A voice from the street

By Brian Doyle | September 25, 2015
Jim Fischer/Flickr
Jim Fischer/Flickr


The other day, I stopped by a homeless camp across from the train yards in my city to talk to the residents. They were cautious and reticent and reserved, those who would deign to converse, but one youngish man said he had some time to talk, if I would promise to report accurately what he said. I said I would do that, and this is what he said. My name is Thomas, he said. Not Tom or Tommy. Thomas. That is what my mother named me and that is what I would like to be called. I had some problems. I still have some problems. Many people who live here have some problems. But most people with homes and apartments have problems of one kind or another. Problems are normal, when you think about it. In my case because I have problems it’s hard for me to find work, so I don’t have money, and without money you cannot borrow money, and if you can’t borrow money you can’t get into the system. The system requires your ability to borrow money. No one will loan you money unless you have money. This used to sound crazy to me, but I don’t think about it anymore. There’s no percentage in thinking about it. Now I just figure that’s the way the system works, and you can either be in the system or not in the system. I am not in the system. We are not in the system. How many people are here? About 20. Male and female. There are two small children. The city clears us out every month or so. That’s why we have tents and shopping carts. You need to be mobile. The city guys who clear us out are pretty good guys. They are friendly, all things considered. They have a job to do, and they do it thoroughly but usually without a fuss. They know and we know the system. People in the houses at the top of the hill complain to the city, I think, and when enough complaints build up, the city guys come in and clear us out. Why do we not go in the train yards? Too open, and there are security guards. Here at least you have some trees.

Some people prefer to camp behind the berm over there, where they cannot be seen from the road. One man prefers the little cave up there under the big fir tree. That’s a prime spot. People have actually fought over that cave. That cave has been there for as long as anyone can remember. That cave was probably dug out in the 1930s. No, I would prefer not to talk about my past or my problems. That’s no one’s business. I would like to talk about the fact that a lot of people are homeless. I don’t know what should be done about that, but it’s interesting that so many people are homeless, isn’t it? What does that say about the system? I suppose there have always been homeless people, but there sure seem to be a lot more than there used to be. But maybe I wasn’t paying attention to homeless people when I was a kid. I don’t remember any homeless people when I was a kid. Older people would use words like hobos and tramps, and I didn’t realize they were talking about homeless people. Nobody likes to talk about homeless people. It’s embarrassing to talk about homeless people. Even the word homeless is embarrassing. It’s like what’s wrong with you that you don’t have a home? What did you do wrong? I don’t know that I did anything wrong. I am just me and I have some problems, so it’s hard to find work, which means I can’t borrow money, and if you can’t borrow money you can’t get an apartment, or a house, or a car, or a room in a motel. Isn’t it interesting that to get into the system, you have to be able to prove you can borrow money? It isn’t enough to have money—you have to have enough to prove you can borrow a lot more. That’s an interesting system, isn’t it? I am not saying it’s right or wrong. I am just saying it’s interesting, is all.

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