Hungry for the Holidays: An innocent throws himself upon the streets’ mercy

by Jon Kir

I’ve really been letting myself go.

I have a month’s worth of beard growing down my cheeks and into the neck of my shirt. My neck is starting to itch. I gave our pet pug, Lionel, a pair of beat-up Velcro shoes two weeks ago that he has been chewing on heartily ever since.

I asked a favor of my friend Steve:

“I need to borrow some clothes,” I told him. “I’ve got to make people think I’m homeless.”

In recent years, the gap between slacker fashion and plain poverty has been shrinking, prompting a “Hipster or Hobo” type Pepsi Challenge out there on the internets.

Very few alterations would have to be made to my ownwardrobe, assembled over years of pillaging the nation’s Goodwills and yard sales, to pass as homeless and hungry on the street. Some construction site coveralls and I’d be set.

With the holidays approaching, the homeless pandemic becomes a more topical issue. The weather grows increasingly menacing, with low temperatures becoming more of a health risk. On the other hand, with Salvation Army bells a-ringing, one can’t help but be reminded of the alleged spirit of the season. An A-to-Z list of food drives, coats for kids, toys for tots and assorted relief programs are in high gear this time of year. But no matter in which parking lot in which you make your contribution, you never know where your yuletide surplus ends up.

Is Christmas like gold rush for the homeless? I intended to find out. And before I was through I realized all the cans of green beans in the world aren’t going to get you a checking account or keep you dry when the snow starts falling.

After eight hours on the street I can in no way claim to have truly endured the homeless experience, nor will I say I can relate to these people’s situations. And the last thing I can offer is a solution. I merely smirked when retired model and daytime talk show diva Tyra Banks thought she had truly walked her a mile in some raggedy Velcroes when she spent a day on Los Angeles’ skid row, a decimated area in downtown LA, home to an estimated 10,000 homeless people.

A quick summary for those of you who missed it: Banks put on a do-rag, got kicked out of a restaurant and had to wash her face in a gas station bathroom, and all of a sudden she was Mr. Mahatma Gandhi himself. She couldn’t believe the conditions that people were living in a mere four miles from where she lived, in the city where she was raised.

But few of us do.

In many regards we are no less sheltered than the supermodels we despise. But if Tyra Banks can take time out of her busy schedule mentoring America’s next top models I can certainly give you an update on Greensboro’s homeless community. You’re going to have to turn the pages yourself.

The intersection of Lee and Eugene streets is like the intersection of the Tigres and Euphrates for Greensboro’s homeless civilization. Perhaps you’ve seen the rotating cast of characters congregating by the Texaco station, lined up along the fence beginning at the “No Loitering” sign. This Texaco does a steady business providing Schlitz and Wild Irish Rose to the less fortunate from a spot more or less at the front steps of Greensboro Urban Ministries, a predominately privately-funded group that strives “to express the love of God to people in need through practical action in the greater Greensboro area.”

Malt liquor is not a part of their mission statement, but rather the antithesis.

Urban Ministry works hard every day to reverse the effects of mental illness, unemployment and substance abuse for this high-risk demographic. The organization was founded in 1967 as a partnership between many area churches to coordinate emergency assistance to the less fortunate. At first it was as simple as heating up a can of soup on a hot-plate as needed. Now they provide hundreds of hot meals a day. Every day.

Urban Ministries is rarely preachy despite the enormous amount of faith-based funding it receives – just a friendly place to get a meal if you happen to be hungry between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. They offer sundry services including health care and housing for qualified applicants, but lunch is guaranteed, involves no paperwork and is free, no strings attached.

It’s quite a scene when the doors open at Potter’s House Community Kitchen in the heart of the Urban Ministries compound. A healthy line forms in an especially breezy breezeway, the air filled with mentholated cigarette and black-and-mild smoke. The attendees express a range of emotions from melancholy to joviality to plain hungry. Four at a time, people are ushered into the Potter House to table-clothed four-tops and served. On this particular Wednesday the entrée de jour is scrappy ham alongside a salad, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, bread and some supermarket surplus birthday cake. There is barely a murmur as men, women and children fill their bellies and empty their plates. The dining room is patrolled by soccer moms in Christmas sweaters and pleated jeans, some more timid than others, as if they’ve wandered too close to the lion cage. I take a cue from a couple at my table by offering my neighbor some overstock ham when I can’t complete the task.

“Thanks man, I was just thinking about how hungry I was.”

“It’s cool,” I insist. “I had breakfast.”

“Yeah, I missed breakfast.”

“They say it’s the most important meal of the day.” I say, trying to be somewhat whimsical.

“I disagree”, the dark gentleman said, sopping up the last of the gravy with a dry dinner roll. “The most important meal of the day is the next one.”

Mike Aiken longs for the day he’ll be unemployed.

“I tell everybody this, but what I’d like is for Urban Ministries to go out of business because there aren’t any hungry or homeless or poor people left. To me it is an outrage that in this country with all the resources we have that we have homeless people and hungry people. It shouldn’t happen.”

Aiken is the executive director of Urban Ministries, and has been for 21 years. He’s seen a lot of people come and go, a lot of programs triumph and fail. The real obstacle facing Urban Ministries and similar organizations is the chronically homeless, which Aiken feels constitute 15 to 20 percent of the homeless population but use half of the resources. The answer, Aiken believes, is in a program called Housing First, which has been successful in other regions of the country and eliminates homelessness at its very foundation.

“How do you cure homelessness? Well, you give people homes.” That seemingly obvious concept is the primary tenet of Housing First: provide homes for the chronically homeless and provide for them a support system of peers, psychiatric services and case managers to help promote their reintegration into society.

“What the Housing First programs in Washington and New York have found is that at first, they don’t trust the agency,” explains Aiken, acknowledging the skepticism of most chronically homeless individuals. “But once they get stabilized, then they get better and then they maintain themselves. It’s permanent supportive housing – forever.”

Housing First, because of its magnitude, will have to be a collaboration between several agencies, both church- and state-run. Aiken acknowledges that the project will require strong leadership, but fears that the county government, which is primarily responsible for social services, will be “reluctant to step up to the plate.”

For Aiken, helping the homeless is a no-brainer for any one of the Christian faith.

“It’s very clear in the Christian tradition, and in most traditions, that how you treat the poor and the hungry is how you really treat God.”

You must remember that Urban Ministries came about out of necessity. There was a homeless problem and no one was doing anything about it. State, federal and local government contribute around 8 percent of Urban Ministries operating budget.

“So that’s our motivation. The Lord calls us to be concerned, especially for the outcast and the downtrodden. That’s our commitment and if people want to talk about religious values, that’s the religious values that don’t seem to get talked about.”

The county can cut checks, but the hundreds of bottlecaps pressed into the dirt at the intersection of Lee and Eugene streets will tell you where most of that money goes. If you want to help these people, you’ve got to be able to find them. They need someone to talk to. They need homes. Then the city of Greensboro will have a place to mail their panhandling license.

Trust me, you don’t want to be caught without it.

Oh you hadn’t heard? Panhandling is a licensed profession here in Greensboro. A mere trip down to the Melvin Municipal Building, with North Carolina driver’s license and Social Security Card in hand, and you’re in business, literally. There’s a breakdown in the informational packet, “So you’ve decided to panhandle’…” that indicates how much money, after around $15,000 annually, you must claim on your taxes. If you’re making $15,000 a year panhandling, you’re overqualified.

The municipal building is filled with little offices, replete with poinsettias and candy dishes. It would take you a decade to fill out all of the forms these file cabinets contain. After completing a brief background check one floor below, take your papers up to the plaza level and get your temporary panhandler’s license. The permanent one will be mailed to your house, which, needless to say, creates a problem for more than a few applicants.

No matter. I’ve got my certification and I’m headed downtown. For most of the working world it’s lunchtime, and there’s got to be some quarters left after gratuities and meter fare. Today’s lot seems to be comprised mostly of whistling businessmen in overcoats and salad-bound secretaries. After about an hour of unsuccessful bumming, sob stories, puppy dog faces and stumbles, I make my way back to base camp in an odd alley to rendezvous with my photographer who’s got a bazooka-grade lens to capture the affair from afar. We conclude that the lunch rush is bunk and that greater fortunes are to be found at the city’s highway off ramps. In a slightly unethical move, I bum a ride as we head toward Wendover.

Riding shotgun, I contemplate the most integral part of anyone’s hustle: the sign. It’s got to be concise, convincing and legible. Usually including, but not limited to, the following words: hungry, veteran, homeless – all classics. There are some more esoteric approaches to garnering new-wave sympathy along the lines of “Family killed by ninjas – need money for karate lessons” and the college crowd-pleaser, “Why lie – I need a beer!” I need neither karate lessons nor a cold one, so I begin scrawling on my dismantled shoebox.

That is until we get pulled over. It is in this moment that I have the privilege of hearing the most unusual request I’ve ever received from the boys in blue.

“Please step out of the car sir. Bring your sign.”

I wouldn’t have thought you could get pulled over for panhandling either, but today is anything but routine. Two officers, who decline to go on the record, tell me that they had received a few calls about me. They heard I was down by Hamburger Square asking people for money, and then later by Market and Elm. I confess to the crime, but insist that I have the proper paperwork. Surprised, they tell me that I am in the clear, all charges dropped. As long as I have this Xeroxed document, I am permitted to mooch. I later find that they had been trailing me for some time: on foot, by car, even using some binoculars, possibly some grappling hooks to infiltrate our complicated quest for spare change.

Like most Greensboro police, these guys are cool. They pose for pictures and shoot some grade-A shit with us for a half hour. They applaud the permit – say requiring it has helped with regulating panhandlers, and created some parameters for change purveyors (no double-teaming, no walking in traffic, operation during daylight hours only, etc). They believe that it’s made the downtown area less scary, especially for women who practically felt assaulted during aggressive propositions. One gives us his business card and wishes us well.

Panhandlers have certainly had to step up their game. With downtown merchants exercising hair-trigger 911 reflexes, the impoverished have had to reinvent the cardboard sign. You’ll notice a lot more homeless make their money with their mouths, introducing themselves, explaining their situation and building a dialogue with their mark. I can’t tell you how many homeless people have called me “Big Man,” a moniker few would label me, even in Japan. Regardless, people like Tom Thacker, who indeed, greets me as “Big Man,” gets my pocket change whenever I see him by the General Store on South Mendenhall. It’s like I know him.

Thacker, 50, who has been in and out of work due to a back injury, thinks that regulating panhandling is ridiculous, that people should be free to do what they please with their money. He has been run through the system and sees the same thing happen to his peers, time after time, for trivial offenses.

“There’s nothing wrong under the law saying you can’t ask nobody for no money, as long as you’re not being all aggressive.”

Tom waves to every car that passes. Although homeless, he’s as much a part of this community as the students and the business owners. Business owners, in their quest to sell $9 sandwiches, seem to forget that. In turn they call the police, and the police must act.

“I mean, I don’t have anything against the police system or the justice system or anything like that,” admits Thack. “They’ve got to do their job. But sometimes it seems like it’s a game to them. I’ve seen them arguing and fighting, like ‘Ooh I got this one, I got this one!’ It’s ridiculous, man! You’re playing with somebody’s life and freedom. You could mess their record up over something petty. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The justice system is not a very hospitable place for the underprivileged. It’s a system where leverage costs money, something that the homeless lack by nature. Much like their existence in the streets, when confronted by the system they’re on their own.

“The public defenders can’t help you – they’ve got a caseload from hell,” says Thack. “They go in there, stacks of papers, half of them are halfway asleep, ain’t combed their hair, ain’t washed their face, don’t know who some of the people are that they’re representing. Meanwhile the shelters are full.” You can see Thack’s breath cut through the crisp December air. He turns to me in a bout of seriousness.

“And it ain’t even gotten cold yet.”

Being homeless is a full-time job. In the wild, eight solid hours of sleep is as rare as a steak dinner, but it’s still the most you can ask for. In this best-case scenario, that leaves 16 hours of fancy-free time to spend as you please. When the shelters close, before the mess halls open, many look to the downtown library for warmth and entertainment.

Walking through the stacks, which range from genre criticism to literary anthologies, you can hear the hum of the fluorescent lights. No one checks out books anymore, certainly not when arranged in a method as primitive as the Dewey Decimal System. The internet reigns supreme here, and most homeless people prefer to cruise around the World Wide Web instead of the card catalog. A brief stroll through the computer room indicates that online card games are popular, as are MySpace and Instant Messenger. I had fantasized about an uprising of super-educated homeless people who all read and stay informed on where other people’s tax dollars were going. For the most part, no. Mostly just talk of tonight’s dinner destination and the regular gossip that exists inside any social circle – Frosty’s out of jail, but Spoon’s back in and so forth.

After flipping through the Raleigh News and Observer I learn all kinds of fascinating stuff. Medical researchers at Duke University are working on a treatment for that insane peanut allergy that seems to be keeping nuts off our nation’s airplanes. I learn about a Raleigh man who’s been saving pennies in assorted coffee cans for 45 years. I can’t imagine any circumstances when this wouldn’t be of interest to me.

I’ve got some time to kill so I try my hand at rustling up some covert cash before the sun goes down. I pick a corner near the UNCG campus off Lee Street. At this point I am legitimately tired, hungry and still have no money. I get a lot of eye contact, a lot of nods and noncommittal smiles, but not a single penny.

Meanwhile one of the most epic sunsets in Greensboro history is ensuing behind my head. Molten clouds smear across a translucent horizon as Colfax-bound aircraft wipe streaks of spent fuel, peppering the sky with jet-propelled comets. Meanwhile, I’m holding some degrading sign that got me pulled over and I can’t get any money for a jr. bacon cheeseburger. This is not fun. It’s cold. Like most people who walk these streets, I just want to go home.

But what good is money on these streets anyway? I ate lunch; I am en route to eat dinner; and even if I was the Barry Bonds of panhandling, no landlord is going to take your first month’s rent in nickels. Realizing that, I start to make my way over to Grace Community Church, which is where tonight’s meal is scheduled. I already know that barbecued chicken will be part of the meal, information gleaned through a means of community dialog I can only describe as a buzz. Along Lee Street I notice houses where I used to see punk-rock shows, condemned and inhabited again in a manner far more anti-establishment than the teenaged bands that once played there. I don’t know why no one walks anymore. This isn’t so bad at all.

Most are probably worried about confronting the sort of scene that’s developing in front of Grace Community Church. At 5:40 a hardy line has formed there, reportedly half the size of the usual gathering. This is due to the fact that it’s “check week,” when all eligible persons get their miscellaneous government payouts, food stamps and so forth. Attendees rejoice in the prospect of seconds.

Rightfully so, homeless people romanticize about food as if they were stranded on a deserted island. It is not uncommon to hear sentences like: “Man I don’t remember the last time I had ribs!” or “Nothing fills you up like tuna.”

After borrowing a pack of matches from me, one homeless man openly tells me about some of tonight’s guests.

“Most people get checks. That guy gets a check,” he says, pointing across the lawn. “One of those ‘crazy checks.’ I mean he’s fine – says he was diagnosed with manic depression when he was five. That other guy,” he says, indicating a fellow who seems a little imbalanced, even from afar, “no wait – he doesn’t get a check. I asked him once, ‘Where’s your crazy money?’ and he said, ‘Guess I’m not crazy enough.'”

My new friend shrugs his shoulders in disbelief, saying, “And I’m thinking, ‘Shit; what kind of scale are we working with here?'”

Of all the people I talk to regarding this particular meal, many seem skeptical. Walking into the lobby of the church I am greeted with brotherly love, firm handshakes and Wet Naps – a generous hand that somebody in the Bible might have extended to the outcasts and lepers of the biblical Triad. A woman, full of love and with warm hands, walks up to me and hugs me uncontrollably as if compelled by the Lord.

“Oh dear! You’re so cold!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cold outside,” I say.

“I know it is,” she replied, “Oh I know it is.”

It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me all day.

Perhaps people were reluctant to endorse this particular dining experience because of the expectations of the congregation. They want you to listen and love. The adult volunteers all have nametags with decorative names like Sophia and Marjorie. Most of the younger Samaritans wear Page High School athletic sweatshirts.

Held in a giant banquet hall, which doubles as a sanctuary on the Sabbath, the meal is preempted by some sort of Christian Community Theater. Their message is pretty uplifting: They acknowledge the fact that a lot of people in attendance are in a bad place and it will take nothing short of a miracle to lift them out.

They’re right. These people are living hand to mouth, day after day, with few positive role models in their lives. Many of them are mentally ill, sleep deprived and perpetually down on their luck. Many have given up on themselves while all but a few have given up on them. I want to run. I want to run home and get under the covers. If I didn’t truly have anywhere to run, I know I’d go crazy.

After the mounds of food are distributed by God’s servants, everyone dives in. The food is delicious. Pretty high-school girls come around every so often with pitchers of lemonade and sweet tea. They make a final pass with bowls of banana pudding and sugar cookies. I can’t think of anything, aside from a cot in a heated enclosure that I need. My tablemates think otherwise.

“A Steel Reserve would have me feeling good right about now,” one guy says.

It’s supposed to be in the mid-30s tonight, hardly camping weather. The only floor space is at Urban Ministries, and the Salvation Army emergency shelter doesn’t open for another week. Apartments are expensive, as are groceries, tires and baby clothes.

Unfortunately, Thrift World is a store, not a world.

After seeing what these people go through on a daily basis, the obstacles they are confronted with, I don’t have a better suggestion than a couple of Steel Reserves myself. They’ve got a lot of pain to numb.

Nor am I surprised that my panhandling efforts were futile. I certainly wasn’t able to muster up the confidence or charisma I am able to convey on stage, on-air or in print. Maybe my friends were right. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be homeless after all.

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