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Word of My Heart; the plight of the homeless
Homeless...A kind man named Rodney
On Broadway, not far from the bus terminal in Albany, N.Y. a man sat holding a cardboard sign asking for food. It was a windy afternoon as he held his sign. He was a homeless man who on that cold autumn day taught me a lesson about life. Since the great depression the upstate New York economy has faced many challenges. Many companies closed or moved away in that time. The fine Eire Canal days of the past were long over and never to return. During the post World War II era and the massive exodus to the suburbs the Capital Region continued to suffer a tremendous loss of jobs. Toy stores, dime stores, and clothing stores all closed and moved to other growing communities. The city began to die. Banks moved. Gas and oil buildings closed. Even hotels moved to the suburbs. For many American cities the story is the same. In recent years there has been a push to revitalize the town. That was until the recession of 2008 that brought all of us to our knees.
In the 1980's there was a proposal for a major mega shopping mall to be built in the Albany, N.Y. area. Many people opposed the contruction of the facility in a rural setting. A lot of folks did not want a mall disrupting rural traffic lanes. There was a call to action to push politicians to get to have the super mall built in downtown Albany where many people living under the poverty line needed jobs. Against opposition from both sides the mall was built in a more rural site. These bad political choices and financial investments are the mistakes of builders, leaders, and politicians of the past. They continue to haunt us today. I wonder where man like Rodney would be if things were different, if jobs were still in the cities where a man with no car could hop on a trolly and get to work fast and cheap. We all know those days are gone.
One cloudy day several years ago, I spoke to this man named Rodney briefly. I wanted to know why he was homeless and how I could help. I found there was no quickbooks on this and no easy fix. During our conversation he disclosed that he was unemployed and on his own. He had no apartment. He really wanted a job somewhere and to be able to afford an apartment. As rents increased the chances of him making enough to pay for rent decreased. He told me when he works he saves up for an apartment and does not beg. When he looses a job and spends all his earnings on food he begs. Rodney had been to Detroit, to New York City, and at one point he moved to Philidelphia. He claims he experiences the same conflicts everywhere he goes. We are an educationally based society and without an education Rodney struggles everywhere.
He went to Albany City Schools and attended the former Charles Drew Elementary. He continued on and did make it to Albany High School but, for some reason he never graduated. He told me no one stopped him from dropping out. Perhaps he had a learning disability. Perhaps he needed special instruction. I really do not know exactly why he never finished high school. He can read a bit but, not enough to find meaningful employment. He has a hard time with job applications and filling out applications on line is a particular challenge for him. However, he was not stupid by any means. He had jobs roofing and performing construction duties. He cleaned buildings. He worked most of all his life. And most of his adult life he worked for very little pay.
Rodney did not fit the stereotype of a homeless man. It may be the case that there really isn't one. He was not a hard drug user. He did not drink alcohol or even smoke cigarettes. It was apparent to me that this man was academically challenged and did not graduate and those who do not have an education in our country can easily find themselves in his situation. He wasn't a bad looking guy and not the least scary or offensive. He was just a man in torn clothes with hands that were cracked and dry.
I remember that day well. There was an overcast of clouds.The wind was whipping through the air. It was quite cold and I thought of how I would feel if I had no where to go. I asked him what he ate when he was out on the street. I guess I didn't know what else to say to him. He responded by telling me he ate mostly chips. A brisk autumn wind picked up and blew trash about in front of the store we were sitting near. I looked at the historic Delaware and Hudson building on the other side of the street, it's fine landscaping and architecture. Suddenly, I thought of what this street was supposed to be. In a better world we would have been sitting in a pine forest near the banks of a bay on the blue river. But, that was centuries ago. Rodney and I never knew the towering pine trees that once stood there. All that was left is what we knew. That dirty street. That dirty street is what we know of. That dirty street is what white men call progress. I looked up at the sky and lit a smoke. I smoked the cigarette and offered Rodney one. He lowered his chin and declined. Rodney never smoked in his whole life. He hated cigarettes.
I thought of the coming winter and asked him how on earth he planned to stay warm. He explained that there was a mission house and a few places to go to eat. No one is allowed to stay during the day at the mission. It is only for a meal and a bed when needed. As he talked I could sense his fear of some of the people who stayed at the mission. The shelter gets packed in the winter months and it cannot be easy sleeping around a bunch of strangers. This is where a guy like Rodney can have his only coat stolen while he is sleeping. He went on to explain that he collects blankets and stuffs his socks with paper. He also wraps his feet in a plastic shopping bag so they do not freeze.
On that cold day Rodney told me that he thought most people carried their knowlege in their back pocket... their wallet and that most don't care about America like they should. I asked him if he voted and I had a rude awakening. It was a shock. It hit me like a slap in the face. Rodney explained he can't vote! He taught me that a citizen needs a permanent address to register. I shook my head. At that point I was angry. Rodney told me how his parents had passed away many years before I met him. He had no brothers or sisters in New York State and often he was offended by people who called him scary. I looked into his eyes and I saw nothing scary about this man. He was a United States citizen who should be allowed to vote no matter what.
He was a skinny tall guy who really needed assistance. I felt so helpless because I didn't know how I could help him. Maybe if I had more money myself I could buy him a small house somewhere and stock up the refrigerator but, I could not even keep up with my own electric payments. I ran my fingers through my hair while he shared his worst nightmare. The worst thing for him was when the shelter was full before he got there and he would have to sleep in a doorway on a really cold night. That got to him. He told me how he was often afraid of getting jumped in those situations and worse yet, was how folks would just walk on by him like he wasn't even there. The loneliness gave him so much pain. I swore from that day on I would never walk past a man without speaking. It is so easy to smile and say hello.
After meeting Rodney that day, I contacted the Capital City Rescue Mission and inquired about how I could help Rodney. A worker at the shelter explained that they had been feeding about 150 people a day, three meals a day. Sometimes they could serve 3 to 4 thousand meals a month depending on the weather. I learned that most of these people were not alcoholics as I first suspected. If any man or woman came to the shelter drunk they were referred to the hospital detox unit. The man on the phone took a breath and explained most have an unexpected loss. Maybe they lost a job or were recently divorced. Some unforeseen event changed there lives as they knew it. He listed a number of causes such as domestic violence, job loss, and a lack of a good education. Sometimes these folks are in transit. They were not your average able body young workers. He told me few to none were under 25 years old and at the mission.
In the 1960's Lyndon B. Johnson formed the Housing and Urban Developement to serve as a governing agency to see that that social issues such as homelessness was addressed. These days HUD is more involved in the resale of foreclosed homes and has been for decades. I wonder how that came about? The red tinted tree leaves of fall hang over my house telling me it is September and another white winter is on it's way. I often think of Rodney. I never saw him again walking around Broadway. He could have moved to his sister's house in the midwest. Maybe he got a job and a new apartment. Where ever he is today, I want everyone to know he is somebody. He should be able to vote. He deserves a hello and a smile. He deserved an education and a chance for personal happiness in our nation of excess and wealth. I hope he has found it along with a safe place to live and hope and dream.
By Joanne Kathleen Farrell