Homeless is not no joke. You think it's funny you got nowhere to go when it gets dark? And it's cold? The snakes come out at night. There's snakes out there. They will take your hat, they take your shoes. They will beat you, they get your shoes, they take your coat, your skullcap, and your gloves, and leave you for dead. The street is not a joke.
This is the sixth in a series of excerpts from my book Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. Read more about the project here.
A REAL JOB
Dan is selling StreetWise outside a pharmacy in the Loop. It is lunchtime and the sidewalks are swarming with people. "StreetWise!" he yells. "Help the homeless!" A woman dressed in a nurse's uniform walks by. "StreetWise, ma'am?" She shakes her head. "Maybe on the way out," he says, but she's already inside. People continue to hurry past Dan, most avoiding eye contact completely. He doesn't seem to get discouraged though, and he carries on hawking his papers throughout our conversation.
I'm in a room right now. And I support myself by sellin' StreetWise magazine. StreetWise is a non-profit organization that empowers homeless people to work. You know. It's not the best job, but it's something. It keeps from beggin'.
Like Washington D.C.'s StreetSense and Boston's Spare Change News, StreetWise is a weekly news magazine designed to help severely impoverished men and women living in Chicago. After completing a training session, licensed StreetWise vendors can purchase magazines for $0.75 apiece. He or she will then sell these magazines on street corners throughout the city and suburbs for $2.00 each. StreetWise provides a productive alternative to panhandling and is often used as a stepping stone by those who seek to reintegrate themselves into the workforce.
There is a common misconception that, like our friend Mark Antony (the self-proclaimed professional panhandler), StreetWise vendors are just looking for a handout. It doesn't help that some panhandlers actually pose as StreetWise vendors. (Anybody ever try to sell you a copy of a newspaper you can just as easily get for free? The Reader? The RedEye? The Onion?) Greg Pritchett, Director of Distribution for StreetWise, encourages readers to make sure a vendor is wearing an authorized StreetWise badge before buying a magazine. A legitimate StreetWise vendor will only sell the magazine for the cover price, and will immediately exchange the magazine for money. Any vendor who refuses to deliver a magazine once he or she has been paid is subject to a theft charge.
Note: At the time of this conversation, StreetWise was published in newspaper format and was sold for $1.00. In November 2008, StreetWise Magazine made its debut. It is now priced at $2.00.
Bein' homeless is like having no family, and no friends, and nowhere to go at nighttime. No table to eat on. You know? So you have to come out here and do what you can do best to survive.
A man and a woman exit Walgreens. "Ma'am?" Dan says. She ignores him. "Maybe another time, sir?"
You have to come out here and sell them all day, you know, just to make an honest living. I sell approximately thirty-five to, maybe, forty papers a day. But it takes me all day to sell 'em. I never get discouraged when people don't buy 'em, because I realize everybody's not gonna buy your merchandise. I look at it as, you know, just say "Next."
"StreetWise! Pick up a copy on the way out! Ma'am? Pick up a copy when you come out, Ma'am."
I'm an ex-Marine. I served six years in the United States Marine Corps. And in 1980 I went to combat over in Beirut, Lebanon. And a suicider came in with a truck full of explosives and killed two hundred and forty-two marines. Only through the grace of God, I'm here now.
On the morning of October 23, 1983, an Islamic suicide bomber drove a truck into U.S. Marine headquarters at the Beirut International Airport and detonated the equivalent of six tons of TNT. 241 American servicemen were killed. This remains the deadliest post-World War II attack on Americans overseas.
I have a lot of flashbacks, I hear voices, I hallucinate, you know. When I'm not taking my medication, I'm really irresponsible. I don't have nowhere knowin' who I am. That caused me to be homeless one time. I didn't know how to file for my V.A. benefits.
I take Risperdal. It's an anti-depressant medication. (Risperdal is an atypical antipsychotic used to treat delusional psychosis, psychotic depression, and some forms of bipolar disorder.) It keeps me calm. Like right now, I'm real calm. But even by talking with you right now, I can hear the voices over in Beirut. The Marines screaming. "Help! Help me, help me!" I hear voices, even standing right here.
If I take my medication I'm fine. I go the V.A. hospital on the West Side four times a year for therapy. With Dr. White. She's my therapist. I'm scheduled to see her at the end of the month. We talk about socializing with people, communicating with people, you know. And she, she advise me to find other things to do than just stayin' at home and havin' claustrophobia. That's whycome another reason why I'm selling newspapers. Because it's like therapy right now. It gives me the chance to communicate with professional people like doctors, lawyers. I meet all kinds of people. Students. You know, so it's like therapy for me right now.
"Ma'am? StreetWise when you come out! Folks, when you come out, get a newspaper! Help the homeless! Ma'am?"
There're a lotta people don't really care. They tell you to just "Get a real job!" And, you know, they don't really wanna look at StreetWise as a job. To me, it's a job because I get a chance to earn a profit off of the newspapers. When people tell me to get a real job, I just tell 'em to have a nice day.
"Good afternoon, ladies. Maybe when you come out. Sir? Maybe when you come out. Madam? Pick up a newspaper on the way out!"
If you don't wanna sleep in the cold, ride the train or the buses all night, you keep going. That's where I get my motivation from. Rememberin' how cold it is outside.