I met up with a man at the shelter named Nick (not his real name) on the morning of May 17, 2012 and he washed his face and we left. We would cover roughly a four block area near the shelter but far enough away that we could find prime real estate for our signs.
We started with a sign at the corner of South 13th Street and I-84. This busy street bring commuters into work every morning and since it is a one way street directly into downtown it was his best shot at getting noticed and making a few dollars. I must tell you that I did not have a sign nor did I accept any money from people throughout this immersion project and as I explained to Nick I simply wanted a firsthand look into his life.
The first thing I noticed during our two hours on the street corner was that people do not like to make eye contact. They will briefly look at you and them they will quickly look away, the people that did give Nick money would usually be older people. I sat with Nick and asked him how much he makes on a daily basis and he told me around $25.00 but that was enough for him to get a pack of cigarettes and a couple beers. I asked about food, I have always heard that if you want to give a homeless person something buy them food but never give them cash because they will only buy drugs or alcohol with it. While this is true for many homeless people it is not always the case. Nick told me if he made enough money he would get a hotel room and stay the night there. As he put “I will live like a normal person for a night with a hot shower and TV.”
While standing there with Nick I noticed a man pushing a cart with a dog attached to it and he was headed to us. The man stopped and Nick looked at me and said it was time to go, I thought we were in trouble so I asked why and he explained that his time on the corner was up and it was this other guy’s turn. I could not believe it they had a system in place that afforded others a chance to use these prime areas to panhandle. As we walked away Nick turned and gave the old man $10 and told me that “he needs it more than me, he is old and people don’t give him too much”. Even when people are down there is still compassion and those who are trudging through these hard times seem to understand this more than those of us who are better off financially.We left and headed towards the Boise Green Belt located south of the Mission because it was lunch time and Nick and I were hungry. I learned from him that you can usually get food the Food Pantry at the Salvation Army; they will usually give you a bag of chips and a sandwich for lunch. So we ate and then headed back into town by this time it was after 12:00 and I had spent the better part of the morning really hoping that my friends would not see me or a police officer would not stop to see what we were up too, even though I knew this was a possibility. I was still really embarrassed and kept telling myself that I was retired after a long successful career in the military and I was going to school to help those who could not help themselves. I felt bad for feeling this way and I began to understand why people are embarrassed when they suffer financially. It is hard to look into complete strangers eyes and ask them to give up a few dollars that they have worked hard to earn.
As I spent the rest of the day with Nick I learned that there is a code of ethics among many of the homeless and they will try and take care of each other whether that be in the form of protection from the many kids who like to harass them, passing money to the next guy for a meal passing on information about establishments that are providing food or other necessities. When I went home I was thankful for the experience and I knew that I would never want to be in that situation but I was also happy to know that even in extreme circumstances people are able to band together and form a society within a society to survive.“For the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the President has a budget of $112.8 billion for FY 2010, increasing 15% from 2009. The Department of Veterans Affairs also boasts that its homeless assistance programs constitute the largest integrated network of services in the United States. Veterans’ Affairs budget allocates $3.222 billion to combating homelessness (Department of Veterans Affairs). The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says that of the 400,000 homeless veterans on the street any given night, the Department of Veterans Affairs reaches only about 25% of them.” (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009) This is a realistic figure of the 20 veterans I spoke to only about a quarter of them used the services the Veterans Affairs Hospital (VA) in Boise.