When Your Friends Live on the Street, Your Street

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Do not avert your eyes. It is important that you see this. It is important that you feel this. ― Kamand Kojouri

Last night I was sitting by the front window in the Vine Street Skyline Chili, just me with my four-way, book, and phone.  Rick was at some sporting event, the one where the players wear long pants, I think.

I was feeling empowered, eating unapologetically alone.  I was multitasking, texting with one hand, shoveling food in with the other, when there was a knock on the window.  My heart sank when I saw that it was Brady and his girlfriend Chelsea, my amply pierced and tatted young friends.

Brady came in to see me, and we chatted briefly in that surface way you do when someone stops by your table, and then he left to join his girlfriend.  I watched as the two, hand in hand, crossed the street.

I had been Brady’s eighth grade English teacher in 2000, so he’s in his thirties.  A Millenial. You know, that generation that’s supposedly tech-savvy, civic minded, liberal, and entrepreneurial, or maybe lazy, narcissistic, and selfie-loving?

None of those adjectives apply to Brady and Chelsea.  They are street people. They live the majority of their lives on and near my street in downtown Cincinnati.homelesscoallogo

When Brady was in eighth grade, he was a smart-underachiever. A smart-aleck, too. One of the most frustrating, disappointing kinds of kids to teach.  You can see that success is within their reach, but they won’t take their hands out of their pockets in their drooping pants.

Brady was like so many of the kids in my school:  No father in the picture.  A mom working long hours in a  minimum wage job.  Brady lived in a little brick ranch with a small, untended yard.  These were “the working poor,” people who worked but couldn’t get ahead, or out from under debt, or past the daily demands of life.  A broken car or leg or relationship can land such folks out on the street.  But Brady’s family managed to stay in their house.

The year I taught Brady, I was doing graduate work, too.  As part of my coursework, I designed a research study focusing on aliterate boys—boys who could read but chose not to.  Kids who were a lot smarter than their test scores and grades would lead you to believe.  I asked Brady and some other eighth grade guys if I could talk to them after school about reading.  All of the boys, including Brady, seemed to enjoy the attention and being experts at something, even if that “something” was apathy.  I gave them pop and Skyline dip and gift cards, but I think they would have participated even if I hadn’t.

After Brady left the middle school, he returned and visited me for years.  Once he sported a very impressive Mohawk, one that stood at attention, thanks to glue, he said.  “Really?  Glue?”  He was pulling my leg, right?  Another time he visited, he was cultivating dreadlocks.  I think he liked it when I teased him about his crazy hair.

As I finished my Skyline dinner last night, I thought about Brady and what I wished I would have said to him, so I was pleased when I walked out to see him and Chelsea standing on the corner across the street.  I wondered if they were waiting for me.  “Mrs. Lingo, you would be so proud of me.  I read a whole book.  A ‘course Chelsea had to talk me into it.”

“Yeah, I had to read it first,” said Chelsea, grinning and rolling her eyes.

“It was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I seen the movie, the American one, but I want to see the Swedish one.”

Mary Magdalene House, where people can get a shower and change of clothes

Mary Magdalene House, where people can get a shower and change of clothes

“That is a really big book, Brady.  Way to go!” I said.   “And the sequels are really good, too.”  (Once a teacher . . .)

“Hey, guys, I wanted to tell you that I think about you a lot.  I worry about you two.  You need to get jobs.  You need to get your little boy.”  We were all quiet for a moment.  Brady shrugged his shoulders and lowered his head, as if he knew he deserved this chastening, but wished he didn’t have to listen to it.

****************

The first time I spotted Brady and Chelsea downtown was about six months ago. Brady called out to me from across the street.  “Mrs. Lingo!” he cried, and he and his girlfriend jogged over to me, even burdened as they were by bulky backpacks.  He was handsome and tall, even if he looked disheveled and dusty. His girlfriend was petite, and I tried to open my tiny mind to the multiple hook-like piercings in her pert nose.

Brady told me they had a child, a boy of about two, and he whipped out his phone to show me a picture.  And he admitted, without being asked, that his son was living with his mother.  Brady said that he was homeless and looking for a job.

He was somber in the telling, but his demeanor lifted as he explained to his girlfriend that I had interviewed him about reading when he was a middle-schooler.  “She wrote a book about me,” he said. I didn’t correct him, and I’m not sure it was because I wanted him to look good to his girlfriend, or because I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t finished my dissertation, that I was a quitter.  “I picked him to interview because he was so smart,” I told his girlfriend, and that was the truth.

I wished them well, told them I hoped their little family would be together soon, and because he didn’t ask, I pulled a $20 bill out of my purse and pressed it into Brady’s grimy hand.  “Go, eat!” I commanded.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that Mrs. Lingo.  Really.”

A week later: “Hey, Mrs. Lingo!” and there they were at the same place I’d seen them before.  Again, they bounded over, clearly excited to see me.  Brady said they just couldn’t find jobs and said, almost in a whisper, that it was because, “they always pick blacks.  I hate to say it, but it’s true.  While he talked on animatedly, all I could think was How did this happen to you, Brady?

As I was winding up the conversation, Brady looked down.  “I hate to ask,” he said quietly, and I could tell what was coming, “but could you give us a little money?”

“I’m sorry, Brady.  I can’t.  But I wish you luck.”  I wanted so much to empty my wallet into their hands, but I was so afraid how that money would be spent.

They never asked for money again.

**************

When you live downtown, you encounter panhandlers every day.  When we first moved here seven years ago, we would ask them, “Are you hungry?  We will buy you lunch.” We would take the person into the nearest restaurant, and we paid after they ordered a pizza or a sandwich.  Sometimes they would say, “No, I just want money,” and we’d decline.

But after going to our first monthly Downtown Residence Council (DRC) meeting, we stopped even offering food.  ODB2
The police informed us that there were dozens of Cincinnati non-profit organizations that provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day of the week, and encouraged us to donate to the agencies instead of individuals.

Furthemore, most of the panhandlers are not homeless, despite what the signs say.

Most significantly, a large percentage of those begging for money are addicted to drugs, and the kind offerings from “Good Samaritans,” went to feeding their habit.  At one DRC meeting, a police officer and firefighter told us that just that morning they had to revive a man who had overdosed in a restaurant bathroom.  “And next to him was his ‘I am homeless sign.’”

One woman at a meeting said, “There was a man that was so pathetic. I just had to help!   I gave him $5.”

The policeman responded, “Well, I hope he’s alive tomorrow.”

**************

This morning when I was walking to the bank, there they were on that very same street corner.  “Hello,” I said.  “Here you are again!  You are always on this block.  Why are you just walking around this same area all day?”

“We’re looking for you,” Brady said, smiling.

I was touched by his words.  And burdened.

How to Help:

A PRINTABLE GUIDE you can offer people in need. The Visitors Center at Fountain Square has a handy pocket size version they will give to you to hand out.

WHERE TO DONATE   There are so many wonderful agencies, but here are a few I support.

homelesscoallogo       CINCINNATI HOMELESS COALITION

 

 

ODB2

 

 OUR DAILY BREAD

 

Mary Magdalene House, where people can get a shower and change of clothes

                MARY MAGDALENE HOUSE

 

 

tender merciesTENDER MERCIES

 

 

streetvibesWhen someone offers to sell you a copy of Streetvibes, buy one, and ask whether the seller is published in that edition.  Streetvibes  includes creative writing, poetry, articles, photography and interviews written by homeless and formerly homeless individuals. Streetvibes reports the often-invisible story of poverty in our community.

 

 

34 Comments

  1. Heart tugging story. Thank you. Would you say they are addicted to drugs too, or simply “lost?”

    My prayers are with you as you love them unconditionally and encourage them to know their worth.

  2. Thanks, Sandy. I enjoyed this thoughtful piece. I could picture and empathize with these two street-kid-millenials.

  3. My 29!yr old son was living in his car and/or couch surfing at friends. Then he had a horrific accident while speeding on his motorbike. He was run over by a SUV and hospitalized for 3+months. Now he’s living with mobility issues and a Traumatic Brain Injury. He is no longer homeless but his choices have impacted the whole family.

  4. Sandy, This is heart-breakingly real and deeply affecting. What gets me is how very hungry these children are for even just some simple attention, and you were the one who gave Brady that and he remembers it with such pride.

  5. Oh Sandy, this one breaks my heart. So well written about such a sad situation. I love your first description of Brady when he was in the 8th grade. I’ve known these students too and I understand that frustration. You made an impact on this student’s life…like you did for so many. I’m so glad to call you a friend. You have a precious heart.

  6. This piece is wonderful, Sandy! Any chance the Cinti Enquirer or some other publication would publish? It deserves to be read by a broad audience. Just wonderful…

  7. Sandy,
    Thank you for alleviating my guilt. I pass 5 th and 6 th and Central Avenues going and coming from my volunteer stint at the library. There is always someone at those corners begging for money and I ignore them as I am aware of so many places where they can get help. But, it is difficult to pass them by.
    Enjoy your writing. Keep it up.
    Bobbie

    • Bobbie, you can get those little pamphlets from the Visitors Center at the square so you can give them to panhandlers. I try to make eye contact and wish them a good day, but it is uncomfortable. Love you.

  8. Your story makes so clear the message that street people are real individuals with families, loved ones and a history. They are not nameless, faceless “others”. I wondered if you three had a standing “date” (not that you want to), would it remove the tension of worrying every time you go outside that they might be lurking about, looking for you? I don’t know that I would be willing to make that kind of a commitment!

    • I don’t worry at all that they’re “lurking.” I interpreted Brady’s comment that he was happy to see me. I believe he is constantly walking in this area for other reasons. It’s kind of his local address so others who want to see him know where to go. They are not in the last threatening or demanding. I love them.

  9. All i can think to do is open my heart wide with gratitude for all who stop to acknowedge dysfunction with a loving acceptance that is the life of poor choices and little opportunity.

  10. You see a different slice of life living downtown. I didn’t know there were that many places where people can get food and shelter. I often wondered when people have that “homeless” card, if they were all homeless. When I worked in Public Health I saw a different slice of life. It tugs on your heart.

    • When you live downtown, you rub against lifestyles and circumstances so different from your own.

  11. Thanks for sharong this story, Sandy. You captured so well the vulnerability of these young (but no really so young) people. It was so poignant how Brady referenced the book you wrote “about” him. you handled that with great sensitivity.
    The things you wrote about the quandary of giving money or food to street people was informative — I’m frequently caught wondering what I should do. I’ve often felt as if I need to give them food to avoid the trap of feeding their drug/alcohol habit. Interesting to read what the police/firefighters think on this one.

    • I always try to make contact and wish them well, to acknowledge their humanity. It is so difficult to do this–so much easier to walk by and ignore them.

  12. Lovely piece, Sandy. It makes me sad. Working downtown, I see this too. On May 3rd on Fountain Square, 53 day, Fifth Third will attempt to feed 1 Million through the volunteer efforts of its employees. I hope Brady and Chelsea stop by for their meals this day!

    • You have to be proud of your organization’s efforts.

  13. So much to think about and ponder. No easy answers, and each of us grapples in our own way. Thank you, Sandy, for going right to the heart of this, and also offering resources for more information.

    • You are so right, no easy answers. I talk tough, but not too long ago a woman, about my age, lumbered across our parking lot as I was putting something in my trunk. I made eye contact, as I always try to, and after a moment’s hesitation asked quietly for money for food. It was cold and she had a limp and I believed she was hungry. And I gave her money.

  14. Thank you, as always your writings always touches my heart and opens my mind. it has become a hard decision on what to do or how to help these days. Thank you for the recourses, very helpful. I am not on the city streets but the homeless and addicted are here also, it is just harder to get by with it out here. Their is a couple churches here that help feed them and St. Bernadette is always trying to help. I love your writing, I guess because you are great at it. Thank You

    • We all have to find our own way in all this sadness, to do what we can in the unique ways that we can. Thank you for your kind words.

    • Your words mean so much to me. I have not done much hands-on to help–too busy taking care of elderly and sick relatives–but I support many of these agencies who don’t just give hand outs–they try to guide, protect, and motivate these people.

  15. Sandy, thanks for sharing your gift of writing with all of us.
    I am saddened to hear about Brady. Your asessment of the school snd the students was certainly sad but very accurate.
    Your after school group made a difference in the life of those students. Even though Brady is homeless, you obviously influenced him. He was eager to share that he had read a book. I know he carries many good memories of the after school experiences you gave him. You touched many lives. You are not a loser. You are a winner for all you did to make those students lives better as Middle School students. You gave them love and respect . They chose to be part of a positive group that enabled them to feel special even if it was for a short time in their day. Thank you Sandy for all you did for those students.
    It is obvious you continue to touch lives.
    I will prayer for Brady that he will someday greet you with a smile and an announcement that he has a job and will be able to change his life.

    • You are always the principal, the teacher of teachers. Thank you for your kind and wise words. You always told me that the kids that drove you most crazy were the ones that came back to visit you. Just never thought Brady would come to my street.

  16. Your perspective – the long view of one young man – is revealing and heart-breaking. Their story and your story will sit with me for awhile. Thank you for sharing.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed it, Jen.

    • Thank you for reading and responding. It’s always good to see your name in my feed. Hope you are doing well.

  17. Heart-breaking…honest…you avoid the fix-it mentality and put us there on that street corner. Thanks, Sandy. It’s a struggle for us all.

    • Thank you for letting me know it resonated with you.

  18. As always, this was very informative. I cannot believe that there is a pamphlet available for sources. So, the reason that we see people in the same place is that they consider it their home. It is sad the choices that people make. It is interesting that it is their choice. The view of the policeman’s comment was thought provoking. I will remember that when I am approached.

    Sometimes the smallest action/comment has long range impact.

    Thanks for writing.

    • Sandy, once again you uplift, inform, and motivate me to action. I just printed off the pocket guide and am gathering toiletries for the Mary Magdalen House. I gave $20 last year to a woman who said she needed a meal and a shower. I had just bought a bagful of books at Books by the Banks, and so was feeling happy and fortunate and generous. To have blown by her without “helping” would have felt shameful and selfish. Half an hour later she hit me up again, on a different street. She didn’t recognize me, so I asked her if she had gotten her shower yet. She said they had raised the price on the shower and she needed more money. Now I can say “no” and know it’s the more compassionate choice.

    • If you are up at the Square, the Visitor’s Center is behind Via Vite. They have this handy pocket guide to find meals in the city which you can give to the panhandlers. They may not want it, they may throw it away, but it’s a way of saying that you are not dismissing them, that you want them to be nourished.

  19. This very moving post has stayed with me for days. You offer no easy solutions, which seems to be the only honest thing to do. Nevertheless, don’t we all hope for policy changes that alleviate sleeping “rough” and living on the street.

    Thank you.

    • It’s just not easy! I try to be compassionate without enabling. I do give generously to many organizations that help the needy, but sometimes that just seems like a cop out.

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.

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