezer full of meat there: chickens, ham, beef, turkey and the like. I talked to the cooks that worked there, and they told me a couple of times a year the director’s wife would pull the van up in the back of the kitchen and start loading it up with meat.
Tom: I think they should set up a program where they can take these guys, clean them up and get them onto a job. I think that would really help instead of giving these places government grants. Soon as they get the grants and these donations they could care less about you.
Dick: It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But it’s something I wish more people would experience for a week or two to see what it’s like, to take just a couple of days to come down here.