At the intersection of El Camino Real and Alma Street in Palo Alto, California an elderly gray-haired man stood on the median strip between the north-south lanes. Dressed in a green Army fatigue jacket and dirty brown pants two or three sizes too big, he carried a cardboard sign. It read among other illegible things, “Out of work.” Although bent and worn, he radiated an urgency and intensity as his small steely eyes scanned the passing cars. He hobbled unsteadily with the help of a cane. The hand gripping the cane trembled incessantly. The light changed to red at the intersection and as the cars turning onto Alma braked, mine coasted past him stopping in line one car ahead of where he waited.
Like a lighting bolt both fear and pity welled up in me. Adrenaline pumped. My heart raced. I stopped breathing. Terrified, I hit the button to lock all the car doors. Years ago, I had been held-up at gunpoint on the street outside my apartment in Cambridge Massachusetts. Ever since then, no matter how much I try to recalibrate it, my personal safety system has been stuck on hyper-drive. Even in the most innocent situations, strangers in close proximity can touch it off in a flash.
Then I remembered to breathe and drew in a few deep breaths. I closed my eyes for a second and loosened my grip on the steering wheel. Calmer now, my attention turned to the little old man. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I saw him and the cars behind me.
Immediately behind me, I saw the driver’s hands nervously tapping on the steering wheel. The man shuffled along, his hand trembling, his face turned purposely towards the driver. Then, a hand clasping a green bill reached out of the car window. The old man lurched off the curb towards the bill. He clumsily took it and pushed it deep into his pants’ front pocket. To climb back up, he had to grab one pant leg above the knee with his free hand so that the leg would step up onto the curb. He teetered, and then regained enough balance to keep moving down the line of cars. Another hand with another green bill reached out the window from two cars behind. The old man reached it just in time to retrieve it before the cars started rolling forward through the green light.
A stream of questions burst in my head. Who was he? What was his name? Did he have a family? Perhaps he was someone’s grandfather. That someone must be missing him terribly. Must be waiting for him to return. Must be waiting to hear a story about, “When I was a young man.” How had he ended up here in the median strip? I wondered whether war had destroyed him, life had betrayed him, or someone else was using him.
Tonight, in the United States of America, 200,000 veterans will be homeless. Many of them are ill or come from disadvantaged communities. Half of them suffer from substance abuse. Tonight, in the United States of America, 100,000 children will be homeless. This year in the United States of America, 2 million people will be homeless. Homelessness is complex. It is not just about not having a home; it is also about the breakdown of families, illness, lack of physical and mental health care, malnutrition, and lack of living skills. Type the name of your community and the word, homeless, into a search engine to find out how you can help in your community.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum