Not Exploiting the Homeless

Fundraising | Culture
Two Sundays ago, I cross the river into Cambridge to experience a local meeting of the National Writers Union. This was the day that Penny For Your Thoughts piece was cited in the Sunday Globe (not as anything special, just merely as one of a few blog curiosities).

Outside Cambridge City Hall, one woman asked me for spare change. As I was looking for it, I started babbling on about the story in the Globe, and how I was obliged to give… and she had enough of me. I mentioned that there was a potluck at the NWU meeting, maybe I could bring out some food… (is that normal?) but she was already walking away.

I continued walking, entering the YWCA and then learning I had to spin around and head over to the much bigger YMCA on Mass Ave. I saw a man sitting in the sun with an interesting sign. I was in a hurry, wasn’t I? Another man was standing nearby hawking the Cambridge-originated Spare Change News. I took out my spare change for that– whoops, it cost a buck– and took a peek at the headline about the proposed federal budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (the article was oddly noncritical— given that a Globe editorial ripped into it, and even a student newspaper at BU took it to task as well.) Not one to lose his lunch over media bias, I tucked the paper away and turned my attention to the man holding up his sign, who didn’t need “the media” to get attention.

Can I take your picture for a buck?

“What for?”

For my website.

“I don’t want you exploiting me. A lot of people just think they can exploit us homeless people.”

Fair enough. I started to him that I really wasn’t interested in a picture, inasmuch as I was interested in his time, and went through my whole spiel about the fellow I met in Brookline, the web, the Globe, etc. Fortunately, he listened. And then he told me his story, so I took out my notepad. He was incredibly lucid and engaging. He told me his name was Chris, he had been repairing and rebuilding bicycles for Solutions at Work— a program which provides transitional jobs to homeless people in the Boston area.

But he feels that he got kicked out on his own too soon, and now is on the outside. He needs $109 to take a bus to Southern California, out of the cold, and towards the palm trees and the sailing. Chris had a houseboat out there, but it got wrecked, I recall, so he came back up here. He likes it here, actually, he likes the people. Chris had no kind words for somebody at Solutions at Work, and said he felt exploited. As long as I was there with my notepad, he asked me to investigate. Chris was also bitter that most shelters turn away the clean people like him who stay off the drugs and booze.

The wheels of journalism started turning in my head. Is this a news story?

The new media doesn’t like like ‘He Said, She Said’ stories, and I don’t believe the old media likes it either. I have part of a story here, but I don’t think there’s anything to it. If there’s a pattern to Solutions At Work, it’s that it’s been highly celebrated. It’s been written up by the FieldWorks publication of the HUD Department.

What does it mean to be exploited, I wonder now. You start from a place where you’re in no position to bargain– as Chris was– and and then you still get the short end of the bargain. Chris felt that he put his heart into the wheels program, and maybe he didn’t get enough in return. What did he expect in return? I didn’t ask. A sustainable livelihood, a roof over his head, I suppose.

Well, I need to learn at least for me. My day job is in Cambridge, so I ought to learn more about all of the social services in the city. It’s just a little piece to the puzzle, a little of tidbit of datum we’ll keep on file. If you don’t at least go through the process of followup, as I’m doing here, you don’t learn.

Chris gave me his old business card from Solutions at Work. I gave him mine, but then he pointed out that the he no longer uses the email address on his. I gave some money, as promised, for his time. He bowed his head so that his face wouldn’t be captured. It was a magnificently artful gesture. I took this picture, and then one in landscape mode, and went off to the union gathering. I hope he felt he got a fair deal from this encounter.

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