By Loriann Cordero
Society shows little mercy. It dictates success as having a great job, nice house, and a hefty bank account. However, beneath what our society mandates as the foundation for everyday life, exist a population which is the opposite; a way of life that “normal society” refuses to acknowledge. An Underground City: this population, also known as “the homeless, bums, vagrants, losers”, has become invisible because according to “the norm” it represents failure. There is a stigma that follows the homeless. It is believed that they have brought this failure upon themselves and now they do not deserve a second chance.
The first time he rolled up to the street ministry, it had all the resemblance of the darkest thunderhead ever imagined. He did not want any one to talk to him, or even look at him. His clothes resembled the aftermath of a storm as well. They were ratted, torn, and dirty. By his matted and greasy hair, and the smudges of dirt on his face, it was apparent that he had not bathed for days. His eyes were red and bloodshot; and even at several feet away the smell of alcohol was strong and overpowering. The name of the gentleman being described is John, and he was bringing the storms of change to the lives of many that day.
John was new to the ministry site. This was not unusual because the weather was turning colder. Along with this change in temperature, many more homeless came out from the woods for hot food and beverages. John stumbled his way into line and immediately began to argue with the others around him who were patiently awaiting their turn for hot dogs and soup. John began to push and accuse people of cutting in front of him. He snapped at a woman who entered the line, “What the heck are you doing?” The woman’s expression revealed shock at first, and when she quickly recovered, she replied in an agitated tone, “What are you talking about you old drunk, I was already in line!” She then continued, “You cut in front of me!” John’s face held all the fury of a volcano as he erupted with, “Shut-up or I will beat the tar out of you!” A heated argument ensued and then others in line started to join in. In order to keep things calm, ministry volunteers brought John food and gently, but cautiously, directed him to a seat under a tree. As John sat and ate his food, he continued to snap and snarl at the other homeless guests that were being served. “Get away from me, I don’t want you over here,” he yelled at Don who tried to share the ledge near the tree. Don just grumbled something about “you old fool,” as he walked off.
One of my duties in the ministry is to assist in providing employment opportunities. In doing so, I have the opportunity to walk around and chat with the homeless about their daily lives and the people they encounter while living in the camps. This day, as I was speaking with a gentleman named Stan and his topic of conversation was about none other than John. Stan spoke to me out of concern for John’s safety. He looked at me with furrowed brows and concerned eyes as he said, “John keeps telling everyone he wants to commit suicide.” Stan glanced over at John, making sure he was not being overheard and then quietly continued, “He told me that he lives in a house with no running water, no electricity, no heat, and it was condemned by the City of New Britain a few years ago.” He sighed, helpless, “If the city finds out John is still living there, they will throw him out on the street.” Stan went on “Lori, John tried to kill himself three weeks ago, but ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.” Then he explained further “He has been drinking heavily again today and that is why he has been threatening everyone with harm who even attempt to come near him.” After Stan chatted with me a few more minutes I found myself facing a decision. In my heart I knew I had to try and speak to John. However, my mind was telling me that this was a dangerous option. My heart, as usual, won.
As I looked over at John, it was almost as if I could see the thunderclouds over his head. Actually, it was more like a typhoon, hurricane, and tornado rumbling simultaneously above his head. I cautiously walked up to him and asked him if he would like any more to eat. He spun around, looked at me, and grumbled, “No, I am fine.” I then introduced myself “My name is Lori, by the way.” “My name is John,” he grumbled.
I carefully sat down next to him and asked him how he is managing. He began to tell me about his life and his living circumstances. “I live in a house that was condemned by the City,” he stated flatly. He did not look at me as he was talking. He just stared down at the hot dog resting in his hand. I did not say anything. I decided to let him talk as much or as little as he wished. “I do not have any heat,” and added “It is just as cold in my house as it is outside.” We sat silent for a few moments. Then I ventured, “John, what about your family? Can you stay with them?” He shook his head sadly and said, “My wife divorced me and my children abandoned me.” Then John looked at me with deep red eyes. I was not sure if they were red from the alcohol or from the sting of tears. “I was a Marine and I served in Vietnam,” he said as a matter of fact. He went on to say “The military taught me how to kill, but they never taught me how to love again.” He looked back down at the ground, “I did not show my family any love, so I cannot blame my family for abandoning me.” He then stated bluntly “I have nothing to live for anymore.” When he was done speaking, he stood up and reached for the bags at his feet that held his belongings. I looked at him, and asked him softly, “John, can I give you a hug?” John looked at me with both a puzzled and startled expression on his face and asked, “What did you say?” I repeated, “Can I give you a hug, John?” He asked “Why would you want to give me a hug?” Even as he asked the question he was already tentatively opening his arms and his bags were still in his hands. John’s voice was filled with emotion as he said to me, “No one has given me a hug in about thirty years.”
As I stepped into his arms, I wrapped mine around his neck. I felt his arms gently close around me. I was close to his ear and said, “Because I care, John.” When I said that, I felt the bags fall to the ground and I felt his hug tighten. It was my every intention to comfort him. However, suddenly a wellspring of tears just bubbled up from inside me and I just started to sob. Through my tears, I repeated to him, “Please do not kill yourself, John, please don’t. I would miss you so much if you did.” John began to give me comfort instead. When I pulled back and looked at him, he took his dirty hand and patted my check. I looked into eyes that were no longer red, but bright blue and smiling. His face had actually softened. He had the expression of some one who was just handed hope.
Working in shelters and outreach programs these last twelve years has taught me one important thing: hope is what the homeless look for in the faces of those who pass them by on the street. Sit and talk with anyone who has spent even one night on the street or in a shelter, and the first thing you will hear is that they no longer feel like a person. They feel invisible and forgotten. No one ever wants to feel that way. According to the CT Count 2009 report released by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, “an estimated 4,154 people were experiencing homelessness in Connecticut on the night of January 28, 2009. Among those counted in sheltered settings, there were 2,482 single adults and 423 families with minor children. Counted in places unintended for human habitation such as streets, cars, parks, abandoned buildings, were 488 single adults and 7 families with minor children.” While packed with statistics, what the report failed to show was the hopelessness those individuals felt that night. However, that is the intent and purpose of this two part series; to not only give voices to those who are silenced by that hopelessness, but to also bring those out of the shadows that society would prefer invisible.