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Street paper editor spends week on the streets

 Street Pulse - USA 24 October 2019

As editor of a street paper, participatory journalism can mean many things. Ben Schapiro, editor of Wisconsin paper Street Pulse, decided to push his boundaries and abandon his flat for a week- to live alongside his vendors on Madison streets. (4537 Words) - By Ben Schapiro

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Street Pulse vendors Phoenix and Country on the steps of St. Paul’s Church, in Madison.Photo by: Ben Shapiro

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Ben Schapiro, after a week on the streets.Photo by: Ben Shapiro


Here I go-a week on the streets, I thought as I opened the front door of my downtown Madison home, a two-floor college pad, clean and tastefully decorated, complete with porches in the front and back, a washer and a dryer, and a dishwasher.  My roommate Tyler closed the door behind me.

It was just past noon on May 21st.  On my back I carried a travel bag stuffed with a couple changes of socks and underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, my cell phone, seven dollars (one dollar per day), my driver's license, which was necessary for admittance to the drop-in shelter, a sleeping bag for nights outside, and three notebooks to record my experience.  I did not bring my house keys or my wallet.  Stripped of my middle-class privileges, I left home in pursuit of a better understanding of Madison's homeless community.

I started down State Street, a popular commercial strip three blocks from my house, introducing myself to new Street Pulse vendors along the way, searching for a homeless person who would be willing to spend a few days with me.  Ten minutes into my walk, a vendor wearing a green button-up shirt and a red cap approached me with a newspaper.­ "Donate to Street Pulse?" he said, his tone sincere.

I introduced myself and explained my intentions for the week.  He said he wouldn't mind spending time with me at all, and that I'd meet his fiancé, Angel, later that day.  The badge pinned on his shirt read "Robert Huffar, Street Pulse Vendor."  Robert, 51-years old, was discharged from prison early last December after serving 26 years for sexual assault, aggravated assault and burglary.  He said he has no memory of the crimes.  "I've got to accept it even though I don't remember," he said.

Forced to the streets with no money, Robert slept at Grace Episcopal Church's men's drop-in shelter in Madison for 60 nights, the limit for any one man.  After using up all his shelter days, he moved to the streets and made his bed on the porch of a downtown church, where he, Angel and a few others spend their nights with the church's permission.  Robert told me he and Angel, over the past 19 days, had stood outside vending Street Pulse for 132 hours. "It keeps food on the table," he said.

He showed me a sheet of paper outlining their profits for each of those 19 days.  He said the local job club required they keep such a record.

"Where do you usually eat?" I asked Robert, hungry and wondering where I could find cheap food.  "Taco Bell," he said.

"Do you ever get sick of it?"

"It's food."

I walked a couple blocks to Taco Bell-known on the streets as "Taco Hell"-and ordered what I could afford, a Beefy Melt Burrito for 99 cents plus tax.  The cashier handed me my change; never before in my life had a couple quarters seemed so valuable.  I'll need these, I thought.

I returned to the vending spot, where Robert introduced me to his fiancé Angel Hasty, who wore the same red hat as Robert, and David Kelley, known by his friends as Phoenix.  Phoenix, 38-years-old, had recently befriended Robert and Angel. "We sleep in the same area. We look out for each other," Phoenix said. "We have a good-standing trust relationship.  Some of the money they're carrying is my money, too."

For the next few hours, Phoenix, Robert and Angel took turns vending the newspaper, sporadically sharing with me their vending strategies.  "Always greet them before you even mention the newspaper," Phoenix shouted to me from his vending position.  "'Have a wonderful day.'

"Body language, facial expressions. If you're angry, put on a mask, smile.  Give compliments.  Be playful with dogs.  It's the body language," he concluded.

He greeted a passerby. "See-he stepped two steps to the side when I said 'Good Afternoon.'  He's not going to buy-not worth my time," he said."It's mostly how they walk," Robert agreed.  "You learn how to read people, see little signs.  Donate to Street Pulse!"

"We're good, thanks," a passing woman replied, speaking for three others.  Such a response was rare, I realized.  Most people walked past Robert without even acknowledging him.  Some turned their heads slightly to avoid looking at him; a few replied, "No!"

"It's all in how you present yourself," Robert said.  He and Angel were trying to sell enough papers to make $50 for a hotel room that night. It's a treat for us.  We do it every once in a while," Robert said.

Angel had been suffering from nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which she said were symptoms of her lithium pills-treatment for bipolar disorder-and said she was too sick to sleep on cement.  Her doctor had prescribed her 900 milligrams of lithium per day; Angel told me she couldn't handle such a high dosage. "The amount they have me on is destroying me," she said.  "It's a drug overdose."

Robert and Angel fell short of $50 and slept outside that night.

"We're some pathetic men, Michael," hollered a man standing at the back of the line for Grace Episcopal drop-in shelter to his friend at the front of the line.  Damn-everyone in line heard that, I thought.

It was Saturday evening, and well-groomed church-goers passed us from either direction.  To them, I was a young homeless man.  I made eye contact with a few of them and wondered what they thought of me.  Did they pity me?  Did I remind them of their brothers and sons or just of a dirty bum?

I signed in at the shelter and walked downstairs to a room full of bunk beds.  I quickly found a bed in a corner.   "You're new here, right?" asked a man, probably in his sixties who was sitting on the bed next to mine.  I nodded.  "You can line up for food now."  He recommended I eat in the TV room down the hall.

Shelter staff members served each of us two sloppy Joe sandwiches, a side of chips, salad, a slice of cake, and milk.  One of the servers, a middle-aged woman with my mother's face, stared at me while she prepared a sandwich.

"How are you tonight?" she asked with concern.

"Good, how are you?"

"Good."

After dinner, I went straight to my bed.  I bunched up my sweater to form a pillow and laid my head down, finally.  For the next hour, the room remained quiet, except for: "This is not my day"; "Stupid ass shit… fucking shit"; "I will throw a fit if I don't get another piece of cake"; "Stop shaking the bed, amigo"; a cough; a rustling plastic bag.

I woke up at 2:30 a.m. to a messy symphony of snores, which kept me awake for a while but reminded me of togetherness, of shared humanity.

Morning came too soon.  We lined up for breakfast at 6 a.m.  No one spoke.  For breakfast, the staff served sausage, pancakes, cereal, apples and coffee that tasted like burnt popcorn.  I took small sips, reluctantly.  I needed the caffeine.

Across the room, a man ironed a dress shirt on his bunk.

From the shelter, I walked a few blocks to Bethel Lutheran Church, home to a variety of homeless support services, for free coffee and doughnut holes.  I sat down at a round table across from a man named Jay, who wore a full-brimmed hat and sunglasses; his hair dangled to his shoulders.  I complained to him about the persistent snoring at the shelter.

"Dude, you gotta get some ear plugs," he said.  "They're worth their weight in gold."  He handed me a pair from his backpack.  "Here.  You can have these."

It was early afternoon, and the sun was burning the back of my neck as I stood on a street corner vending Street Pulse.  Passersby generally avoided me; some even turned their heads away from me when I greeted them.  A woman approached me, handed me a dollar and said she didn't want a newspaper.  I must have looked homeless to her.

"You look the part," Angel said after the encounter.  Robert and Phoenix agreed.

During breaks from vending, I talked with new acquaintances and thought about my life back home.  I missed my guitar and I wanted to translate my experiences on the streets into sound, but didn't have the means to do so.  I thought of all the homeless musicians who didn't have access to instruments, either.

A hairy man in a tank top ran down the sidewalk towards us shouting obscenities. "As you get older, you suffer until you fucking die," he asserted in a deep New York accent, pausing his jog to speak his mind to us.  "When you die, it's a happy time, because it's all fucked up.  Let me tell you: lies, deception and murder are as American as apple pie."

He jogged away, and Robert, Angel, Phoenix and I looked at each other with confused grins."You meet a lot of different people out here," Robert said, "like him."

Later a man in his forties sat next to me on the bench and started talking, his head hanging limp to his chest as he spoke.  He told me he had OD'd last night on heroin, died in the emergency room, was shocked back to life and subsequently tossed to the streets, given little direction from doctors.  I gave him my phone and told him to dial the number for the McGovern Center, where he could find treatment for his drug and alcohol addictions.  It was Sunday, so they didn't pick up.  I wrote down the number for him on a slip of paper and hoped he would remember to call tomorrow.  I saw him the next day walking down State; he was drunk, chanting, "Fuck, I don't know what to do."  Neither did I.  I walked past him, questioning the extent of my responsibility for the man's life.

I decided to spend Sunday night outside with Robert, Angel and Phoenix.  We laid out our bedding on the hard tile of St. Paul University Catholic Center's porch, across the mall from the university's Memorial Library, where I'd spent time studying for final exams two weeks earlier.

Robert handed me most of a bag of Corn Nuts and a bottle of water.  I told him it was good timing, as I was desperate for both food and water.  "If it rains, sit up under here and we'll wait it out," Phoenix said, pointing to his clear plastic tarp, infested with holes.

I lay next to Phoenix on his Styrofoam sleeping pad, one he found recently in the garbage behind Starbucks, and closed my eyes.  Minutes later, he started snoring loudly.  I put in the earplugs Jay had given me that morning, but Phoenix, nevertheless, kept me awake.  It was 3 a.m., then 5 a.m.  I had to get up at 5:30 if I wanted to catch breakfast at the shelter.

I missed breakfast.

That morning, I followed one of my porch acquaintances, Country, a 32-year-old hobo, to State Street to shake the cup for breakfast money.  Country, six feet two inches tall, wore black pants, a black shirt and a flame-patterned bandana around his neck; his face was accented with a blonde pointed goatee and a teardrop tattoo beside his left eye, indicating he had killed someone.

He said panhandling is a last resort but sometimes necessary.  "It's hard for me to stoop to that level," he said.

He paced back and forth on the sidewalk, shaking the cup vigorously, calling out to passersby: "Help a sober kid eat!  I'm just hungry, I swear!" and "Hungry, hungry hobo, ain't no train in town to feed me though."He handed me a cup to shake, and I turned to face the sidewalk, wondering what I looked like to passersby.

A woman approached us with her leftovers from breakfast-a slice of French toast and some fruit. "I don't want all of this, so we can share it," she said.

The morning went slow after that, and I was still very hungry.  Why won't you give me money for food? I thought as people passed me.  I need food-not booze or drugs!  I'm being honest!

For entertainment, I started composing rhythms with the change in my cup.  Clink clink chika chika, clink clink chika chika.  I wanted to say 'Go fuck yourself' to those passersby who ignored me.  Clink clink chika chika, clink clink chika chika.

Who do you think you are? I thought as a man turned his head to avoid looking at me. "I just need some food," I called after him.   He continued his march without acknowledging my existence.  I felt invisible.  Too many people are ignoring me, I thought.  Recognize my existence!

A couple hours later, another woman offered us her leftovers from lunch.

"Let's see what we got," Country said, opening the lid to the styrofoam carry-out container.  "Yeaaaaaaaah!" we yelled in unison.  Chinese food!  The woman looked back at us with a wide smile.  We shoveled the spicy chicken into our mouths, alternating shifts with the fork.

That afternoon, I found Robert sitting on a bench in the shade on a quieter block of State Street.  I sat down next to him.  He told me he and the gang had been banned from vending at their spot by a nearby store-owner, who claimed they were "camping." We sat, felt the breeze.  The leaves on the trees lining the sidewalk were light green, still young.

"That's a beautiful dog, ma'am," Robert called to a passerby.  He turned to me.  "The one thing you see around here is beautiful dogs.  Petting a dog makes the day go easier." A few minutes later, a woman wearing a McCain-Palin t-shirt stopped in front of us, glanced at our collection of bags and asked, "What's it like-being homeless?"

"Rough," Robert said.  She walked away.  "At least she asked," he said.

Monday night on the porch of St. Paul's, Phoenix presented me with a three ring binder stuffed with papers and photos-maps of Madison, pamphlets for community resources and clinics, and pictures of his family and his ex-girlfriend.

"I don't have a relationship with my family," he said.

A self-proclaimed "control freak," Phoenix chooses not to take medication for his illnesses, which include bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. "You don't need drugs to control something," he said. "I can live a normal life without medication, as long as I focus on myself and my life."

Phoenix was released from prison late March after 25 years locked away.

"They just released me from prison and pretty much dumped me on the street," he said.  "The correctional officers said they were taking me to a place called Safe Haven where I could stay, but when I got there they had no idea who I was. I was able to get into Porchlight, but after 90 days I didn't have anywhere else to go.  That's when I found Robert and Angel."

He had an appointment scheduled for the following Thursday with the Madison Urban Ministry, an organization that works to reintegrate ex-prisoners into society.  We laid down for bed. "I'm gonna dream I have my own house," Phoenix said.  "Someday."

Robert bent over and picked up a guitar pick from a crack in the sidewalk; he handed it to me and told me I might need it.  "Keep your eyes on the street-you might find something," he said, and we continued our walk to Bethel Lutheran Church.  At 10 a.m., the church's homeless support group began.

Around 40 people, mostly homeless, sat in a wide circle and shared their experiences from the past week.  One man, T.J., told us his wallet had just been stolen, and he had to come up with $50 by June 16th to get an ID for his potential employer, or he'd lose the job opportunity.   "I can't make that much money," he said.  He put his arm around his girlfriend, beneath her eyes dark bags.

Another man prayed for his friend in La Crosse, whose house was destroyed by a tornado days earlier.  Others told stories of recent complications with cancer, diabetes, and mental illness.  One man announced he'd stayed away from alcohol for one week now, and everyone applauded.

­It started drizzling around midnight, so I crept underneath Phoenix's tarp with Roger, another porch-sleeper.  Phoenix and Roger started cracking sex jokes, while I tried to convince myself the rain would stop.   But the rain fell harder and harder, creeping through the holes in our tarp and soaking my sweater-pillow and then my entire sleeping bag and the clothes on me.  I clutched my notebook and phone close to my heart and curled into the fetal position.  It's gonna stop raining, I thought.  It's gonna stop.

Through the pounding rain, I could hear Angel's giggle.  What's so funny, I thought? I switched to a crouching position (Brian Solomon, a Madison alderman who spent that night with us, later characterized this movement as "a little mountain growing out of the ground") and considered my potential futures.  I could stay in my sleeping bag and risk getting hypothermia, or I could wake the hell up, strip off my wet clothes, and wait out the rain under a nearby store's awning.

I jumped out of bed and met the rest of the group underneath Memorial Library's overhang.  I stood there dripping in my boxers and a t-shirt, both soaked.

"You adapt to [rain], eventually," Angel said.  She and Robert had slept through storms several times before.  Robert tossed me a blanket, and Roger lent me a blue Hawaiian shirt.  Angel needed to pee, so she and Robert headed to the closest bathroom, which was ten minutes away at Cap Centre Market.  It was 4:24 a.m.

At 6 a.m., Starbucks opened.  I just needed a dry, warm place to sit and wait until 10 a.m., when Bethel allowed visitors.  I fell asleep in a cushioned chair in a corner on the second floor; every few minutes, I'd wake up, pick up a newspaper and stare at it, so as to ward off any suspicious employees.  Please don't bother me, I thought.  I'm tired and harmless.

"You can throw just about anything into it and it'll be good," Phoenix said, shaking a plastic bag filled with spaghetti, potatoes, cheddar cheese, Ramen noodles, chili cheese fries, Doritos, Cheetos, pickles, and water.  "It's called a Jailhouse Burrito."

We sat around a table at Bethel, our eyes intent on the food being prepared.  Phoenix split the burrito ingredients into three even portions, for Country, himself and me.  I ate mine without once looking up from my plate.

Across the room, Robert sat idly, his fist in his cheek, elbow on the table.  A woman next to him was sleeping, her head buried in her arms.

"When you're trying to get somewhere fast, shortcuts are the shit," Country said, leading me through a backyard toward his friend Zeek's apartment.  Upon our arrival, Country stocked Zeek's fridge with eggs, bagels, cheese, juice and other food items from the food pantry in payment for Zeek's consistent hospitality.

Zeek works for Chrysalis, a Madison organization that provides support services to the mentally ill.

"I'll help them know when they're dreaming," he said. Country rolled a joint and motioned with his head for me to follow him outside to the balcony.  While we smoked, he opened up about his past.

"How was your childhood?" I asked him.  "Terrible," he said.  "I was raped when I was 8.  My mother sold me for sex.  She was a crack-head.  Still is.  I was born into a gang...  I went to jail when I was 9 for shooting at a cop that raped my sister.  Shot him nine times.  I was in jail for 15 years…  After that, I spent time in the marines.  Hit by a gas bomb in Kuwait seven years ago.  Got stomach cancer…  Then, I was a hired hit-man for a while."

He told me he suffers from schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and fibromyalgia; he "medicates" with marijuana.   "Yo, you know what?" he said, turning to face me, smiling.  "The only difference between you and me is where we're from."

I found Phoenix on State shaking a cup through light rain.  He immediately started explaining an unfortunate interaction he'd just had. A woman had passed him and said, "I'm poorer than you."  Phoenix had pointed to his bags and mattress pad and said, "This is all I have."

"I can't believe it," Phoenix said to me.  "This is what I have!" he cried, his mouth trembling.  He shook his cup in front of my chest.  "How could she say that?  How could she say that?"  He threw up his arms.   We took refuge from the rain in Fairtrade Coffee and sat by the front of the shop, staring out the wall of windows.

"The rain is coming down really hard now.  But the rain has its purpose, because it cleans the earth," Phoenix said.  "It's the earth's personal shower.  Cleans the air, the ground, everything.  The main thing in life is staying in touch with nature and respecting it."

He told me he respected the kindness of my heart.  "We have to stay out here.  You don't.  You're actually doing this.  I want a place.  I need to get off the streets," he said, throwing his hands in the air.

I spent Wednesday night at St. Johns Lutheran Church's overflow shelter, just a few blocks from Grace Episcopal.  The walls inside were painted with colorful murals, and the collective mood amongst the men there was much lighter than at Grace.

I signed in at the office and took a blanket for my bed.  In my attempt to leave the office, I walked straight into the wall next to the door.   A guy in the opposite corner of the shelter witnessed the incident and started cracking up.

"You just walked into the wall!" he yelled so everybody could hear.  I laughed with him briefly, and then collapsed on my mattress, falling asleep almost immediately.

The shelter manager herded us outside at 5:35 a.m., five minutes after I woke up.  I walked down State toward the student union for a nap, and I slept for an hour sprawled out on a cushioned bench on the second floor.  Will someone catch me? I thought.  Don't care.  Too tired.

"I know what's important," Country said.  We sat across from each other in a plastic candy-blue booth at Campus Candy, a State Street shop.  "Right now it's important for me to find a job that will help me get off the streets."

"How do you think you're gonna get there?" I asked.

"Determination."  He slid out of the booth, turned a corner into the store's main room and was gone from my sight.  He returned a minute later and handed me a piece of hard candy.

"What does Street Pulse do for you?" I asked.

"Street Pulse is giving me a drive, something to focus on.  It's giving me something that has a purpose," he said.  "Selling the paper makes me a man again.  It gives me something to be proud of.  [Vendors] are the motherfuckers who are really doing shit."  He slid out of the booth again.  "I'll be back," he said, and he left the shop.

A remix of "Forever Young" was playing when Country returned five minutes later.  The beat pounded loud as he fired at me dozens of ideas about how he wants to see Street Pulse grow.

On my way to the shelter that night, I found Phoenix talking to a group of ten students on the corner of State and Broom.  He held a copy of Street Pulse in front of his chest.  As I passed, we pounded fists, and he quickly introduced me to the group.

"All these people are interested in Street Pulse," he whispered to me.

I picked a pair of sweat-drenched socks off my feet and tossed them into my bag.  "Whose feet smell like ass?" the shelter manager shouted out.  No one responded.  Not mine, I hoped.  I glanced down at my toenails, now yellow and crusty.

"Go wash up your feet," he said, assigning the blame to a bare-footed old man who lay on his mattress with his eyes shut.  The old man stood up, shrugged and walked toward the bathroom.

"RISE AND SHINE, FELLAS.  RISE AND SHINE."  The manager turned the lights on.  They burned my eyes.  It was 5:30 a.m., again.

Breakfast was the same as dinner the night before.  Meatloaf and potatoes.  I ate quickly.  A man in a black hooded sweatshirt stood in front of the trashcan, so I bent my arm around him and emptied my tray.

"Excuse me," I said.

"I'll let you get away with that because you're younger than me," he said.  "If you were older, I'd start something.  Say 'Excuse me' before you do something like that.  Just warning you."

Get me out of here, I thought.

When I arrived at the porch of St. Johns, Country and Phoenix were screaming insults in each other's faces.  Country threatened to beat up Phoenix, twice.  Phoenix told him to "stop talking about it and do it."

"They're both seeking control," Robert said.  "I hate to see it, but it's part of the streets."

I sat down on a bench and stared across the street through a sandwich shop's storefront.  $5 sandwich-you will soon be mine, I thought.  I scribbled final thoughts into my notebook:

My shoulders are sore from the straps on my bag.  I'm exhausted.  Long days, waking up too early, walking all day.  Would I have the energy/health to escape homelessness if I were in Country's situation?  He's trying so hard.   Would I force myself to be content with street life, as so many people out here have?  Is this the best they can do?  Are they leading lives that they consider meaningful?

I hope we can all show compassion to those stranded in homelessness and to those consumed by mental illness or drug addiction.    Show love to the wandering drunkard-strike a conversation, offer a smile or a nod.  Give positive energy to others when you can and do not ignore someone reaching out to you.  You have the responsibility to at the very least acknowledge such people, accept them as members of your community.

I went home, took a shower, shaved my face, and took a nap in my bed.  At noon, I met up with Robert and Angel at their vending spot, and we ordered pizza.

We talked about our experience together on the streets.  I thanked them for taking me in, for guiding me through the week.

"I just wish more people would do it," Robert said.  "People need to know what it's like out here."

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