#15 of 49 – Spend a Day with a Homeless Guy

#15 of 49 – Spend a Day With a Homeless Guy

You might want to get a cup of coffee and get comfortable.  Perhaps also grab a snack.  This blog is a little longer than the others.  You can click away, but if you do, you won’t be able to read about what happened when I called 911 to report a drug dealer to the cops, and about how, while I was on the phone with the police, the dealer confronted me face to face…

A little bit of backstory

Let’s rewind just a bit.  I walk from my home to work every day.  I see the same homeless people on my way to work as I do on my way home.  They have a life-cycle, if you will.  From what I’ve observed, they last about 3 months, then move on to another area, only to be replaced by another.  By and large, they are harmless, polite, and keep to themselves.  In fact, even the “crazy” ones add a bit of flavor to life.

Over the years, I’ve developed some pretty strong beliefs about the homeless situation in Tampa. These are based on my observation of the homeless and the people who walk by them every day; as well as the politicians who think they know all they need to know about their plight, such that they can dole out, or cut back services, at the stroke of a pen.

About 3 weeks ago, a new kid came on the scene.  But he wasn’t like the other homeless.  He was clean cut.  Wore different clothes every day, and from my brief “hellos” on the street, seemed clear in thought.  Now, this is where you have to pay attention like I do.  A young man, clean, normal clothes, hanging out on the street with homeless people twice his age.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out real quick he’s not homeless.  He’s a drug dealer.

Now, I’ve got no problem with homeless people.  Interestingly enough, statistics show that homeless people can actually reduce violent crime because they act as eyes and ears of the city when the police can’t be around.  But I’ve got a big problem with drug dealers on my streets.  So I watched.  I slowed down.  I turned my head one direction while looking the other direction behind my sunglasses waiting to see him in a transaction.  I knew it was only a matter of time before I would see him dealing spice.

Finally, my civic minded, community watchdog stakeouts worked.  I was escorting a couple of tourists from Chicago to the Downtown Trolly.  As we walked by, I observed a homeless guy take a hit on his pipe.  He saw me catch him and just gestured for me to keep quiet.  Fifteen feet away, there was the new kid on the block.  I kept walking by telling the tourists about my favorite city.  On the way back, I stopped by the police and told them about this kid who is dealing spice.  They confirmed they’d been trying to catch him but hadn’t caught him in the act.  This was the moment!  I was ready for the police to deputize me so I could be a part of the sting – they didn’t.  They said they would send a car to take a look.  I kept on my way, proud of doing my civic duty.

When I got to the block in question, there was another guy standing in the sidewalk overdosing on spice. It’s easy to spot them, they walk like they are zombies and have no awareness of what’s happening around them.  Across the street, another one hallucinating.  Clearly, there was a fresh delivery just that day and the dealer was preying on the homeless again.  Cops not around, I called 911 and walked across the street to look nonchalant.  As I’m describing the scene to the police dispatch on 911, the young drug dealer spots me and begins to approach.  I stayed cool and on the phone with the police.

“My friends said you’ve been looking for me.  Said you told them you know I’m dealing drugs.”

Shit! What do I do? I’m on the phone with the police, the drug dealer is confronting me, and Macie is pulling at the leash trying to chase lizards.  So I did what any upstanding, civic minded, honest citizen would do.  I lied to him.

“I didn’t say you were dealing, I just told them I’m looking out for who is dealing, and you are the one guy I don’t recognize.”

And he did what any drug dealing kid who has been busted by a grown-ass adult would do.  He lied right back. “Well I’m not a drug dealer sir, I’m just a homeless guy trying to get my life back on track.”

“Hello sir!  Can you speak with me!” [The cop on the 911 dispatch was still there too.]

A few more words were exchanged, ending in a stern warning from me. “Well I want you to know I’m looking out for my street and I’m going to bust anyone dealing spice.”  And then he walked away without incident.

Enter the Old Homeless Guy…

I stayed on the corner waiting for the cops to arrive, and keeping tabs on the 3 homeless people overdosing on spice, to make sure they didn’t walk out in the street and get hit by a car or start chewing the face of another homeless person.

By now, all the homeless people are staring at me, and those who most likely were in possession of drugs started to scatter off in different directions.  Except the dealer; he just kept his eye on me from a block’s distance.  Another homeless guy, much older, approaches me and we start to talk about the troubles of drugs on our streets.  All I can think is, “Man for being 3 blocks away from the police station, they sure are taking a long time to get here!  Where’s my backup?”

That’s when the dealer kid approached me a second time. Now I’m starting to worry.  Macie is more concerned about chasing lizards in the shrubs than protecting me, and even if she wasn’t, from experience, all she would do is probably lick the guy and jump on his lap. A guard dog I did not buy.

This is where things got interesting.  Really interesting.  All 3 of us started talking.  The kid was articulate.  Intelligent.  And polite. The old man was racist.  But not an overt racist.  Sort of like when Trump makes a racist comment, and then follows it up with, “… and I’m not a racist.”  It’s still racist, right?

The young kid actually defends me, “yeah dude, that was a pretty racist comment.”  Then we all started laughing.  Something shifted.  He defended me, and we all found common ground.  That ground was finding ways to talk about reality without any of us sounding racist.  The kid and I started talking more.  I introduced myself and extended my hand.  He did the same, and he went from “young drug dealer,” to Robert in an instant.

Making a New Friend

We stood there and talked about life.  His story.  How he got where he was.  I wasn’t sure if he was being honest with me or telling me exactly what I wanted to hear so I could find some hope in humanity.  But either way, I wanted to learn more.

He was a vet.  Discharged early, not dishonorably though, but he was clear to say it wasn’t an honorable discharge either. I didn’t divulge.  He moved to Florida about a year or so ago; family was in Tennessee.  Things didn’t go as planned when he got here.

I started piecing his life together from brief comments that didn’t have the full story, nor should they when you’re speaking to a guy who just moments ago was on the phone with the police accusing you of being a drug dealer.  [When the hell are those cops going to get here by the way?]

My judgement of Robert turned to judgement of Topher.  Could I have misjudged this kid?  Did I falsely identify him just because he didn’t look like all the other homeless?  Could I have taken the one homeless guy on the street who is sincerely trying to make his life better, and maintain his respect by staying clean shaven, and actually thought less of him than a homeless guy for doing the exact thing that I wish every homeless person would actually do???  I was beginning to think so.  And you would be wise to think so as well.

By the end of our talk, I was texting some contacts to see if they were hiring, and wondering how I might be able to help Robert find a job.  As we shook hands once more, and he walked away, I felt incomplete – downright guilty for misjudging this kid.  “Robert!” I shouted. “Would you like to come work for me tomorrow?”  And in an instant, I committed to being at my office on a Sunday and was going to have Robert with me working by my side.  And this is where the story gets interesting.

Time Warp

Sunday morning, I’m to meet Robert at 9:00 on the street where it all went down.  It’s around 8:30 and I’m thinking I can get a walk in with Macie before we meet.  I’m half expecting him around 9, and half expecting he won’t show up.   As I walk out of my apartment building, there’s Robert standing across the street.  Fresh clothes, cleanly shaven as usual, and ready for work.

“First things first” I said, “Let’s get some breakfast.”  We walked around looking for a restaurant downtown open on a Sunday before 9:00 am, and just talked.  Sharing bits of each of our lives, and starting to build a friendship.  It didn’t take long before he opened up.

Before I continue any further, I should note that Robert gave me permission to share our experience together, and he read this entire blog before I published it.

Robert is 23, he has a mother and father, still married, who live in Tennessee.  He’s the middle child with an older and a younger sister.  The older one is a mother and the younger is studying to be a surgeon.  Robert’s father is a police officer, his father’s father is a pastor.  He was raised in a good home.  He got A’s & B’s in high school.  Learned to sing in choral and was a star athlete.  He joined the Air Force at 19 and was on to a promising career protecting the freedoms of our country.

One night in Las Vegas, with friends and a bit too much alcohol, he made a mistake and was arrested.  This resulted in his discharge from the military.  It’s called “Discharge Under Other Than Honorable Conditions.” This type of discharge allows you some benefits, but you lose your education assistance under the GI bill.  So Robert’s hopes of college were gone at the slam of a gavel.

As can happen for anyone, one bad event led to another bad decision.  You combine bad decisions, with being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and it’s not hard for a good kid with big dreams to suddenly find himself thinking, “How did it get so bad, so fast?”

Robert is intelligent.  Articulate.  He’s a hard worker.  He never once asked for a break, and did his job just as I instructed him to do.  Finally, around 1:00 PM, we headed to St. Pete, where I was to film another promotional video for Epic Chef Showdown.  I usually have a friend come with me to shoot the video, and in some cases enjoy a meal provided by the restaurant.  I never really know what type of scenario I will get as each restaurant has treated the situation differently.  But I had Robert for the day, so he become my videographer.  And we got to share some Lobster Toast, Filet Mignon, and Decadent Chocolate dessert provided by my friends at Parkshore Grill.  Not a bad meal for a homeless guy.  Hell, not a bad meal for me!

From Parkshore Grill, I needed a haircut for the show the next day, so I offered Robert a haircut if he wanted one.  He agreed, and we set off to Great Clips in Hyde Park to get our lids clipped.  I could see the concern in Robert’s eyes when we walked into Great Clips.  He voiced those concerns and asked, “Do you think these guys know how to cut my hair?”  They reassured him they did, and the sheers started sheering.

Side note:  Great Clips may not be the best place to bring a friend with an afro.  Turns out, they didn’t really know what to do, but he was again, polite, and he was very patient with his stylist as she tried to give him a new look that I think in many ways, was Robert’s symbolism of adopting a new identity and leaving behind his homeless situation.

Life Lesson From the Universe

We talked a lot that day.  I shared with him my views on the homeless situation in our city; he gave me insights I would have never known.  Homelessness happens to good people.  And it can chew up a good person very quickly and spit out someone who is bitter, angry, and blames the world.  It can turn a hard working person with ambition into a ‘lazy bum’ who just sits around and lets other people take care of them.

Thankfully, Robert hasn’t let either of those things happen to him.  He knows how easy it is to get sucked into a pit of despair and admits that he can sometimes feel himself getting sucked in.  But he’s trying to fight it.  He’s trying really hard.   There’s no pretty way to say it.  Being homeless fucking sucks.  It’s miserable.  People look at you differently, even if they never look at you at all.  You look at yourself differently, even if you don’t own a mirror.

Do you want to know why a homeless person will take their last $2 and buy a can of beer instead of something healthy?  Because an apple or salad won’t let you escape from the painful situation of your reality like a beer, or the way a cheap street drug like spice can.  When your life is consumed with 24/7 misery and shame, even the shortest escape from the pain can provide a moment of relief.  It isn’t meant to solve anything.  It’s meant to salve something.

It might be easy for us employed, homed people to sit and judge them for their actions, but aren’t we just as guilty?  Who among us hasn’t wanted to escape from our reality for a moment in time by binge watching a show on Netflix, or paying ridiculous amounts of money for an elaborate meal and high quality scotch?  Played a game of golf?  Bought a sports car?  Cheated on a spouse?  Eaten a tub of ice cream? Taken a cruise?  The behaviors are endless; one could argue maybe less harmless (that’s debatable), but we justify it by calling it entertainment. I’m not saying we should feel bad for enjoying a meal or watching a movie or any other societally appropriate behavior.  What I’m trying to say is we shouldn’t think badly of someone with less than us when they want that same temporary escape.

Where do we go from here?

My experience with Robert isn’t my first experience with the homeless.  Although it’s definitely one of the most memorable.  In the past, I’ve been cautious to share my experiences helping our homeless find shelter, get jobs, and find drug treatment programs.  Never wanting to be self aggrandizing, I’ve kept these experiences private and shared them only with those closest to me in my life.  But Robert isn’t a story I can brag about, because his final chapter  (much like our beautiful city, to borrow a line from our current Mayor), hasn’t been written yet; and his best stories are yet to come.

If you’ve read all the way to the end, I hope I’ve gotten you to feel for Robert.  I hope I’ve created within you the same feeling inside myself that I felt as I saw him walk away, leaving me feeling guilty for judging, and incomplete for not solving.  I hope I’ve sparked a feeling inside you that you will feel the next time you walk by a homeless person, so that instead of looking down to the ground, you make eye contact and treat them like a neighbor.  Say hello.  Smile at them.  Give them respect.  I’ve never given a homeless person money or left over meals; and I’m not asking you to either.  I think it disempowers them and keeps them stuck.  But I talk to them.  I tell them about 211 and encourage them to call that number and get help.

As a society, on the far left, we make it way too easy for the homeless to stay homeless by giving them money, food, and clothes. We feel great for “helping them out,” when all it does is lock them down.

On the far right, we make it way too hard for them to get help by cutting social benefits and insisting that if a homeless person really wanted to stop being homeless, they could “stop being so lazy and just get a job.”  We insist that we shouldn’t have to let our hard-earned dollars be taxed just so that the homeless can get free “Obama phones”.  (FYI, it costs tax payers $40,000 a year in Tampa to let a homeless person live on the street, but only $12,000 a year to get them a temporary home and drug treatment.)

What we as a society need to do if we really want to solve the homeless problem,  is we need to make it really hard for the homeless to be homeless, and really easy for the homeless to be homed.

Robert doesn’t need a handout.  He’s homeless; not helpless.  He’s a fine young man with a bright future.  If you know of anyone looking for a hard working, intelligent, articulate person who isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and work really hard, then I know someone looking for that job.  Please reach out to me and let’s give this kid a shot. It will be a win-win situation for him, and for the employer who hires him.






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