He walks into the library study room shaking his head and exclaims, “What a day!” I shake Jay’s hand and say, “Thanks for meeting again. Is everything okay?”
“No, bad day,” he says as he sits down. “It’s like a therapy session coming to you, I swear to god,” he says.
I laugh. “Let’s talk about it,” I say as I assume the role of therapist. This title is a somewhat accurate reflection, as Jay consumes 95% of the interview time and when I do speak, I keep the conversation moving by suggesting he “talk about his feelings on….” and “discuss your emotions about…” I take notes throughout the session and he always seems fulfilled at the conclusion of the interview as he is able to discuss all on his mind.
He begins, “Let me just backtrack, let me start by saying….there is a lot of time and effort involved for a person who is homeless to not look like they are homeless and get a job. Everything takes two to three times longer. You can’t stand totally upright in your tent because it isn’t tall enough. Finding clothes, changing clothes….today I put some more 'Just-For-Men' in my hair…I had to warm up water to wash my hair outside....”
His face screams with frustration. He continues talking about this for the next five minutes as I sit back, listen, and refer to my list of twenty questions written earlier in preparation. I realize I might not be able to ask all questions today, but it is ok - as this is a raw moment of frustration. Many people have no pity for the homeless and think, “it’s their own fault, just get a job.” But it’s not that easy and right now he explains why. What takes the average male 15 minutes to get ready in the morning, might take Jay close to two hours.
He continues, “…..and then….I take a bus an hour to get there…to Colonial Bowling Lanes for my interview and……I forgot my license and social security card! I can’t believe it….so now I have to go back tomorrow….which means I can’t wait on line for food stamps tomorrow, so I won’t have food stamps for a week.”
We talk about his other daily frustrations, including this evening, when he purchased ingredients to prepare chili and arrived back at his tent to find the can opener broken. It’s the little things. Halfway through the interview I glance through my questions. There is one question I wanted to put forth. It is very personal, but I believed important.
“Talk about the last time you cried.” I interjected.
He pauses and starts to tear. “Oh I felt like crying many times. I don’t cry often, but what guy would say they would? Since I have been homeless, I haven’t cried because I’m homeless. I’ve cried…I cried the day I had to get rid of my cat… He is a good cat, really good-looking, black with gold and tan tiger stripes. He has classic stripes…his name is Bella. After Bella Legosi, first actor to play Dracula. I get teary even thinking about it.”
I think about the emotions behind a pet’s death. It’s part of you, part of the family. I can’t even imagine leaving my dog behind because I could not adequately care for it due to homelessness.
We talk more about his first experience canning at the Michigan football games. He tells me he can make $25 before the first quarter in accumulating cans. I then ask him about panhandling. While he talks about it, he pauses for a moment in slight shock, as he catches himself categorizing himself as homeless: “Panhandlers….they give homeless people a bad rap. I don’t like panhandlers. Panhandlers give us…..well, us, I don’t even want to think of myself as the homeless…” He pauses, “….but I am.”
Even after twelve weeks, he can’t get over the fact that he is homeless.
He discusses how his self-confidence has been drastically affected. Jay describes how social he was before homelessness. He said he could go up to Donald Trump at a cocktail party and engage in conversation. He was comfortable approaching anyone and easily made friends. “But being in this situation, I feel…insecure...for the first time…ever….in my life.”
Before he leaves I give him an assignment. “I have a project for you. I have taken many pictures, but something is missing. I need to capture your everyday experience. And who better to capture that, than you?” He looks at me.
“I have a disposable camera for you. I want you to take pictures of everything - your tent, your everyday journeys of securing a job, your bus routes, your friends, your walks, everything, even the most insignificant moment, take a picture.”
He said “Okay.” He paused and smiled for a few seconds, “I like this! I can do this.”
I pack up my equipment and am very happy he is excited about his new assignment. But before I leave I end the interview with one last question: What motivates you to get up in the morning?
He takes a deep breath: “What motivates me……is not being homeless. I can’t sit around. I mean…right now because it is cold. You DON’T want to get out of bed in the morning. I got plenty to keep me warm. When you get out of the covers….and you can’t take a shower…you need to wipe yourself off with baby wipes…..it is cold. It’s cold for a good five minutes. You don’t want to get out of bed. But if you don’t get out of bed, you won’t get a job. So there is motivation. Motivation to get some doorknobs….get some heat…that is your motivation.”