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.
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.