Syracuse is distraught, wheeling his (second-hand) bike through St. Joseph's narrow doors, he is
swearing under his breath, he is seething loud and dramatically for my benefit.
Sometimes the men of St Joe's acted so much like children I forgot that they didn't belong to me, sometimes I forgot how many people had failed them and how systemic that failure was. I stand from my round table and ledger, give him "the look", the same that I had given him three years prior. On my first day, I was a fresh and scabbed 18 years old, struggling to breathe in my own personal hurricane. He was charming and successfully conned me out of 3 bus passes before I caught on. I never fell for another trick after that day and he never attempted again. I think I proved myself to the men (some taking longer than others) and, in retrospect, I was the ideal shelter worker. I was non-threatening, naive, bleedingly compassionate and sharp, quick. I reminded them of their daughters, their mothers, aunts, the few kind Social Workers that they had stumbled on. Syracuse was a regular presence for the first year of my employment. Until he disappeared for five months. At St. Joe's, we have a wall of pictures. It's a classically Christian decorated house with plastic crosses and carefully constructed candles with ghostly saints flickering through their jars. Metallic graffiti and cartoonish lettered scripture scrolled the walls. The Serenity Prayer in each room as if the anger would suddenly overtake any guest not cast in it's direct light.
One wall in particular would gaze at me each night, a mosaic of dollar store and ornate framed pictures that I never paid much mind to until the end of my employment. While cleaning I discovered, to my horror, dates listed under each picture. The disappearances, the missing. The presumed dead, the confirmed dead, the pebbles that fell through the cracks in the Social Service system. The men and women that society failed. Pictures were found through old Kodak folders (1988) or licenses (expired in 2011) or family members with eyes that were so frequently red that you assumed they lost the ability to cry years prior. They brought in snapshots of birthday parties (1994) or out-dated mail (Get 18% interest when you open a Discover card today, you credit-less nonhuman) with the same stories (he is sick, he called me from this phone yesterday, we haven't seen him in two years). To this day, I wonder what picture Syracuse would have chosen had he been given the choice.
Five months after he left, he returned to us, sober. He had reconnected with his family, moved in with his daughter's Grandmother. He needed a job that would celebrate his past 11 unemployed years as a beacon of hope rather than a red flag. He worked in the kitchen for a bit after that. He even moved into St. Joe's as a Man-In-Transition. Rather than an explosive deconstruction, he backslide slowly. Started coming in late and drunk with a handful of colorful excuses. He left again for a bit, came back unshaved looking for a dry place to sleep. Syracuse was different than a lot of other guests because he had a family. An estranged wife who was living with another man, a daughter who dolled out second-chances so frequently that I figured she must have solely consisted of them. Rather than spiteful of his addiction, they were exhausted by it. He was different because he chose to live in the abyss. I think that, deep down, Syracuse didn't believe in himself. He knew that he had become a burden to his family and he didn't believe he could actually change for more than a few months. When he did make an effort, it was so unnecessarily difficult that he soon reverted back into his old self.
On my last day, Syracuse was mad and stomping his feet around my kitchen. He asked me what I'm making for dinner. I told him the same thing I've told him for three years- "I'm not your chef" before going to the refrigerator and creatively mixing leftovers onto a plate ("don't tell Sean"). I still pride myself on my ability to mix anything into chili. He talks to me while eating-
"It's my daughter, man. She's got a boyfriend."
I almost laugh, this crisis doesn't revolve around returned checks or unreturned calls. He isn't coming to me as a Helper, he's coming to me as a friend. I think everyone forgets that the homeless are not exempt from ordinary issues, they just receive an extraordinary amount of them.
"How old is she again?"
"I mean, it's normal for her age, right?"
"I know this kid, he's a punk, lives on South Gennesse Street."
"Oh." I was unsure of what to say.
"She gave me some money, I don't know where she got it. Moving in with him, fuckin' South Gennesse Street. I know I'm not good or anything but thats still my daughter."
This is it. This is the lesson I was getting to. I'm not going to tell you about how, seven months ago, I revisited St. Joe's and saw him working in the kitchen, sober. I'm not going to give you an ending, a finite point where he assimilated into "a functioning member of society" because he does not have an end. None of us do, yet. We aren't finished with life until we are framed and hung up on the Wall of the Dead like all the others. This is it. This is the moral of the story- Syracuse knows who he is. He knows who he isn't. Each time you walk by a homeless individual on the street, each time you lend your eyes to the subway floor when they pass. Each time you hear the beginning of "Ladies and Gentlemen" and turn up your headphones- you are instilling it into their heads. I am guilty of this, I am guilty of giving less than I can. We are the ones who tell them that they are not enough. They are broken. They are worth less than hearing the end of that song. Even in the throws of mental illness or addiction, most homeless individuals are self-aware.
Everyday that I log into Facebook I see a status about welfare. My hometown is primarily Republican and it's frightening to see the people I grew up with morph into the people we once hated. They post shiny images with cartoonish fonts about how they work for their money and refuse to "share" it. Welfare recipients are lazy, they are driving Escalades and collecting fat checks. They breed, like animals, for the monthly stipend of another mouth.
I guess this BlogSpot can fold into my soap box for right now. 27% of families receiving government aide only collect for 2-5 years. 4% of the population enrolled in welfare costs us 131 billion dollars each year. In 2011 alone, the Iraq War cost the United States over 7 trillion dollars. A cost that is temporary and extraneous to the basic functioning of the country. Welfare, on the other hand, keeps 4% of our population alive. That is where the economy is going. The maximum amount of money that can be collected monthly is 1000 dollars (a family of 2- 1000$, a family of 10- 1000$). Over 75% of this is spent on food. 43% have one child, 30% have 2. 46% are single parent households. 50% of households receiving food-stamps were working.
Syracuse was not lazy, he had the desire to accomplish his goals. The problem is that he didn't believe he could. He didn't believe in his ability to become anything other than a "parasite". Next time those glittery graphics about "Welfare Queens" pop-up on your newsfeed, remember that we are are not completely innocent in this. My last hour at St Joe's was spent scrubbing chili residue off my hands and wondering if they would ever be completely clean.