People Almost Met: Joe at a Meetup—Homelessness
Joe at a Meetup
This story is one of a series about people whom I have almost met. The stories are about chance encounters with someone that lasts only a brief minute or two, but makes an indelible impression. It’s about encounters that in a small way change my life.
The encounter is too brief for an exchange of names. We may speak or touch, but we haven’t really met—hence the title, “People Almost Met.”
This story is about a man that I almost met one day at a meetup in a sushi restaurant. I never learned his name, so I’m just going to call him Joe, as in “a regular Joe.”
A "Regular Joe"
A Poetry Meet-Up
I few years ago I was a member of a poetry meetup group. We met the first Monday of each month at Tatame, a Japanese sushi restaurant in Orlando, Florida. (Sadly, the restaurant is out of business now.) We enjoyed some excellent sushi, sashimi, and nori rolls and drank sake from little glass carafes. Good food and fine poetry.
Usually about 30 people attended. We pushed all the tables together to form one long table which was placed along one wall. We came from many different walks of life and represented every age group and many different ethnicities. It was an “open mic,” and we each took a turn to read a few of our poems.
The room was small; our group pretty much filled up the place. There would sometimes be a few diners who were not with our group, but had only stopped by for a meal. They generally appeared to be enjoying the show.
A Musician Performed
At one of our meetings, Stephen, a great musician, sang some of his original songs for us as he accompanied himself on an acoustic guitar. He took command of the room with his touching, humorous, and lyrical songs of love. One of his songs included the refrain: “In my dreams I’m the one that you love. At least I can dream about being in love.”
Stephen had my total attention, so I did not notice that a man had entered the room and was standing by the door. I don’t know his name, but I will call him Joe, because he was "a regular Joe.”
Joe stole the performer’s applause, because on the very last note, before we could applaud, the man began to speak to the group.
Playing a Guitar
An Intrusion Occured
" I'm sorry to intrude,” Joe said. “Please help me.”
He continued without a pause, speaking rapidly, perhaps because he feared being interrupted. “I need some money for food. Can you good people help me out? I just need a little money for food.”
Joe removed his baseball cap and held it out, but he did not move from his place about five feet from the door.
He stood still but kept talking, repeating a variant of his original request.
We Looked at Joe
One of the first things I noticed about Joe was that his skin was very dark, truly black, a shade seldom seen outside of Africa. In the United States, where African and European bloodlines have been mingled for centuries, African-Americans usually have skin that is a shade of brown, not black. But, Joe was most likely American,not African, because he did not speak with a foreign accent.
Joe stood about five feet seven inches tall. He was thin, but not skinny. He was dressed neatly in dark clothes, wearing jeans and a jacket. He appeared to be a young man, but the light was not good, and I was seated at the other end of the room, so I can’t be sure of his age.
Perhaps I thought he was young because he had a backpack slung on his back. He looked like a student, but the backpack was not hanging slack and low, the way backpacks that are filled with heavy books tend to hang. This backpack was well-stuffed, plump, and round.
It occurred to me that Joe might have been homeless. Perhaps he was carrying everything that he owned in that backpack.
Donations Were Given
The group began to collect some money to give to him.
Some of the men in our group dug into their pockets and some of the women fished around in their purses. A few dollars were gathered up and passed down so that the person nearest to the visitor could place the money in his hat.
All the while, Joe kept talking.
After the money was placed in his hat, it must have been clear to Joe that he had all the money he was going to collect from us, but he did not leave. He kept talking. “Thank you kindly. You are good people. I only ask because I really need it. I need to get some food.”
He reached the door, and turned to leave, but then turned to face us again. “You are good people. You are so kind to help me. I’m sorry I imposed on you good people. You can go back to your music now.” Still, he didn’t leave. He spoke rapidly and kept saying the same things over and over.
I began to wonder why Joe didn’t leave. I thought that perhaps he kept speaking because he was nervous and embarrassed. Perhaps he was not used to panhandling.
Next, I thought that Joe might be under the influence of some drug-- speed, crack, meth, oxy—how would I know? I only know what I see on TV or in the movies. In these shows, when someone is using drugs, they often speak rapidly and repeat themselves.
However, perhaps he was so slow to leave because he wanted to linger just a while longer in the warmth. It was February, but it wasn’t very cold outside—we had a mild winter in Orlando that year. The warmth I was thinking of was the warmth of a circle of friends gathered together, laughing and singing, with everyone enjoying good food and drink. Perhaps he needed that warmth as much as he needed money.
A Collection of Money
The Proprietor Took Charge
The proprietor of the restaurant strode towards the door. He was a tall, broad-shouldered Japanese man, a good-looking man. However the expression on his face and his total demeanor made me think of a gangster in a movie--the head of the gang, calm, in control, but projecting a bit of menace as he approaches a man who has aroused his ire.
The proprietor stood in front of Joe, blocking him from our view, and spoke to him in a low voice. He reached around Joe and pushed open the door. Joe left.
The proprietor walked back behind the sushi bar. The musician announced his next song, and began playing his guitar and singing again.
Homeless in Orlando
I think Joe may have been homeless. There are a lot of homeless people in the United States. Orlando has a large homeless population because of our mild climate and our many wooded areas near our downtowns.
It is estimated that in the United States, on any given night, more than 1 million people are homeless. In Florida, the estimate is 75,000; in Central Florida (the greater Orlando area) the estimate is 10,000.
There are many reasons for homelessness—foreclosure, loss of a job, lack of health care, lack of public assistance, lack of affordable housing, poverty, substance abuse, and more. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and any little bit of bad luck can leave them homeless. Once they become homeless, it is a downward spiral as their initial problem is compounded by their homelessness.
What Is “Housing First”?
“Housing First” is a new approach to homelessness—a program that is well on its way to ending homelessness in Utah. Since the start of the program in 2005, homelessness has been reduced by about 75%.
Instead of putting people into shelters for a night or giving them a meal in a soup kitchen, the program provides a permanent place to live. Once a formerly homeless person has a place to live, this person’s other problems are addressed—health care, a job, substance abuse, etc.
This program is not only effective, it is cost effective—it saves the government money. Moreover, the people in the program have their lives restored; there are few to none who do not “clean up their act” or return to the streets. These people have simple human dignity again.
It is expensive to deal with homeless people on the streets. There is the cost of policing, visits to the emergency room, shelters, etc. Utah went from spending $20,000 a year per homeless person to spending only $8,000 a year, including the cost of case workers who helped the formerly homeless as they once again became productive citizens.
I’m happy to say that other states are trying this approach. In 2013, in Orlando, Florida, where I live, Mayor Dyer pledged to provide housing for 350 homeless people. It was a multi-pronged approach that involved many community sectors. As of 2017, the goal was exceeded —385 formerly homeless people had obtained permanent housing and are now living productive lives. Across the Central Florida region, 1300 of the formerly homeless now have permanent housing. Of course, homelessness has not been eradicated, but Orlando and Central Florida have made a very good start with the Housing First program. (Case Study:Orlando's Turnaround on Homelessness)
An obstacle to reducing homelessness in the United States is a heritage of Calvinistic and Puritanical beliefs—the belief that people should not get hand-outs; we should not help anyone who we think is "undeserving." These ideas are counter-productive. Instead, we should help everyone. It is not only a good deed, but it saves money, reduces crime, and makes our downtowns more pedestrian friendly,
How To Do a Housing First Program
Do you think your city should have a "Housing First" program?
© 2015 Catherine Giordano