I’m still getting to know James, one of the “hardcore homeless” in Syracuse, N.Y.
Every few days I stop by his place, a doorway of a long-abandoned building downtown in plain view of City Hall.
It’s been snowy and miserably cold in Syracuse for months now, yet James lives and sleeps outside. His world is a three-mile square, circumscribed by his shopping cart’s mobility, his sense of where he’s welcome — and not — and his day-to-day survival skills.
Unlike most 48-year-olds, James settles in for the night by 5 p.m. He does so by cocooning inside his layers, including a couple of oversized winter coats, and trying to get comfortable in a sleeping bag on top of several cardboard boxes. His doorway doesn’t get any sun, but it’s sheltered from the bitter wind.
Imagine that this is your world: you wake up each morning outdoors, in single-digit temperatures. You push a shopping cart around a city, use a restroom in a public building or coffee shop, stop at a post office and bottle redemption center, buy some snacks or eat food that’s been given to you, then go back to your doorway. That’s where you’ll spend the next 12 hours or so, until the cold and the dawn wake you up again.
That’s your life. That’s James’ life.
James says he has no other choice than to live like this.
Some readers of my earlier post about James wanted to know more about him, and why he and other homeless choose to live such a harsh, brutal existence.
There’s an easy answer that I won’t fall back on. I’d rather get to know the man instead of labeling him.
I ask James questions each time I catch up with him. He seems to like the attention, and he’s a good conversationalist. He’s also fairly easy to find, since he is a creature of habit. There is more I want to know, but here’s some of what he’s told me or I’ve observed:
He learned to read by picking up the family Bible, a 1924 edition. He has a strong vocabulary. He played baseball and chess as a youth.
He writes letters, printing them with pens and on notebook paper he buys from a Dollar Store downtown. Yesterday, when I caught up to him at his morning post office stop, he was writing a letter. He said it was to a friend in Germany.
He reads several newspapers, follows current events as best he can, and tears out articles to include with his letters. He was excited by the story of the California couple who found $10 million in rare coins while walking their dog.
He offers the same reply every time I ask how he’s doing: “All right, considering.”
He speaks fondly of a man in Syracuse, a retired postal worker who delivers home-cooked breakfast to the homeless almost every day. James says he tells the man to slow down, take some days off to take care of himself instead of the homeless. “You may be a church, but you’re still a human being,” James says he tells the Good Samaritan.
James claims he has no choice but to sleep outside, saying people at the city’s shelters demand that he buy their drugs, specifically crack cocaine and heroin. That topic gets him very agitated, and he starts making other claims that are hard to believe.
Here are some things I don’t yet know about James: his last name … whether he has any family left (he said his parents died in the mid 1990s) … if the illegal drugs he rails about are really medications that have been prescribed … who he sends letters to, and why he seems obsessed with Germany. (He says he lived there for five years as a child).
I’ll keep spending time with James, knowing that what he tells me may not be 100 percent accurate. Why am I doing this? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. It’s not just a “There but for the grace of God …” thing.
James, I guess, represents what so many of us choose to ignore. Or fear. More to come, while I figure this out.