I am always a little nervous when I make this approach. The man is short and slightly built. Black. He’s wearing a lot of clothes. All dark colors. He has two knit hats on. The one underneath carries the logo of some sports team and the outer, just black.
I approach him. “How’s it going tonight?”
“Alright, I guess.” He smiles and seems at ease with me.
“We are doing a survey tonight to ask people about their housing situation” (This is kind of a lie. We know the folks we are talking to don’t have housing. In fact we don’t want to survey any who do.) “Would it be ok if I asked you some questions?”
“Sure, that’s no problem. I’m just waiting for the J &J truck to come by. Have you seen it?”
“J & J?”.
“Yea, Joy Junction. They bring dinner every Friday night.”
“Oh, yea . I know Joy Junction. “ That’s why we chose this parking lot. A lot of the homeless folks come here to get a free dinner. We can hopefully get a lot of surveys completed. “No, they are not here yet”.
“Alright then. I don’t want to miss them. You want to go sit over against the grocery store wall? We can watch for the truck. It’ll be warmer there.”
“Sure. I’m Ken. “ I reach to shake hands.
“Hey” he says, “I’m Anthony”.
I feel comfortable with Anthony so far. He seems direct and genuine.
As we walk toward the building, I look back and see Patty is already surveying another person. The person she is talking to is a middle aged Hispanic woman. The lady has her arms wrapped around each other. She’s shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She’s cold.
Anthony and I set against the building and it is warmer in the late-afternoon air. “ Anthony, the survey has two parts. The first part will help us understand how many people are experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque. It’s completely anonymous. It’s very short. The second part takes a little longer but it could possibly help us put you into a home. We are trying to find the most vulnerable folks living on the street and put them in housing. I have to be honest. There’s no promises here. There’s a lot of folks and not many places available. You Ok to start?”
“Yea, I got no problem with that.”
“OK then. First question; Where did you sleep this last Monday night?”
“Man, out there” He points his chin. “like I always do.”
We quickly finish with the first part of the survey. It asks about things like, Race, Military service, Sex. “What sex do you consider yourself to be?” is the actual question.
“Ok Anthony, the second part of the survey is NOT anonymous. I need to read you this statement and if you agree, then you must sign the form and we will continue, OK?”
“Sure, Sure… I said it was fine.” He’s a little impatient.
The disclaimer I read to him says that we will use the information to possibly find housing. That all the data is held in a secure server and all the people who will see it, including me, have signed a confidentiality waiver.
I look up and see that the J&J truck has arrived.
“Anthony, there’s the truck. Let’s go get your dinner. “
We walk toward the truck and a blond lady is handing out burritos. She doesn’t smile or make eye contact with any of the people in line. She’s “on-task.”. I hear, “You can only have one soda”. She repeats this several times as she hands out the food. I wonder if her soda rationing is because they are trying to promote better nutrition or if there’s just not enough. Burritos are pre-made and wrapped. One per customer. Then a plastic bag full of additional food is given as well. I can’t tell what kind of food is in the bag. My guess is that it’s mostly processed food items. Easy-to-carry stuff. I’m kind of hungry but I won’t take any of this as I know there is a finite supply. What if someone came late and all the burritos were gone.
Anthony has his burrito, a soda and his bag of whatever and we head back to the wall.
Before I can start the second part of the survey, Anthony says, “Man, I’d sure like to take a shower. My toes are sore. They’re all bunched up in these shoes”.
He has on two pairs of ragged thin socks. His shoes are a cheap running style. This is February in Albuquerque. It’s been well below freezing every night and I am hoping he doesn’t have frostbite. I am picturing his feet inside his old socks and shoes and it’s not a pretty sight.
I decide to tell him about my bad back. It’s been hurting lately. I’m trying to find some common ground.
Anthony unwraps his burrito. I can’t tell what’s in it but am sure it’s not a lot. Probably beans, cheese, potatoes. I doubt there’s any meat and certainly no New Mexico red chili. It looks dry. I’m kind of pissed. Why can’t they just put a little red chili in there for them! But I didn’t pay for the food. I didn’t even help with the preparation. My anger is misdirected.
He focuses on his burrito as we get started.
“So the first question of the second part of the survey is; Where do you spend most of your nights? “ There are several answers including friend’s homes, family member homes, shelters, inside buildings, outside of buildings etc. ‘
He answers, “Like I said man, I’m out every night. I got this place where I keep some of my stuff. It’s in this old building but I don’t sleep there. This place here is dangerous. I have a place east of here I sleep. I don’t like this part of town”.
He is more animated now. He offers, ”These people around here don’t care about shit. I know how to handle them though. Sometimes you got to eat your pride and let ‘em have it their way.” I really don’t know what he’s referring to and I can tell he’s probably not going to tell me everything.
“Anthony, next question is; Do you suffer from any of these:
• Drug abuse?
Anthony: “No. Oh I used to do some but I don’t any more. A few years ago I did some when I was downtown. That stuff’s bad. No. I don’t use any.”
Anthony: No. Don’t have that.
Anthony: “Ugh…” he hesitates and looks down, “no.”
• Mental Illness?
Anthony: “Hmm… They say I have schizophrenia, but I don’t think I have that. I had some trouble a few years ago when I was downtown. But sometimes people just get to you and things get bad you know. I do just fine out here.” He hesitates then looks at me, smirking. “Ken, you probably wouldn’t make it out here.”
• Any other health issues?
Anthony: “My feet are bothering me lately. I got some other shit but nothing much.”
He is finishing his burrito and takes a deep drink of the soda. That’s dinner. He didn’t really even acknowledge his food. It wasn’t anything to put much attention to. People say, “You got to eat to live, not live to eat.” That’s what Anthony does.
“So Anthony, moving on; When you are feeling sick or are injured, where do you go.
• Doctor paid with insurance?
• Emergency room; No insurance?
• Non –conventional medicine?
Anthony answers; “I don’t go to any of them. If something’s going on I just meditate. That helps a lot sometimes. The mind is a very strong thing. It can fuck you up too, you know… Naw I can’t go to any of those places. But God has everything under control you know. You got to pray.”
“ Anthony, when’s the last time you had stable housing?”
“ Well, I had a place downtown I guess. Then some shit happened…”
“ When was that?”
“ That was…..” He goes quiet for a while trying to come up with the chronology.“ I think that was 2006. Yea, it was 06. I had some trouble back then. They say I got this mental disorder. I guess they’re right but everyone’s got some shit that’s going on. Nobody’s what they say they are. I don’t care if you got money or not, you’re going to have some shit that’s happening. No one’s got the ticket you know. But they look at me and say;” Anthony, you need help.” You can’t be doing this or that. Then they put you in jail for some small shit. No one’s normal. No one!”
We go quiet for a little. I look up and try to see where Patty is. I can’t see her but she may be behind one of the trucks. There’s another operation going on in the parking lot. A big van is doing a needle exchange and there’s a line over there. I don’t like the looks of some of those folks. Young people. Couples with kids. I can handle someone who’s down and out but I just don’t like these folks coming in for their free needles and condoms. I can’t see Patty anywhere.
Anthony speaks up. “I’m going to have to get going in a little while. I got a long walk to where I’m staying tonight. I don’t like this area. It’s dangerous and I want to get there before it’s dark.” A younger guy walks by us pushing his grocery cart full of his stuff. Anthony is indignant. “I don’t see why these people need to carry all their shit around! Why do they need all that stuff!” He gestures with his hand toward the guy. “They think they need everything but they don’t. I don’t carry nothing. Besides, it just makes you a target.”
The light is starting to fade and it’s getting colder. I can’t see where Patty is and now I feel a little panicked. “Anthony, we just have a few questions left but can you excuse me for just a minute?” I need to see Patty.
“Sure Ken, that’s no problem. You do what you need to do.”
I stand up and walk over toward the free needle van. Patty is behind it talking with some of the other volunteers. I am relieved. She has interviewed several folks and they are starting to thin out. Heading out to where they’ll spend the cold night. Like Anthony is going to in a few minutes. I walk back to the wall.
“Sorry about that Anthony. I couldn’t see where my wife was but she’s ok. “
Anthony starts asking the questions; “Ken, why you doing this? “
“I don’t know. Just trying to do something about all this I guess. “ My next statement is lame but it’s a thought that goes through my head a lot these days. “We’re all in this together you know? “ I can see that Anthony is thinking that I’m not in whatever he is at all. But he is courteous.
“You getting paid for this Ken?”
“No, Anthony. No pay.”
“You’re trying to do something good aren’t you Ken?”
“I guess Anthony.” I look down. “I don’t know.” The truth is, I do think we’re all in this together. But I am not equipped at all to REALLY be full-fledged team member to folks like Anthony. It would be hard. I have two empty bed rooms. I’m not offering those to Anthony or any other of the folks we’ve met tonight. I have money in my bank account and could buy him a room. My comfort zone? Filling out a survey form. Actually, this is not all that comfortable either.
Anthony says, “God bless you Ken. Most folks don’t care about nothing. People are cruel. But you are trying to do some good.”
“Yea, they can be cruel.” I change the subject. “Anthony, you need to get going and there’s just a few questions left. Can we finish? ”
“Sure, let’s finish your form, Ken.” He’s helping me out now.
The rest of the questions are asked and it is hard to keep Anthony on track. He is starting to ramble. I wonder if the waning afternoon light is affecting his schizophrenia. He’s a little less focused than when we started. He just may be getting tired of the questions. I’m worried about him and the others. It’s going to be well into the 20’s tonight.
“Well, Anthony, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks a lot for letting me share your dinner-time. “
“No problem Ken.”
I get up slowly. My back is pretty stiff. Anthony stands up too. He’s ready to head out.
“Take care, Anthony”. We shake hands and I walk away.
I’m about 30 yards away and Anthony shouts “Hey Ken!”
I turn around.
“God Bless you Ken!“
“Thanks Anthony. You too.” I turn again.
“Ken!” Still shouting.
“For your back! Meditate! It helps a lot!”
“Thanks Anthony. I will.” I walk further.
“I will Anthony”
Now, I stand and wait. Watching as Anthony starts walking east. I shiver in the low-light of the grocery store parking lot. He crosses the street and heads down the sidewalk.
I am hoping for something now. Wanting something that is undefined. He’s pretty far down the road. I zip my jacket up to the neck. Then turn to go find Patty.
Ken Jones is an Executive Board Member for the Metropolitan Homelessness Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To give a donation and support the efforts of people like Ken Jones, Visit the pledge page.