They won't even let us use the bathrooms, half these places. If we don't buy nothin'--even thought I'm a Vietnam vet--they tell me I can't use the bathroom. I fought the war for them, got shot four times, and I can't use a bathroom?
This is the third 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.
It is ten o'clock in the morning on one of the coldest days in February. The projected high is nine degrees, and the estimated wind-chill is twenty below zero. Patrick and Kent are two of the first people to arrive at a Saturday church brunch. They are sitting at the end of a long table, each nursing a cup of steaming coffee.
"My hands were frozen when I came in," Patrick says. He is wearing thick plastic glasses, and a polyester trucker cap, brim unbent. He has pale skin and strawberry blond hair. On the collar of his zip-up jacket there is a small collection of American flag pins.
Kent is Japanese-American. He is wearing a black knit hat, a heavy canvas jacket, and a sweatshirt. A day's worth of stubble covers his face.
Patrick and Kent are both Vietnam veterans. They seem to take comfort in commiserating about the plight of vets. As one speaks, the other nods his head in agreement.
PATRICK: I'm a vet. (He takes a deep breath.) Was a Vietnam vet. I've been tryin' to make it ever since I got back. Just make a living. And better myself, you know? I'm a diabetic. I've been a diabetic for thirty-eight years. And that's another strike against me. Other than that, I'm not on the street, I'm glad of that. At least anymore. I was in a shelter for eleven months. Before that, I was on the streets, sleepin' in viaducts, underneath--you know what I mean? But other than that, I haven't had it that bad. I've had it bad, but not real bad.
I ask him to tell me about his time in Vietnam.
Oh my God. I had a wild experience there. I got wounded. (He pulls back his left sleeve to reveal a series of small scars that run the length of his arm.) Bullet wounds from here to here. All the way up. Five times.
Ah, boy. One morning we went out on patrol. I still remember it. Twenty-five men in our whole squad. Five of us came back. Yep. (He takes another deep breath.) We got attacked by Charlie. Overrun by him, actually.
Man. I just didn't like it at all. I knew I was there because of a reason, but what the reason--you couldn't think of a reason at the time, you know?
KENT: See, you can't expect a soldier that's been fightin' in the bushes, killin' people, to come back to the United States and then get right back into society and do well.
PATRICK: There's no way you can readjust real easy.
KENT: There was no deprogramming for vets.
PATRICK: No, there was none. That's true.
KENT: They didn't have no deprogramming program for the vets that had been fightin' in war. And you just cannot make it in society after, you know, because now you got people who been in the bush for years, and they come back to civilization.
PATRICK: And they don't know what civilization is.
KENT: And they don't know what to do.
PATRICK: They don't know what it is anymore.
KENT: I'm a vet, too. But I'm also a military brat. I was born on an Air Force base in Japan and raised on an Army base. My father retired in seventy-six. He was a Vietnam vet also.
I been in Chicago twelve years. And out of the twelve years, I been homeless off and on. I been able to get a job, but keepin' a job seems--in this city it's really hard to keep a job. You get a job, you lose it. Companies downsizing. You lose your job, so now you're back out there lookin' for another job. Then you try to get some kind of program where they're trainin' you to have different type of skills so you can be more successful in tryin' to get a different job. This city's very hard to make it in. I think they had an article in the newspaper a while back of the worst cities to be homeless in, and Chicago, I think, was at the top of that list.
In January 2006, The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty published a report on the twenty "meanest" cities. Chicago came in at number twelve. The top five, in order, were Sarasota, Florida; Lawrence, Kansas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Atlanta, Georgia; and Las Vegas, Nevada.
"Is there a solution to homelessness?" I ask.
KENT: There is a solution, but you gotta remember something. A city cannot make it without a middle-class. And it's getting to where the city of Chicago, right now, the middle-class people are moving out of Chicago. And that's because of the high prices on the cost of living. You go downtown and rent a studio, you're paying over eighteen hundred dollars--
PATRICK: Eleven hundred dollars. Eighteen hundred dollars or more. Sixteen hundred to eighteen hundred or more.
KENT: That's disgusting! That's outrageous. So here you got a middle-class, they're finding out they can't make it because of the high cost of living. So now you either rich or you're poor. One or the other. There's no in-between.
PATRICK: There's no in-between anymore.
KENT: And that's gonna be the downfall of this city of Chicago, if they don't change it. Like, for instance, the city of Chicago right now doesn't have affordable housing. They need that very bad. They don't even have rent control here. You know, most big cities have rent control where the government steps in and says, "Okay, we're only gonna let the rent get this high." But the city of Chicago doesn't have it. So now you got the real estate people that are makin' a killing because they're puttin' condos up everywhere--
PATRICK: Oh man, condos up everywhere. You see them! Go anywhere on the North Side, and you see all the condos going up. And they're pricing people right out of the--it's called gentrification! They're pricing them right out of the neighborhood.
KENT: So now you got the middle-class people that can't handle it.
PATRICK: They can't afford it.
KENT: Can't afford it. They're leaving Chicago. Movin' way out in the suburbs somewhere. They don't have a choice.
PATRICK: They have to! They have to, because they can't afford to live in the city anymore.
"What is the key to survival? How do you do it?"
KENT: When you're on the streets, I think that you have to think about more needs than anything else. It's what you need. It's not what you want. Okay? So, once you can accomplish and get everything you need, then the wants you can deal with later, when you have money. But, you know, you're trying to stay up and keep your head above water, so you're lookin' at what you need, instead of what you want.
"Patrick, how about you? What do you think is the key to survival?"
PATRICK: I really don't know.