They Are Not Below Us
By Courtney Scallin
Truth be told, looking back on the person that I was, I am ashamed. The way I treated the homeless population all because I was uneducated and didn’t bother to understand the reality that they live day to day.
I had been living in Sacramento at the time and had to walk the four miles that day to a very important interview. Supposedly it was supposed to make or break my career path in which I had been following through the previous years of my life. I had gone through half my wardrobe looking for something to wear. Each time I changed it just wasn’t right; though you’d think it’d be easy seeing as its half suits, and casual shirts that were too holey. Eventually, I settled for a black suit with a deep blue tie.
The sun was beating down as if it was the last day it was to burn. My walk included walking past homeless people, and I would always give them a look of disgust. As I was passing by the intersection that is Folsom Boulevard and Howe Avenue, I looked down upon a scrappy man who smelled of manure that had been sitting in the sun for a week. Subconsciously I made a face that which caught his attention. It was the face my father had always given those on the streets as we passed. He had taught me that they were nothing. No, that they were less than nothing. He told me that they sit in their filth for days on end. That they threw away their lives for the sake of the high, and therefore they deserve everything that they get. Isn’t that part of growing up to form your own opinions? Maybe they aren’t all bad. I mean, sure they put themselves there, but maybe they regret it. Maybe they just need a little bit of help. Still, if My father is right, then I would have been wasting my time.
Up until that day, I never thought to stop and have a conversation. The face I had thrown him. I am regretful but had it not been thrown his way I would have never have caught his attention and I might still be that disgraceful person.
“Hey. You have no right to look at me like that.” His voice was raspy and had caught my attention at that point. I had walked a few steps past him, attempting to ignore him. I stopped in my tracks.
“What do you mean? Whatever happened to put you in this position, you did it to yourself. No one else made you live on the streets you worthless piece of --” He cut me off.
“Before you make an even bigger fool of yourself,” he took a pause. The silence was deafening. I felt as though he wasn’t going to speak. As I took a step in the direction I had been going he began again.
“Allow me to help you gain a more respectful view to those of us who, though we are the same as you, live differently. Sit down. Listen to my story, and maybe you’ll see that not everyone has a choice in the matter. But first, my name is Robby. What is yours?” I was hesitant at first cause I had that big interview, but eventually my curiosity for what he had to say compelled me to stay.
“Sam,” I said after a time.
“ Nice to meet you, Sam. Please, explain why you walk these streets with a look of
disgust toward your fellow humans.” I moved to sit on the cold cement to his left. I had busted my knee a few years back, and so when he saw that I was in pain, he offered his hand which I slapped away. I had viewed it as something likely to be diseased, and so, therefore, I should not touch it.
“Do you reject my help from pride? Or maybe it’s because of the person offering” He questioned as I settled into a somewhat comfortable position.
“I don’t mean to offend you. I was brought up as a boy learning that...” I paused.
How do you find the words to tell a person that you are disgusted with the way they live? Disgusted at how they managed to let their life fall so deep that they couldn’t even hold a place to stay? Somehow, I found the words to break the dreaded silence.
“The way my father taught me is that those who live on the streets put themselves there. I grew up with only the voice of pure disgust towards people like you. Those on the streets deserve everything that they get. That you deserve to sit in your filth.” He gave me a sympathetic look.
“What? that is the trash. Like, I get how you could view us like that, but do have any Idea how WRONG you are?” It threw me off. I guess he saw the confusion in my head, cause he continued to explain himself:
“Not everybody put themselves on the path to homelessness. Everybody has a story, homeless or not. You have yours, I have mine, the woman down the street has hers. And none of them are the same. They may even have similarities that surprise you. If you have the time I would still like to tell you mine. If you want.” Again, I was hesitant. The interview... I looked at the time. Like I said, I had always been curious as to if my father was right. That was my chance to find out. I decided to stay.
“I don’t have the time, but I’ll stay. It’s not every day you get the chance to open your eyes. I want to do that today.” He smiled a smile with yellow teeth, missing teeth, but with pure joy. His smile made was contagious.
“Where to begin.” He said excitedly. He paused a moment to think.
“Well, the beginning I suppose. I’ve been homeless for the past 9 years. Going to the very beginning, we can look at high school. So, I was the overachiever in my class. Got all A’s, took every extra credit assignment that I could. At graduation, I was valedictorian of my class. I was on my way to MIT college, but I ended up not going.”
“Because my mother got really sick. She and I had been really close most of our lives but, like any relationship, we had our fights. Just before she got sick we had a huge falling out surrounding my future. She didn’t agree with what I wanted, and we fought about it. She had been my funding for college. When we fought, I lost all of that money and didn’t have enough on my own, so I deferred. I thought that maybe in a year after we got past everything, she’d pay for it like she had said.” He stopped to think.
“Is everything okay? I know this must be hard.”
“It is hard. But it happened, and I’ve grieved and I’m ready to talk about it.” He took a deep breath and continued.
“A couple weeks later, she decided she didn’t want me to live there anymore. She told me she wanted me packed and out of the house by the end of the week. With my focus on school, I hadn’t had much time for friends, and so I didn’t really couch surf. I just went straight to homelessness.”
“So how long have you been homeless?”
“Well, I got kicked out at 18, and I’m 32. So, 12 years. There was a brief pause at 19 when my mom got sick. I went and stayed with her till she passed, but all of her money went to charity. None of it went to me. She held that grudge till her dying day. When the bank claimed the house, I was back out on the streets. It’s not that bad. I have a ‘friend’ a couple streets over. She helped me navigate my new reality in the beginning. She showed me all the churches that do dinners for the homeless people some nights. She taught me how to rotate campgrounds as to not bother too many people. She was the light in all the dark.”
“She saved you. What’s her name?”
“Elizabeth. She’d been homeless around here for 3 years before she met me. She had run away from her abusive foster parents. She’s two years older than I am. She’s gorgeous. With bright blue eyes, and golden blonde hair. At least, it is when it’s clean. Over the years we’ve gotten close.”
“You like her. Why haven’t you asked her out?”
“Because she deserves more than a guy on the streets. Enough about her. Where was I. You made me lose my spot.”
“You were just talking about how after the bank took your mom’s house.”
“Right, well there’s not much more there. The point is, I was kicked out. When I went to interviews and they learned I was homeless. They automatically assumed I was an addict. I’ve never done any drugs in my life, and alcohol is a rare treat. I didn’t do anything to get here other than have a difference of opinion with a crazy parent. Elizabeth ran from abuse. Not everyone put themselves on the streets.”
“I get that now. I never meant to cause a problem.”
"Then you’re lucky I stopped you. There are those around here that did put themselves on the streets and will cause damage. You just have to remember that no one deserves to be seen as less than based on a mistake, or based on circumstance.”
“And please, spread your knowledge. There are many like you out there that look at us as less than.”
“Don’t you have an interview to get to?” He asked. I checked my watch.
“ I missed it. It ended roughly 2 hours ago.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you miss it.”
“No, thank you. Hearing this, It’s inspired me. I know now that I don’t want an office job. I want to be out in the community helping people; people like you.”
He gave me a smile. His yellow teeth peering through his cracked lips. It was contagious. I smiled too. In the span of 4 hours, the man whom I had glanced down upon, disgusted, had turned my life around.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of the time I went from an uneducated boy to a man who not only has a better perspective on my surroundings, but also a man who helps those in need. I now have a shelter where people volunteer to cook for the homeless and bring clothes and other things for them. We help them to take their next steps.
It all starts with a conversation.