Meet James, one of my city’s ‘hardcore homeless’

James pauses while shoveling a path near the abandoned building he calls home. After a heavy snowfall on Valentine's Day, James needed to clear a path for his shopping cart.

James pauses while shoveling a path near the abandoned building he calls home. After a heavy snowfall on Valentine’s Day, James needed to clear a path for his shopping cart.

James, 48, lives on the streets of Syracuse, NY, where the overnight temperatures have dipped below zero more than a few times this winter.

I first met James a few days before Christmas, when I saw him pushing a shopping cart filled with returnable cans and bottles. I just happened to have some empties in my car trunk, and James was more than happy to take them off my hands.

I saw him again on Christmas, a day that began at 3-below-zero.

I’m not sure why, but I decided I had to get to know James a little better.

My office is only a few blocks from where he sleeps — a doorway of one of our city’s many vacant buildings. Occasionally on my lunch break, I’ll go looking for James. I usually see his shopping cart before I see him.

When I find him, James tells me bits and pieces of his life story. He says he avoids the city’s main shelters and soup kitchen, because he’s had problems with people there.

James told me he’s been hassled by police and convenience store employees. Other homeless men have stolen returnables from his cart and he’s had to start over, a nickel at a time.

He says he’s rented apartments in the past, but gets evicted because he won’t buy drugs from landlords.

So he sleeps outside, bundled in layers of clothes and blankets on a bed of cardboard. In addition to the money he gets from returnable cans and bottles, James survives on donated food and coffee.

Some mornings I catch James near a coffee shop I frequent en route to work. He’s pretty easy to pick out at a distance, thanks to his shopping cart and fairly fast walking pace. His daily route covers about three miles.

James' shopping cart sits in the doorway where James sleeps. Overnight temperatures have dipped below zero many times this winter, but James sleeps outside.

James’ shopping cart sits in the doorway where he sleeps. Overnight temperatures have dipped below zero many times this winter, but James sleeps here.

One cold, snowy morning I drove past this scene: a young woman walking a small dog on a sidewalk, a smile on her face as James bent down to pet the dog.

James is just one of an unknown number of “hardcore homeless” in Syracuse who insist on sleeping out in the elements, no matter how brutal.

The question of how to get these folks to come in out of the cold, at least temporarily, is a problem that vexes the director of the Syracuse Rescue Mission, who writes about it in his blog.

There is no easy answer; maybe there’s no answer at all. Our society’s safety nets are there to help the homeless who choose to accept those services. James refuses.

I don’t understand why anyone would choose to live the way James does. But rather than judge him, or pigeonhole him into a category, I’m going to keep asking him questions. In our half-dozen or so meetings, only once has the conversation ventured into odd territory.

Most of the time James says things that convince me there’s more to him than what most people think when they see a haggard man in a dirty coat pushing a shopping cart down the street.

As I hear more of James’ story, I’ll write about him on this blog. He knows I’m writing about him, and he willingly posed for the photo above.  If there’s anything you’d like me to ask him, leave a comment.

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About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in family, Homeless, hunger, poverty and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Meet James, one of my city’s ‘hardcore homeless’

  1. markbialczak says:

    Thank you, Jim, for reminding us that James deserves to be treated with dignity because that’s how he treats the world. I am interested to see if you can discover why he makes the choice to stay inside rather than accept help from the safety net. Do you think he’s more afraid that he’ll fail the system or that the system will fail him?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim McKeever says:

    Good question, Mark … I think it’s more the latter, but you never know. Like many of the hardcore guys, he’s wary of “the system” and prefers to stay outside of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve asked myself the same questions. Sometimes I get answers that make sense. Sometimes, the bitter cold and the lack of expectations of living on the street is less painful to them then where they came from. Or what they left behind.

    Riveting story. I don’t know what I would ask James. But I am wanting to hear his story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mark definitely said the key word best–dignity. This is such a fantastic story and thanks for sharing. .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mtbader says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I too am eager to hear more of James’ story unfold…

    Like

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