By Gabbi M
We shuffled into a grimy, fluorescent-lit room and found around fifty homeless people staring at us expectantly. Music was blaring from two old speakers and the room smelled faintly like wet socks. Overwhelmed, I looked to newspaper advisor Caroline Henderson, who gave me some encouraging words, patted me on the shoulder and sent me off.
We were eight writers and photographers from The Fourth Estate and we were at the Water Street Rescue Mission to raise awareness that the homeless are real people with real stories, rather than a problem to solve. Setting aside my nerves, I quickly sat down at a table and tried to interview the man sitting across from me. He smiled at me kindly but wouldn’t speak, so I turned to the person next to him, a boy not much older than me, and interviewed him instead. Once I started talking, I calmed down and forgot everything around me, except this one boy, Christian, and his incredible story. Pointing to a long, jagged scar on his arm, he told me that he’d dropped out of school at age fourteen and began collecting and selling scrap metal in order to support himself and his mother. When they both lost their jobs around the same time, his mother’s boyfriend moved in. Unfortunately, the boyfriend didn’t take a liking to Christian and kicked him out. Christian has been moving between friends’ houses, staying in shelters like the Water Street Mission or just living on the street. “It’s not a fun life,” Christian says quietly. “If you have an opportunity to do something with your life, take it because you don’t want to end up here.”
Next I spoke with a man named Scotty who had a car, a well-paying job and a down payment on a house in New Jersey only two weeks before. Today he sits alone at a crusty table, filling out paperwork for food stamps. “My car broke down on Saturday and I had to be at my job on Sunday. There was no way I could get back, so I lost my job. I went to Atlantic City and came back broke, homeless and back on drugs after being clean for seventeen years.” He tells me his story with raw shame and embarrassment. “I was so angry,” he says through thick tears. “Life was going good for me. Then I stopped caring. I did cocaine every day for two weeks, and now I’m here.” Today Scotty is clean and searching for a job. “I’ve always been able to get back on my feet before,” he says.
Maddy P and Alexandra D interviewed John, another regular at the Water Street Rescue Mission. Deserted by his parents and placed in an orphanage at age seven, John has fought the system, mental illness, depression and addiction most of his life. “I hid my drug problems really well. For a few years, I just wanted to be a hippie; it was the heyday for baby boomers,” he says. For as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be a craftsman. Finally, at age 59, he has the time to focus on his talent. Although his life has been colored by unbearable tragedy, John remains focused on his creative abilities. “I’m very talented. I can draw anything,” he says proudly. Spending much of his life in mental health hospitals, there were times when John didn’t even have the will to live, let alone pick up a pencil. However, in the past few years, he has been able to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a designer.
Married to a verbally abusive man, Jane decided to “leave and never went back,” but became homeless after a relapse into alcoholism. Jane doesn’t feel any stigma living at Water Street and will never truly leave. “I love this place,” she says. “I’m always going to come back to see the staff, the people I’ve met, or to volunteer.” She credits Water Street with making her a stronger person through drug and alcohol classes, support of her religious devotion, and numerous other emotional support systems. “I struggle from depression, so I don’t want to leave and sit alone at home all day. This is a nice place. I’ll always come back.”
At the end of the day, I felt sad leaving the homeless people who had seemed so hostile only a few hours before. Many of the people we interviewed seemed ashamed of their current situation. However, after speaking with them, I came to the conclusion that homelessness is something that could easily happen to anyone, regardless of age, race or gender, and that makes them no less human than anybody else. After this profound experience, I have a strong sense of respect for the homeless and a newfound gratitude for the life that was given to me.
Editor’s Note: Interviewers on the Faces of the Homeless project were Tess A, Alexandra D, Gabbi M and Maddie P. Photographers were Alexa and Claudia M, Lian N and Sammy S.
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