“BOOM!” I looked up from my computer where I was tweeting from through the midst of yet another manic episode (the biproduct of bipolar disorder) after a night of smoking the rest of my Blue Dream. I saw the door of my Upper Darby, PA boarding room half off the hinges. Another “BOOM!” The door flew open and I see an armored SWAT team of Upper Darby’s finest, the leader brandishing a yellow taser gun aimed at me. Immediately, I felt something burning in my stomach, as I heard “GET DOWN!” I did immediately. As I was knelt on the ground with officers’ hands on me, an experience I liken to a bizzaro version of my Confirmation day, I realized I’d been tased. One of the officers pulled out a syringe filled with a yellow liquid, jammed it in my arm and injected me with the substance. They put the vintage Bulls Starter jacket I’d found at a local thrift shop just days earlier on me backwards as they handcuffed me, wrested me to my feet and forcefully took me out to the car.
As I saw my landlord standing out front with other police officers, I feared the worst: that I was going to be killed. I was a wreck in the car as we passed the cemetery where my mother is buried, trying to summon the powers of Houdini or David Blaine to undo the cold cuffs off my wrists. I had no idea where I was headed. I called to God, my grandmother and twin brother in hopes that they could hear me and stop my impending assassination. I calmed a bit as we pulled into the hospital parking lot, a place I knew all too well. The thoughts of death still hadn’t left as the police took me out of the car along with new police and they cut my jacket, Lebron James basketball shorts and underwear off with scissors. I sat exposed in the parking lot as they put the powder blue paper pants on me along with an old tee shirt. They then led me to the crisis center intake.
I found myself, once again, in the mental ward. I’m 29 years old, a graduate of the local Penn State University campus by way of Howard University (which I left due to manic episodes) and was writing freelance for a small, local newspaper under-the-table to supplement my SSI disability check, which I collect due to complications from gastric bypass surgery. I produced music and stayed afloat with the help of my grandmother. Though she kicked me out of her home which I’d lived in my entire life (once again due to marijuana, drinking and manic episodes), she still looked out when I needed help with the rent or food. I haven’t been able to land a real job since graduating from college in 2008.
I stayed in the mental ward for about a week. The common theme during my manic episodes is that I believe that I’m something like the second coming of Christ. I was expecting to go back to normal: go back to my room and write my pieces that I had due for the paper. I was wrong. My landlord had packed all of my belongings into my green ’92 Cadillac Seville, and parked it my aunt’s driveway. It turns out that the boarding house I was staying at was an illegal one, so I had to leave. I expected help from my family, but they’d had enough. It’s been going on 10 years since my first manic episode, since which I've had several stays in a few mental institutions. My family was under the impression that I’d been smoking “Wet” and binge drinking (not true.) My grandmother is in her seventies, my brother has a three year old son and my godfamily has a youngster in their home. None of them need a raving lunatic whacked out on drugs and alcohol around. My friends were all convinced I was crazy. I was turned away from every door and left with few options.
I’d found my previous place on Craigslist and I could just barely afford it; after this last hospital visit, I wasn't so lucky. I spent time hotel/motel hopping. In my manic state, I'd end up banned from the local Red Roof Inn and had another run-in with the police, this time in Philadelphia, landing me in another mental hospital. I was able to get out based on a hearing at “Mental Health Court,”—which I didn’t know existed—where the judges ruled that I wasn’t fit to be brought in.
From there, I motel hopped some more until my money ran out. I stayed at a friend’s apartment until his roommate said it was time for me to go. I ended up totaling my Cadillac. The people running the newspaper I was writing for told me to get my life together before coming back to them. I went to the local library and looked up the local homeless shelters and found one. I went there and registered. We could stay there all day, watch TV, use the sole computer, smoke cigarettes and just waste time. Every once in awhile, some kind soul would provide a midday meal. At night, about 50 people there are chosen to be taken to a local church that provides a meal and mats to sleep on the floor. The high part of the day was in the morning when a pot of coffee was put on (first come, first serve.) Some people hustled cigarettes (my self-rolled ones didn't sell like Newports, but I found favor with people by giving them away.) I applied for a job at the shelter, because I could see that I was more qualified than most of the staff, but alas, you have to be out of poverty for at least two years to work there.
The worst thing about the shelter is how hard it is to get in. The powers-that-be will think of any reason to rebuff a person from registering, the most common one being a lack of ID. A lot of the people I’ve come across have lost theirs along their journey and the nearest DMV is not easy to get to. Some only have a prison ID. The rudeness that one encounters from the people who are supposed to be helping is enough to make someone snap.
With the help of my estranged father (we corresponded through email after he found out I wrote for the paper and reconnected after more than 20 years), I secured a bed at the shelter across town where I live with about 50 people, male and female ranging in age from 19-about 75. Now, compared to the shelter I was in previously, this one is like an exclusive country club. You slip up too bad, and you’ll be ejected quickly.
I’ve never been to jail, but I’d imagine that the homeless shelter is like one, except you can leave. You get your bunk, a set of linens and toiletries and there are communal showers. The showers have a trick to them (you have to run one while you’re in another to get warm water.) We share a small kitchen, which is open inconsistently. If folks haven’t sold their food stamps, they get food to keep in the overrun refrigerator and cabinets. It’s also not uncommon for your rations to come up missing if you don’t keep an eye on them. There’s also a shared TV played at morning and night, though it is the center of much conflict over what’s played and who controls the remote. It is turned off for the majority of the day (except weekends), to encourage folks to go out and do something productive. The bedrooms, a series of bunk beds, is off limits from 9AM to 4PM, but many just stay in anyway. We’re all given chores which aren’t so bad. Some take great pride in their tasks. We are the shelter's maintenance staff. One guy who spent time living under a bridge sweeps the entire driveway constantly, while others tend to the kitchen and clean the bathrooms and hallways diligently. Most “clients,” as we’re called, take care of a black cat that we’ve taken responsibility for named “Homie.” He roams the city for most of the day like we do, but comes back to eat and sleep. I’m not superstitious, but having a black cat cross your path constantly is a tad irksome.
We are also subject to random drug testing. A failed test results in a write-up and too many of those result in your expulsion from the shelter. We are also encouraged to bank whatever money we make in a trust to be withdrawn when we leave. Some are good about this, while others aren’t. A lot of us depend on checks that come on the first. The last day of the month is always like Christmas Eve and for about a week or two, clients come back with Styrofoam containers of purchased food, new hair dos, in cabs and with other prized items. Some go get high or drunk.
A number of organizations (mostly religious) provide a big dinner every night, which is open to the public. Though children aren’t allowed to stay in the shelter, a few are brought by an adult to eat. Folks as old as my grandmother set down the luggage that they haul around all day and enjoy as many as three or four helpings. Local businesses will bring leftovers from the from time to time. There’s always an abundance of bread, so much that we feed birds, Homie and other stray animals. There’s also a veritable free Goodwill on the tables out front with clothes from donors. Some days are a good haul. I’ve found several pairs of Jordans and other name brand items.
It doesn’t matter why you’re here, you’ll be treated like you deserve it by the staff. Yes, some clients are heavy drug addicts or recovering ones, and some have done prison time, but there are also those of us who aren’t/haven’t. Some make their money loansharking or hustling and everyone isn’t a college graduate like me, but there are people who go to work or school everyday. Some are Vietnam veterans. Nevertheless, we’re treated like children and spoken down to. While some of the staff do appear to care about their work, others are clearly just collecting a check. The rudeness might cause a weaker man to scream. Folks act so superior and power trip on you almost instinctively. I wonder what insecurities they are hiding.
Another interesting aspect of shelter life is “Code Blue.” This is when homeless people can come off of the street to sleep on a cot here when it is below 37 degrees at night. There are people who come regularly, but depending on how the staff member in charge feels that day, they can be turned away. I’ve heard non-clients are limited to staying every other night, even if there are more than enough spare cots. Even elderly people have been turned away and cast out into the bitter cold.
Currently, I’m waiting on income-based housing through an assisted living program. I’m looking for full-time jobs, but that is proving to be quite the challenge. I planned on suing the cops for tasing me without cause, but it’s my word against theirs and they say I was being “uncooperative,” so no lawyer will take it. There’s also no record of it happening. I also have to eat the fact that the police may have stolen some of my things. My totaled Cadillac turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because without that insurance money, I’d be in worse shape.
This whole experience has been eye opening and has changed everything I believed about the people we call "bums." Aside from the addicts and those who can't get enough of the street life, there are those who are trying desperately to make things better for themselves. Many are mentally ill people who’ve been shunned or forgotten by family, friends and society, yet they are still viewed as the absolute worst of the worst.
When I get out, a new aspiration has been added to my list: help the homeless. I give to everyone on the street that I see. I know it’s common to say, “Oh, they’re just going to spend it on drugs.” I truly don’t care now. People need something to feel like somebody, and most homeless folks get absolutely nothing. I can’t look at those commercials looking to feed people overseas for a few cents a day the same. How much would it cost to feed a person here? There are A LOT of folks struggling here. If you can't help a homeless person when you see them, at least take a moment to acknowledge their humanity. You never know how they got there…and you may just be a few missed paychecks, a lost job or a mental illness away from there yourself.