Joe came to Nashville 6 weeks ago with all of his small savings and some clothes. Like many others who came to Nashville, he’s hoping to break into the music industry. He has been singing ever since he was a young child, and can play several instruments. He left his instruments at home with his parents, because he was traveling by bus and couldn’t carry them with him. I later thought it’s a good thing that he left the instruments, because his clothes got stolen after being in Nashville for 2 weeks. If he had had the instruments with him, they might have been stolen along with the clothes. He has been looking for permanent work, but hasn’t found any, and his money has already run out. He’s been doing temporary jobs to get by.
Though he introduced himself to me as “Joe”, he later proudly told me that his full name is “Joseph”, that he was named after Jesus’ father. His grandfather is a preacher. Joe loves God and his faith is what keeps him going everyday. When his arm got injured on his last temporary job, he was dismayed that he won’t be able to work, but then later thought that it maybe a blessing in disguise to get him out of homelessness. When I met him, he was sitting in this smelly doorway, waiting to go see the worker’s comp lawyer to talk about a settlement for his injury. He hopes the settlement will be big enough to rent a place to live, and maybe have some left to cut a batch of CD to launch his singing career. All he wants is a chance. . .
Cassius Richman doesn’t consider himself a homeless person, even though he doesn’t have a place to call his own. He travels from city to city, staying a month or two in each one with relatives and friends. He earns the money he needs for food each day by playing the saxophone. He says he’s not homeless, because he has a place to go to sleep each night, and he’s never gone hungry. He accepts his lack of a permanent home as part of the cost of living his dream as a traveling musician. He’s a man of faith, and is thankful to have good health and the gift of music to enjoy and earn a living with. I didn’t talk for too long with Cassius, because I wanted to let him go back to earning his keep. I enjoyed just quietly listening to his music and thanking God for giving him such a gift, not just the ability to play the sax, but the wonderful attitude he has about life.
I was fighting tears after seeing Jerry. His first name was all the information I could find out from him. He didn’t appear to understand what I was saying to him. I had to use gesture to ask him if it’s OK for me to photograph him, to which he nodded his consent. He’s obviously not deaf or mute, for he heard me when I asked, “What’s your name?” and said his name, albeit only first name.
I had a lot of questions for Jerry that will go unanswered. Looking at the length of his finger nails, hair, and beard, and how dirty they were, he appeared to not have been cared for in a long time (either by himself or someone else). He was smoking, and there were a lot of cigarette butts around his feet. I wondered where he got the cigarettes, and how long he had been at that spot, all alone and ignored.
He seemed to be suffering from some kind of mental illness or developmental disorder. I wondered, given his apparent age, if he was cared for by someone who’d passed away, and now there’s nobody to care for him. Or did he get lose from a mental hospital? One way or another, a person in his condition should not be left to face this world alone. He didn’t appear capable of finding help for himself. He looked so confused and lost. . . and lonely.
I could have spent all day talking to Wayne. He’s so far from the typical characterization of a homeless person. He’s educated, intelligent, knows God, loves God and people, knows the Bible better than most Christians, and knows Hebrew and Greek too! He’s a writer as well as a musician. He teaches Bible study and sings Gospel music.
Wayne became homeless 20 years ago, when he was served divorce papers and told to vacate his home. It’s been a long journey, but he’s doing really well compared to other poor folks I know (and I’d even say he’s doing better than some rich folks I know). I admire his independent spirit. He has refused to get food stamps, and has chosen instead to grow his own food. He’s a vendor for the Nashville local paper called The Contributor, a publication that was created to help the homeless, giving them a way to earn a living and contribute to the betterment of the community. The Contributor has featured Wayne in their publication in 2012, and on their website, there’s a transcript of an interview with Wayne, as well as a link to a video that they created (so you can hear him speak for himself!). You can read more about Wayne here.
Marcus “The Trumpet Man” was a delight to talk to. He taught himself how to make the sound of a trumpet with just his lips and vocal chord. And he did sound like a real trumpet too! Before I saw him, as I was coming around the corner on the sidewalk, I thought someone was playing a trumpet nearby. He said he was inspired by the movie Beverly Hills Cop, where there was a character who could make all sorts of sounds with just his lips. He dreams of getting into the entertainment business. Currently he entertains passersby on the street with his original music. He uses a styrofoam cup to magnify the sound, which I thought was rather resourceful. He appreciated how I’d stopped by to talk to him, because, he said, most people would walk in a wide circle around him. In particular, Asians would openly show their fear of him. He said he hasn’t been able to hold on to his jobs because he suffers from chronic depression and hasn’t been able to afford the treatment. He’s been married for 10 years, but his wife has filed divorce after she’s “found someone else”. He’s desperate to find a place to live because his soon-to-be-former wife said he needs to move out in a month. All he really hopes for is to earn enough as an entertainer to afford his own place to live and buy his own food.
Looking back, Jack Fisher thanks God that he got arrested when he tried to sell some drugs to an undercover cop about 3 years ago, because it’s the wake-up call he needed to start turning his life around. He’s been clean since, and has learned healthier ways to cope so that he no longer has a desire to use drugs. He was sentenced to 28 months in jail and just finished serving his time 4 months ago. He has been walking the streets of Nashville, looking for a job everyday. He was living at the halfway house, but got kicked out when he could no longer pay the $125/week to stay there. He said it’s been hard because people are repulsed by his arrest record, or the businesses are simply not hiring any new workers. Another reason he’s having difficulty getting a job is also his lack of a high school diploma. He wants to get a GED, but lacks the $600 it costs to go through the program and take the test.
He has an estranged 20-year-old son, with whom he’s trying to reconcile. But like all of his friends and family, his son has lost faith in him. He said he understands that, because he has lied to them, but he hopes that in time, he can earn their trust back. He’s been getting food at the Presbyterian church that you can see behind him in the photo. At night, if the weather is good, he would sleep on the lawn of another church down the street that allows the homeless to sleep on their property. (The city has been arresting people for sleeping in public places.) When the weather is bad, he would go to sleep at the shelter for the homeless, but he said he prefers not to go there, because he wants to stay clean, and doesn’t like that there are people still using drugs there. When I asked if he needs anything, he said he’s thankful for the help that the church and other folks have given him, so there’s no lack there. He only wishes for a chance to prove himself as a good worker, to earn his own money and get his own place to live.
I’m an amateur photographer and was visiting Nashville, Tennessee, for a few days with my husband. He was there for his job, so I had to find things to do while he’s working. I walked the streets of downtown Nashville, intending to photograph the buildings and anything else of interest. Before long, I was talking to a homeless person. As I listened to his story, sitting there next to him and looking into his eyes, I couldn’t help but thought that this could be me, my children, or any of my friends. After that, I approached another homeless person, and then another, taking time with each one like I had no better thing to do than to listen to them. By the time my husband was done with his work, I’d talked to 6 of them.
In talking to these homeless folks and thinking what I would feel in their situations, I was reminded of the time I was a little girl in Bangkok, Thailand. I saw the beggars along the streets, many of whom had physical deformity, and I felt so much compassion for them that I could not eat the food at the restaurant where my family and I were dining. I wanted to put the few coins I had in my pocket into the tin cans they had set out to collect money from people. I wanted to talk to them, to show them I cared, but I was pulled away from them, and the impression I got was that these people were to be avoided. As a child, I could not do anything for the people whose pain and sorrow I was feeling.
But now I am an adult in America, and I can do something about it! I don’t have money to help them, because my husband and I have six children, and it’s all we can do to keep ourselves from becoming homeless. But I do have something else I can give them. I can use the two skills I am good at, photography and writing, to speak for them, so people can put faces and names to homelessness in America. They are real individuals, not just “a social problem” for the government to solve, or “a menace” for law enforcement to control. Not all the homeless individuals in America are drunkards, drug addicts, or lazy people waiting for a handout, as they have been so unfairly characterized. They have hopes and dreams just like you and me, and looking for the same opportunities that many of us take for granted. More than the daily sustenance of food, clothing, and shelter, they need our friendship and encouragement. I hope this blog will cause more people to befriend the homeless and give them a hand-up, not a handout. Money alone is not enough to take care of the problem of homelessness. It also takes a change in people’s perception and attitude toward the homeless individuals.