SideWalk Ghosts / Interview 60: “All I Want Is Fairness”

5:30pm, driving home from dropping my daughter at her drama class, when I spy a worn motor home in the parking lot of Big Lots.

At first it is a shadow in my eye-line, but as I drive away I find myself unable to shake its sighting and have to investigate.

I make a few course adjustments and soon I am driving to it. Instantly I make contact with of one of its residents, Teresa. We chat for around fifteen minutes and my 365 journey for the evening begins. She tells me of her 12 years on the streets, homeless, and of meeting her fiance, Rex (soon to be introduced), some 21 months ago. Little do I know that I am at the beginning of a course of conversation that will enlighten me to the trials of many of our homeless, alá Rex.

At this point, Rex is not in the scene, with Teresa telling me, “He is the man you want to speak with, he has a lot to say.”  So we wait. As we converse I find out a little about Teresa. Our conversation starts out quite normal with a set of general questions. You know, the getting to know each other stuff. But then it shifts to the supernatural as Teresa tells me of her dealings with the spirit world. I hear tales of visitations and of encounters with entities — events like being thrown by the unseen while taking a shower. My curiosity is perked by her soberness in her explanations. I empathize, sharing with her a bizarre experience or two that I have had. (nothing like being thrown in a shower, but strange non-the-less). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not into the pursuit of evil beings or proclaiming to be a hobbyist ghost chaser. And by the looks of things, perhaps medication is the cause of such sightings, but I’m drawing no conclusions as to her sanity or not. That is not my job or responsibility. I’m just writing it as I see it.

We are starting to run out of steam when, walking up with a distinct limp, Rex joins us. I quickly find out that the guy has been homeless for the majority of his life. I tell him of 365 and its growing community, and that for some unknown reason, this evening, I have been drawn to his mobile residence. He is very articulate and chimes right in. Teresa kicks in, “I told you he would be into it!” And boy is he!

Over the next 3 hours I get a PhD crash course reflecting the many real challenges of living on the streets. Not so much the why we are here stuff, but the how we survive and what we do to support each other realities. To note, many of us may discard or choose to look away from their plight, and at times, I’m sure that may be appropriate, but Rex sparks my activism and understanding as to whom I need to direct my attention.

He tells me of his history, seven brothers and sisters, all of whom no longer associate with him. Even though he, as the oldest, and having lost their father, spent his early years helping his mother raise them, they still turned their backs. I have no idea why and surely there is more to the story than meets my eye, but still…

“My youngest brother is very wealthy and will not speak with me and I have lost contact with the rest of my family.” Even his two children are estranged, both living in Florida. My gut tells me he is truthful and that’s good enough for me. I do not press him any further for details.

I find out a few things about his past, “Many years ago I refed youth basketball and football and worked as a team portrait photographer.” I buy it, as he speaks well enough of camera technique to gain my faith in his claim.

There is one topic, however, that dominates our evening’s conversation: His passion to educate the public as to how law enforcement treats the homeless. Many times I have witnessed officers interacting with the homeless, and I understand neighborhood concern for keeping the streets safe, so at the beginning of his dialogue I am compassionate, but sit a bit on the fence. I’ve had a little exposure over the last few weeks. Incidents like: the looks I witnessed Victor (Music is Your Friend) receiving as he entered Applebee’s, and the earful The Colonel (You’ve Got To Have Respect For Other People) gave me at the laundromat. But Rex shares a more personal and darker side of the topic.

Now Rex is very sober. He is not a simple man or someone who has given-up relying on the system. My take: he is where he is through one simple fact, he is just one of the people whom life has dealt a series of hard blows, all of which he bears as part of the reason for his existence. Rex is a survivor, not a martyr or a victim. Just a man doing what he can to make the world a better place.

At 72 years of age, he is quite an educated man. Both in formal terms (seven credits away from a bachelor’s degree in legal studies), and in street smarts – lessons from the school of hard knocks. He is not a freeloader, does not look for handouts and cares for his fellow man – as I witness, while spending time with him at a local Kinko’s where he is making a sign to promote his non-profit project (I’ll get to that in a second), by his interactions and kindness to the customers who are obviously wary of his patronage of said store. I’d say he is a man of humility and forgiveness.

So why is he still on the streets? “I have a reason for being here, I’m doing something about the injustice we receive.” He goes on to tell me a bit more of his character, “I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I don’t steal. If there is anybody who needs help, I’ll help them, even if I have to give the last possession I have, I will, if it helps someone else in greater need than myself. That’s the way I am.”

So what is Rex’s cause? “I’ve been beaten too many times to count by our local police, and I’m not scared to talk about it. They use us as test dummies for training.” He is passionate in this claim. “Many are too intimidated or crazy to speak up, but I am not. People need to know how we are treated. Many of us do not choose to be out here. Sme are here by choice, but many more are here because of illness or bad fortune. It’s that simple. It’s terrible how we are singled out and brutalized in the name of law.”

So what is he doing about it? For the past two years he has been putting any cent he can into legally pursuing his cause. “Yesterday I received my letter of incorporation.”  Seems he has set up a non-profit with a mission, To educate the public and support the homeless. Perhaps that is the reason I am drawn to include him and Teresa in today’s entry. To do my part in getting the word out. Introducing: “The Coalition of Disabled and Homeless, Inc.” In its infancy, there is not even a website yet. But with the intelligence of a seasoned business mind, he is setting up its board of directors, all pulled from people on the street. Whom better to serve the cause.

I spend 20 minute hanging out in Kinko’s with Rex as he hand makes his first company sign. Cost? 50 cents.

What does he mean by, “They use us as test dummies for training.” Simply that, “We are beaten in the name of training the law. They tell rookies: It’s breaking the cherry.” I don’t know the facts, I’m just reporting one side of the coin. Would be great to get other opinions for the sake of responsible communication.

Rex tells me of many personal experiences, but one is very intriguing and fairly open-minded toward the police force. First, I ask him, “Are all officers bad?” He says, “No,” and tells me of a few positive experiences of fair and respectful treatment. “But that does not cure the overall problem” he says. The story he shares is of being involved in one particular test dummy situation. “Here I am, at gunpoint of an obvious rookie in training. I look at his senior and ask, ‘Tell this guy to put the gun down, he is going to hurt someone.'” The senior officer complies. The offense? Being visible in the right place at the right time for a hassling. I’m telling you, Rex is lucid, or I am very gullible. Either way, the story rings with authenticity to me.

There are many other stories of life on the streets that  Rex imparts to me this evening. To blog them all would be a run-on, and I’m sure that is not the message Rex, and I, want to publish. His request is minimal: Tell my story of fairness. That is all he is campaigning for, fairness. Not handout, not turn the other cheek, not even poor homeless, Only fairness.

What about Teresa? Rex tells me, “I’ve got to marry her soon!”

Rex’s words of counsel.

“To the homeless. Don’t be afraid to step up, voice your thoughts, words and opinions with knowledgeable people, or other people who can help the homeless cause. Do your part. Go en masse to the councilman’s office.”

Rex, Teresa, I hope you invite me to the wedding.