I wonder how many of us, when asked the question, "If you could have any super power, what would it be?" have answered that we would like to have invisibility as our power.
I got to meet someone who had this bonafide superpower today.
I was hanging out downtown doing some random street clips for a video I'm making, when I found a few food carts (I was ravenous) and walked to them. I took my place at the end of the line, and that's when I got to see this actual superpower in action.
A homeless man walked past me and approached the three men in suits in line ahead of me. The man was crying, and held a blanket and a cardboard sign that begged for food and to help end this "daily hell." He asked, softly, to the men, if anyone could please buy him a sandwich.
No one moved. In fact, no one even flinched. The man asked again, but just a tad louder, "Please, I am sorry to ask but I'm so hungry. Just a sandwich?" Nothing. It was honestly as though they didn't see him (but they obviously did).
Maybe because photography teaches me to become an observer of moments, but I continued watched in a bit of pissed off amusement. I already knew I was going to buy this guy his sandwich, but I became curious as to how this would play out. Would someone break? Give in? Make accidental eye contact?
Whether or not they wanted to buy this guy a sandwich or not--that was their business and their prerogative. But to not even look up or acknowledge this man--begging, not for money, but for food? The guy was hungry, not inhuman. Literally, the people in line in front me stood, frozen.
"Come on, man. I got your lunch. What would you like?" I asked him.
An interesting thing happened at this point. I felt that suddenly I became invisible by proxy. I can't be sure, but I swear that those men in line may have actually physically turned their backs to me. With Mike, as I came to know him, they just blatantly ignored him. With me, I was essentially being shunned. (I honestly felt like this might be the adult equivalent of getting cooties...for real.)
The difference, of course, is that I didn't need them to acknowledge me.
In case you are wondering, Mike was happy with a simple grilled cheese sandwich and a coke in a can, and the food cart guy threw in a hot tomato soup for good measure. (He obviously wore his anti-cooties spray today. Thank you food cart man!).
While we were standing in line waiting for the grilled cheese to get finished, Mike quietly told me, "thank you." He went on to tell me that he was sorry (for crying, I assumed) but that he was just frustrated that everyone acted like "he wasn't even there." I understood.
I asked Mike if he would like some company while he ate, and he gratefully accepted my offer to sit with him, where he was happy to tell his story to me.
He told me that he regularly visits food carts and asks to work for something to eat--even for the leftover food waste that he knows gets thrown away in massive amounts--but he's always turned down.
I asked Mike how long he had been on the streets, and he told me it had been five or six years at that point, he couldn't quite remember anymore. I asked him if he was from Portland (it seems like most people here are transplants from elsewhere), and he told me that he was from Southern Washington. He moved to the area when his mom and stepfather moved to Portland. Even though he was 20 at the time, he tagged along because he didn't know what else he would do. I asked if he is family was still in the area, and he told me they "were around," but he didn't have much contact with them. His stepfather had gotten into trouble involving a child and that he and Mike didn't see eye to eye because of it. He and his mother had problems because as Mike said, his stepfather had some sort of mind control over her. He said it was hard to talk about how everything had happened, so I didn't feel it was my business to push him into talking about it.
As is the case with many people living on the street, Mike has been struggling with mental illness. He said the doctors are often changing his medications, and it's hard for him to adjust to them. I asked him if it was difficult to get access to healthcare being on the street. He said no, that wasn't a problem. It was the inconsistency of seeing different doctors and having to take different medications that was the bigger problem.
The day Mike and I shared conversation, it was a relatively nice day in Portland, but I knew that rain and colder temperatures were coming the next day. I asked Mike what he did in bad weather, or the winter, for that matter. He chuckled a sad laugh. The best thing he could do was to keep moving to keep himself warm...always keep moving. He would sneak indoors when he could when it was really cold, but he didn't like to do that, because he would almost always be chased out.
He has a "normal" doorway that he routinely stays at--a place not far from where we were chatting. "They know me there, and they don't bother me. They let me sleep there, and don't shoo me away. When they open at 6 in the morning, they will knock on the glass on the door from the inside. That's my alarm clock that it's time to get up and get going. I don't have any problems there."
I asked Mike if he ever used the Missions downtown for a place to sleep and he told me that no, he felt safer on the street. This made me curious--safer ON the street? "You wouldn't even think it, but there are fights in those missions all the times. Guys like to 'beat their chests' and let everyone know this is THEIR mission. They are territorial, for sure. Even if you get into one (a mission) for the night, you are sleeping only inches from someone else. You don't know if they are sick or what they have, and you don't know if they are going to steal your shit or not. That's why I prefer sleeping out here...I'm safer this way."
"So many homeless guys steal from you out here. Most of the time, they aren't stealing because they need your stuff...they are just stealing because that's what they do. It sucks. You feel like you can't ever let your guard down and relax. Sometimes I the only thing I wish for is to be able to actually sit down and relax...take my shoes off and not worry about someone taking my stuff or messing with me for once."
That comment stuck with me on my way home. How many of us feel like we can't relax...can't catch a break...because there is always something else that needs to be done? But that's by our own making for the most part. We CAN leave the laundry until tomorrow. We CAN have our kids skip practice one day. We have the choice to give ourselves the time if we need it. Mike didn't have that as an option, much less a luxury.
I had just read part of a book about the story of three refugees, and one of them had to flee Syria with his family to survive after a missile literally hit his apartment building while he was in. I remember when I was reading thinking how horrible it had to be, constantly waiting for the next attack to happen, always on edge, never being able to let your guard down...definitely never being able to relax. And on my car ride home, I kept thinking that was what it had to feel like, sleeping alone, exposed on the streets. You always had to be waiting for the "bomb" to hit you. And while he wasn't living in a physical war zone, he definitely was living in a mental one.
I know that the topic of homelessness brings forth a lot of issues and biases for many people. I know there are many stereotypes out there (people choose to be homeless/they don't want to work/they are on drugs/it's their fault/etc.), and I'm not saying there aren't homeless people who fit that category. But really, there are a whole lot of homeless that are on the streets NOT by their own doing--mental illness, poverty, and massive housing costs are huge factors. I think the reason Mike (and the many like him) have become invisible is that as long as people refuse to "see" the homeless is that they can abate their fear that this could be them. That life could ever possibly deal them the same hand and this could be them. (Spoiler alert: it can happen)
Think about it...what do you do when you are a child and you get scared? You cover your eyes...hide under your blanket. You believe if you can't see it, it will go away.
It is my hope that by writing this post, you will take a small peek over that blanket and face your fear the next time you see Mike (or someone in his shoes). Take the scary step of looking him in the eye and realizing that even if you can't offer him money or food, you can still offer basic human dignity with a sincere, "Hey man, I see you." Because honestly, I think if given a choice between the grilled cheese or to have the men in suits treat him like a fellow human being that day--I'm going to guess Mike probably would have chosen to stay hungry a bit longer.
Mike hopes hearing his story will make people understand he is a real person, a regular person whose life just went a much different way than most people's. I hope that's what you get from his story, too, but I also hope it gives you a new superpower.
Because after seeing Mike's experience today, I know one thing for certain: I would much rather have the superpower to SEE the invisible, rather than BE the invisible.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: Mike told me that one item that there never seems to be enough of is men's underwear at the missions and donation centers. He said there are always plenty of socks and hats, but no underwear. Please consider this when donating. Thank you!