We've all seen a man at the liquor store beggin' for your change
The hair on his face is dirty, dread-locked, and full of mange
He asks a man for what he could spare, with shame in his eyes
"Get a job you slob," is all he replies
God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes
'Cause then you really might know what it's like to sing the blues
-Everlast, “What It’s Like”
I spent time with some of Montgomery’s homeless over the past couple of weeks and to say it was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement. I heard heartbreaking stories and saw unfathomable living conditions. I met people who were doing what they could to get off the street and others who were resigned to the fact that they’ll die there.
Patrick Aitken with Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless asked me to ride along with him for a few days so I could get a better understanding of the homeless situation in Montgomery. With a van loaded with donated supplies to distribute, we first locate Happy Camper hanging out at one of his regular spots alongside a closed convenience store off the Atlanta Highway. We dropped off some much-needed supplies, including a sleeping mat made out of plastic shopping bags to keep him off the cold, hard ground at night; his sleeping bag was recently stolen.
Next, we headed out to the old Governors House Hotel where I meet three longtime residents, Mo, Bat Man and Bag Lady. Built in the 1960s, the once-swanky hotel was abandoned years ago and is one of the several eyesores along the Southern Bypass. Shattered glass, the stench of urine and the remnants of an old grand piano still standing in what was once a ballroom is about all that remains, other than the few dozen homeless that call the place home on any given night. As I walked through the trash-cluttered breezeways I encountered a former marine who graduated from Robert E. Lee twenty years ago sleeping on a cardboard box. Another suffering from Tourette’s is having an episode by the algae-infested pool, now used by some to bathe.
Mo has been squatting at the Hotel for a couple of years and says he is ready to come off the streets. He will be eligible for some benefits when he turns 65 in a few months. Patrick is trying to get a veteran's organization to assist. Mo’s room, lit by a battery-operated lantern, is tidy and furnished with a table, chair, bookcase and a stained mattress. His door hangs by a hinge and raccoons often raid his room for food at night.
Bag Lady’s room is decorated with old hotel art and furnished with an old mattress covered in blankets and pillows anchored by two nightstands. An old mirror from a dresser rests against one wall and several bags of clothes against another. Missing a door, she uses an old chifforobe to block the entryway. Patrick has managed to get her off the streets twice, but she suffers from personality disorders and addiction and always ends up back here.
Bat Man seems to be a nice guy who suffers from paranoia. He is enterprising enough to have claimed a block of rooms that he rents to those passing through, none of which seemed any different than any of the other abandoned rooms, but maybe his came with some added security. I hand him a case of water, some hygiene items and a Domino’s gift card and he disappears back up the stairs.
After lunch we proceed to the area around the Salvation Army where people were already lined up for dinner. Over 500 are fed every night between the Salvation Army and three other missions. Most of the shelter residents are at work, a reminder that being homeless doesn’t mean jobless; to stay in most of the shelters for any length of time you must be employed and sober. There are still plenty of other homeless scattered through the woods along the river nearby and we were able to outfit 8 people with hygiene supplies, snacks, drinks, t-shirts and socks.
After that, we hit the Ann and Mulberry Street area. We outfitted several gentlemen at both exits with supplies and talked to one of the men about coming off the streets after he indicated he was ready.
I met a man living under the interstate, a couple along the river, a guy basically living in the backyard of an abandoned house and a family of four, the father a veteran, crammed in a van.
When you see someone get excited to receive a bottle of water, you really come to realize the severity of his or her situation. One guy who lives in a boarded up home off Ann Street explained to me that dehydration is a serious problem in the summer because you never stop sweating. “We don’t go home to air conditioning. It never gets cool,” he tells me.
Of the 1,000-plus homeless in the area, most prefer to go unnoticed and keep to themselves. Only a small percentage of them actively panhandle, and as I mentioned before some are gainfully employed but need to save enough to afford first and last months’ rent and utility deposits, praying they aren’t saddled with any unexpected expenses along the way. Keep in mind that a minimum-wage worker would have to work a lot of overtime to afford a modest apartment anywhere in the country.
The reasons for homelessness vary, as does everything in life. I met several homeless veterans who suffer from PTSD, others were on the streets because of bad choices that led to jail or addiction, other had disabilities, mental illness and some were just cursed with bad luck.
People don’t live on the streets by choice. No one wants to be in a situation where you have only a quarter in your pocket and nothing in your stomach, where you haven’t bathed in weeks and you don’t know where you will lay your head that night.
Each person I met had their individual stories of struggle and they were all grateful for the supplies we provided them. I still have trouble imagining some of the living situations I encountered. Include these people in your prayers tonight. Winter is fast approaching. To donate to Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless, visit: MidALHomeless.org/Donate.