I handed him $2 and asked him if I could take his photo. He of course asked why. I told him I wanted to document homelessness in this city, to which he replied that no-one gives a shit about homelessness in this city. He tells me his name is William. Spent six years in the marines and offers to show me his papers to prove it. “I ain’t like some of them guys around this city that put on a pair of camouflage pants, call themselves a vet and make hundreds of dollars a day. I got an honorable discharge and I’ve made not more than $7 standing here for 10 hours today.”
He rattles off a long list of places he was deployed. Either he’s well rehearsed by now, used to the questions people ask him, or he really was a marine. I believe him. He’s 51 years old now, but his story of homelessness only began seven years earlier in New Orleans on August 29, 2005. That was the day that Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city and ultimately left more than 1,800 people dead and scattered a million more hapless souls across the nation.
Before then, William had worked in the oil fields. “I wasn’t never Donald Trump rich, but I was making $34,000 a year. Now I get $800 a month in disability.”
He says he spent fourteen days on a rooftop in New Orleans waiting to be rescued; him and one other guy, and four women. In the aftermath of Katrina, he was shuffled around from place to place until the FEMA money dried up and the government and everyone else moved on with their life. William ended up on a bus to Seattle with $1,500 in his pocket. That was in 2009.
I ask him where he sleeps. He hesitates and begins to tell me he gets a cheap motel room when he has enough money, otherwise he sleeps on the street. He pauses once more before confessing that he’s a spiritual man and wants to be truthful with me. “I actually have an apartment downtown. I got an eviction notice and need to find $250 before the end of the month. I don’t have a job, so here I am.”
He goes on to tell me that he can’t get work – “They take one look at me with my crutch and tell me I can’t work. I even tried to just use a cane but they don’t care. Who wants a cripple working for them?” He shows me the pins and brace above his ankle. I believe him. I give him another $5. I feel guilty and embarrassed, standing there in my $400 waterproof jacket, leaning against my $600 bicycle, its pannier carrying my $2,000 MacBook Pro. I briefly think about giving him my jacket but quickly push that thought aside. I mean, how would I explain that one to my wife?
We talk about compassion. He tells me he’s a spiritual guy. Says that the only reason he keeps going is his belief in God. Asks me if I’m spiritual. Now’s not the time to tell him I’m an atheist. I tell him I believe we’re all connected which is somewhat true. Whether that’s a mystical connection or just plain and simple empathy, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that at this moment, I’m standing across from a guy that’s down on his luck and I feel a powerful urge to show compassion and respect. I want to acknowledge his struggle. To listen. To respect his dignity.
He has given up on the government; “They only care about themselves.” He’s all but given up on people; “I’ve been assaulted so many times down here. I’ve had drunk kids spit on me. I have to listen to them tell me, ‘Nigger get a job.’” I feel a tear start to form in the inside of my eye, but I take a deep breath and maintain my composure. What can I say? I want to help him. I want to bring him home to my house, but I know I won’t. I just met the guy and as much as my heart is aching for him, I’m not much different than everyone else that wanders past, oblivious to his existence. I’m selfish. Not willing to stick my neck out too far. $7 and a 15 minute chat is about all I’m willing to offer the guy. Pathetic.
I sling my leg over my bike, tell him I’ll make a point of looking out for him since this is my daily commute route, and I pedal off into the dreary night, once again leaving him alone with his faded cardboard sign. Less than a mile further along, I spot another homeless guy shivering under his sleeping bag in a waterfront park as a jogger bounces along, carried away by the sounds of her ipod. I quietly snap a photo, careful not to disturb the leaves around him.
Back on my bike, a grey-haired guy with blinking LED lights on his back passes me and returns me to my world where all that matters now is passing him back.