It seems like a simple question that should get a simple answer. But it’s never like that, not in the lives of men and women who roam the streets of Baltimore or stand at intersections with cardboard signs.
“Why are you homeless?”
Whenever I ask the question, I know I have to be patient. I have to listen closely to follow a meandering narrative that might come without the usual markers, like dates and places and full names. I know I probably won’t get all the facts, and the facts I manage to get might not inspire sympathy. But I try not to make a judgement of the man or woman I’ve just met. The purpose is to understand: How does homelessness happen?
You sit in your car waiting for the light to change, and you see middle-aged men in winter coats, loaded up with plastic bags stuffed with their belongings. You see a small woman holding a sign: “Homeless. Please help. God bless.” And, at certain moments, when you allow the question, or when you hand the stranger a dollar through the window, you wonder how he ended up there.
I visited one of Baltimore’s hospitality centers for the homeless, Paul’s Place, on Ward Street in southwest Baltimore. It offers all kinds of services to the poorest of the poor — a place to get a snack and a hot meal or an emergency food box, a place to take a shower, pick up mail or select some good used clothing. Paul’s Place will do two loads of laundry a week for guests willing to give an hour of volunteer time in return. There’s a nurse-run clinic every Wednesday.
During a recent visit, I took note of the center’s mission, written with a blue marker on a dry-erase board: “We meet guests where they are and help them reach their optimum health.”
That expression, “meeting someone where they are,” shows up in a lot of advisories to therapists and counselors. It means accepting people as they are, understanding the journeys they’ve been on, helping them discern their goals and reach them.
“Allowing guests to choose their path,” the dry-erase board says. “Treating guests with dignity and respect.”
Herman Buchanan was standing in Paul’s Place a couple of weeks ago, after having had a morning snack. He wore a winter coat and carried a backpack. We made eye contact, and he seemed immediately open to a conversation. I found him mild-mannered and pleasant. And there began our talks.
Herman is 52 years old, a native of Baltimore, from a family of seven children. After high school, starting in the mid-1980s, he held a series of blue-collar jobs (warehouse work, janitorial work, stocking shelves) in Maryland and in South Carolina. He also spent time in jails and prisons for auto theft and other property crimes. As a result, for many years getting a full-time job was difficult.
“I worked for a lot of temp agencies,” Herman says, something I have heard from plenty of ex-offenders. Taking temporary work through an agency sometimes is their only choice because criminal records have long-lasting effects. Convictions for theft, even a decade or more old, often kill prospects for full-time jobs that involve cash or property, and Herman says he recently failed to get a warehouse job because of it.
The reason he’s unemployed: “I failed the DOT physical for my CDL.”
That’s a reference to the medical certification he needed, under the U.S. Department of Transportation, to maintain his commercial driver’s licence. Herman worked as a truck driver, and he was employed for two years with the city’s public works department. But when he went for his physical in 2017, a doctor noticed that he had been prescribed insulin for diabetes. Herman maintains that he was not, and is not, insulin dependent; he says he takes other medication to control his blood sugar. Still, he lost his certification, and he lost his job.
He broke up with his girlfriend a year ago, he says, and he’s been homeless since. He stays with his brother at times. (“But I don’t want to wear out my welcome, you know?” he says.) Sometimes he stays at a men’s shelter. He has spent many days reading Stephen King novels at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Relatives give him a few bucks now and then for doing odd jobs.
At our second meeting at Paul’s Place, I told Herman what I had learned about driving a truck and diabetes: The DOT changed the rules in 2018. He could probably now get a CDL under certain conditions. Herman was not aware of that, but he was very interested to hear it. He spoke about taking a required refresher course and getting behind the wheel again.
I’m not sure, but I think that conversation brightened his outlook.
Still, Herman faces obstacles getting restarted — paying for the refresher course and a new license, finding a job, getting up the cash he needs to rent a room somewhere, and maintaining a positive enough attitude to make it happen.
I suggested Herman take advantage of the services offered by the good people at Paul’s Place. The executive director, Bill McLennan, says his staff connected their guests to 175 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs over the last four years. So it can happen — out of homelessness and into a job — and I hope Herman comes to believe that.