My senior year in high school, I had the pleasure (if you could call it that) of interviewing a homeless man named Pops. His story was run in the school paper. My senior year in college, I rewrote the story, and have decided to rerun it here.
He was dressed in faded black sweat-pants and an old, worn-out jacket. Greasy side burns and facial hair complimented the matted strands of gray hair peeking out the back of his snowcap.
He held up a cardboard sign that read: “HOMELESS: Please Help. Will Work. Thank you + GOD BLESS,” and featured a large smiley face.
This is how I met Pops, in January of 2001, in front of a shopping plaza on Oaklawn Avenue in Cranston.
“Did you eat yet? Let’s go grab some food,” I offered, but he’d already eaten. I slipped him a five, and asked him if I could talk to him for a bit.
For the next hour he told me his story. Every time I pass a homeless person on the street, I wonder how they ended up there. Did life deal them a bad hand, or did they make some really bad choices in life? Maybe it was a combination of both, or perhaps they made some normal, human mistakes, and ended up paying for them just a little more than most people do.
Pops, who offered me no other name, was giving me a chance to view his world from the inside out.
When I met him, Pops had been living on the streets for about three years. “I haven’t been homeless that long,” he explained. He said he had a degree in civil engineering from Wentworth Institute of Technology, as well as some credits in computer science from the University of New Mexico. He was once a self-employed leather carver, and owned a shop that bore his name.
Pops attributed his financial downfall to his divorce. “She wiped me out,” he stated coldly. After his divorce, he told me, he lost his motivation to work and succeed. “I just took off and said, ‘Ah, the hell with it! It’s not worth it.’” He found himself living in a tent with a sleeping bag, carrying his few possessions with him: what little money he had, his cardboard sign, an old pair of leather gloves and a few loose pieces of paper.
He explained to me that while he eventually regained his motivation, another obstacle stood in his way: a series of physical ailments he suffered as a result of his service in the Vietnam War. “I flew medical helicopters, and I was shot down three times,” he told me. Pops claimed to suffer from back problems caused by eight fractured vertebral discs, and was scheduled to go in for his sixth heart surgery.
He told me that the arteries in his heart kept collapsing, and that his vision was impaired due to holes in his retina. He was on a changing regime of medications, and sometimes suffered seizures as a result. Due to the seizures, Pops biggest fear was collapsing and breaking his glasses. The aid he received would only pay to replace them once every two years, so broken glasses would have to be fixed out of pocket with money he didn’t have.
Pops’ struggle to find work was further compounded by his age and lack of a permanent address or phone number.
He explained, “I’m over 55, I don’t have a phone, and I don’t have transportation.” He had tried staying in shelters, but eventually chose not to because he found theft to be a constant problem. “You can’t go in the shower and take all your belongings,” he told me, “So when you come out, everything is missing.” He added that because a shelter is not a permanent home, it couldn’t be listed as an address when applying for jobs.
These obstacles didn’t stop Pops from trying. He told me that he frequently stood at the light in front of the plaza looking for work. “I do pick up a lot of jobs here,” he said. At the time, he was on a waiting list for low-income housing and was in the process of applying for social security.
When we see homeless people, we’re often quick to draw conclusions about them. Pops both embodied and defied normal stereotypes about homeless people begging on the streets. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t asking for money. He was asking for work, something he had a hard time finding. At the same time, his condition was his own doing, and he accepted that for the cold reality that it was.
“This hole… you can’t dig yourself out of this hole. It’s almost impossible, and I accept that,” Pops conceded. “If God can give me just one more day, something good may happen. You never know.”
The one thing that struck me throughout my entire conversation with Pops was the beaming enthusiasm he put forth as he stared the bleak and harsh reality of his condition in the face.
I asked Pop if he’d learned anything in his three long years living on the streets. He responded, “There’s a lot of good people out there, and there’s a lot of bad people out there. I think the good outweigh the bad.” He told me that these good people have helped him in his ongoing struggle to survive. “I’m gonna survive. A lot of people but don’t, but I’m gonna survive.”
I told Pops I wanted to write a story about him for my high school newspaper, and he gave me his permission. I ran into a CVS to buy a disposable camera to take Pops’ photo, and he excused himself and darted behind an old bingo hall to relieve himself.
When I returned, he posed smiling, and added, “Make sure you get the sign. I want people to see the smiley face.” I promised him that when the article went to print, I’d keep a few spare copies in my trunk to give to him if I ever saw him again.
It’s been four years since I met Pops, on a corner five minutes from my house. I never saw him again, but I’ll never forget him. Until I bought a new car last year, I never took those spare copies out of the trunk of my car, either. And just as vividly as the day I met him, I remember Pops walking away down the street.
As he headed towards West Warwick, he turned around and shouted back at me, “Don’t give up!”
Afterthoughts: I’m pretty passionate about homeless and hunger issues. I am a believer in personal responsibility and self-reliance, but I’m also a believer in lending a hand whenever you can, particularly when people are most in need.
We all make bad decisions at some point in our life, and I can’t help but think that some of us end up paying for them more than others. Homelessness is, I imagine, a dark, difficult hole to climb out of. I’d love to hear your thoughts.