I knew a former Harvard law professor who would sleep in doorways 365 days a year. One day, he just got up and left his job and family. He thought it was the only way to be stress-free after his nervous breakdown. He would see me walking down the street from the bus station and he would ask me how my day was at school. I would immediately tell him all about it and we would share a few laughs together before I went home. He never drank or did drugs. The look of disgust on people’s faces and the eye-rolling as they walked past him made me angry. All I would say to the people is, “Get to know him better and you would be surprised, instead of being so ignorant.”
One day when I was walking home, I noticed that his cart was tipped to one side and one of the wheels had fallen off. Most people would get upset about it, but not Robert. He always had a positive outlook on things, even though half of his belongings were on the ground as he was trying to fix it. I said to him, “I will be right back, give me about an hour.” I raced to the nearest grocery store where they sold the shopping carriages exactly like his. I came back an hour later and he managed to get the wheel on with a bread tie, which was holding it together. I said, “Robert, look up a minute I’m back,” and when he did, the biggest smile came across his face that I had ever seen. He had tears in his eyes when he said, “No one has ever cared enough to do something like this for me.”
On October 16, 2016, my friend Robert died peacefully in his sleep in a secluded corner of the bus station. Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro described Robert’s passing as a sad loss. He said that many agencies, including the mayor’s office and police department, continuously reached out and encouraged him to accept services, including housing. Instead, he lived outside, not answering to anyone. He told me that was what it meant to be free. Although I miss him and the talks we used to have, I know in my heart that he is in a better place.
All those years ago, when I first helped Robert, I had no idea that one day he would repay the favor and help me.
The reason why I care and show so much empathy towards the homeless is because I was once homeless myself. In February 2017, a new landlord bought the house where I lived and vacated the whole building to renovate it. The man from the show “This Old House” was the one who bought it. It was a father and son team effort; the renovations were going to be shown on their television show. I was very miserable with all my possessions in storage and no place to go except for couch surfing. I always felt like I was intruding in my friends’ lives and that made me feel worse. The one thing I learned from my friend Robert was to remain positive in everything that was happening to me. So, positive I tried to remain.
Eventually I did find a place to go. I went to a halfway house residential program for women because along with homelessness, I became addicted to substances, just to survive my ordeal. I realized it was the wrong thing to do and I went and got help. Today, I am three years clean and sober and I enjoy having my new life. I work at the house where I graduated as a Recovery Specialist, helping women in their recovery process and finding them a place to live so that they are not homeless. I am also a proud member of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, where housing and healthcare is our major concern. Presently, I am in the ACE Program at Adcare Educational Institute so that I am prepared to take my CADC test, in order to become a Substance Abuse Counselor. This would not be possible if I had given into a negative turn in my life when I was homeless. Thank you again, Robert!
When a person becomes homeless, they do not necessarily have to be on drugs or falling down drunk. You can lose your home for any number of reasons, including losing your job, domestic violence, having a dysfunctional childhood and family, or even experiencing trauma. The homeless are people like anyone else and should be treated with respect and dignity. When I was homeless myself, the person who helped me the most was my former homeless friend, Robert. I have never known a better person. He was a real person, wasn’t he?
Homeless people should not be looked down upon as the lowest class of society. What will it take for communities to finally come to this realization? After all, the reason I am writing this is because I experienced homelessness myself and people looked at me like I had the plague—but look at me now!
We, Too, Are America is made possible through “Democracy and the Informed Citizen,” an initiative administered by the Federation of State Humanities Council through a grant from the Mellon Foundation.