Debby, a woman from work got me started with a quarter. I mentioned that I was going downtown to be homeless after work, so she jokingly gave me a quarter to get me started. I got on a train with a red plastic cup in my hand, with Debby’s quarter in it. I didn’t really know how to get started, where I would go, or what I would do.
I didn’t know how to ask somebody for money. It didn’t feel right; something was odd about it. I start debating whether I should turn back or not. A man walked by with a little girl in his hands.
“This is my 4-year-old daughter, and I have a 6-year-old son, too. We are living in shelters now and could use some help.”
When he looked at me I showed him my cup, and he nodded. I decided that I would actually follow through and go downtown. I would experience a little bit of what the life of a homeless person is like.
Clark and Lake sounded good because there are some shops around and always some tourists. I saw a Walgreens right off the stairs when I left the train stop. As I walked towards the store’s doors, I asked everybody I walked past if they have any change. I put my cup a little out at them. They acted as though they didn’t even hear me. They tried not to even look at me. They just walked a little bit faster and stared at the ground.
I got to the Walgreens door and started to shake my cup. There wasn’t much noise because there was only Debby’s quarter inside of it. I looked every person who walked in or out of the door, right in the eye, and asked with a very sweet voice, “Do you have any spare change?”
Same response, just looked away and acted as though I wasn’t even there. I looked down and spotted a penny. Now I can make a little more noise with two coins clanging in my cup. I asked at least 20 people who went in or came out of that door for some change, and I didn’t even get anybody to acknowledge my presence. Then a skinny, tall, white man in his 30s or so with dress pants and a button-down shirt came out of the door.
“Any spare change?” I asked with the least amount of hope.
“I can’t have you outside of my store, man. You need to find another place.”
I paused and realized that I should probably just listen and move along. As I walked away, I noticed that my dignity was leaving me fast. I found a nice spot outside of a little quickie mart-type store. I stood by a cement stand that blocked most of the wind. There were lots of people coming out of this store, so I figured I would get at least one person to contribute to my cup. Almost right away, after I asked the first person for some change, I noticed a short, buff, black man with a white button-down shirt with some kind of security writing on it coming my way. He asked me to stand on the sidewalk, but that was too far from the door, and I wouldn’t be able to ask most of the people coming from the store, so I just decided to find a different spot.
The cold was setting in now. I decided to take a break from verbally asking people for money. I plopped down against a cement column. I pulled my hood down some to block the wind and just shook my cup. I tried to rest some, but the cold was everywhere on me. My rump and legs were coldest because they’re touching the ground. I just dealt with it and shook my cup. There still wasn’t much noise coming from it. I would need a few more coins before the sound was noticeable.
My mind couldn’t seem to wander as I had hoped; all I could think of was the terrible pain of the cold. Then I noticed a man step the closest anybody has stepped to me since I became homeless. I pulled my hood back some and saw that he was putting something into my cup. He was a black man in his 50s with a nice long coat and glasses. He placed a coin, looked at me with a nod, and walked by.
I would have jumped up and yelled had I not been frozen to the ground. I looked at the cup. The very first coin I got was a quarter. I took it out and looked at it”one of the newer ones that still was a little shinny. I rubbed my hands together and shook my cup. There was so much more noise coming out of it now. My mind kept trying to recall the moment that the man placed the coin in my cup. It helped me forget about the cold just a little.
I decided to move when I noticed that there were more people over by the intersection than where I am at. I sat down and crossed my legs next to a plant bed. Once I felt settled, I started shaking my cup. Lots of people walked by right away, so I realized that this spot was better and planned on staying there a while.
Time passed slowly and nobody dropped anything. I started to wonder if I would get enough for a train ride back or not because I had only gotten one quarter so far. And the quarter started to feel like a fluke.
A large white woman, all bundled up with a hat, scarf, big gloves, ear muffs, and a huge coat came by and dropped several coins in. I was not as excited as the first time, but it reassured my hope just enough for me to carry on. I saw that she put in a dime, nickel, and a penny. I felt better and realized that the quarter wasn’t a fluke.
Shortly after, a woman with a boy and girl walked by. I saw the children look at me. They both had the same look on their face. A moment later, the two of them both came back to me. The little girl put several coins in my cup and the boy, a dollar bill. I saw the mother standing back about 10 feet away watching them. Immediately after the boy dropped his dollar, she called them back to her. The two children looked at me the whole way back as they walked to their mother.
I felt horrible taking money from kids. I shook my cup for a while and decided to move on. The cold was so bad now that it took long periods of time to make thoughts in my head turn into physical movements, so I had not actually stood up yet. Right then, a big white man in his 60s or so came by me and pulled out a small wad of bills. He took out one dollar from the small wad and handed it to me. He had a look on his face that made me realize he understood my situation a little. I thought he had been homeless in the past.
I put the dollar away and rose to my feet. I couldn’t feel my knees at all. Once I started to walk, I noticed all kinds of pain in my back. I went into the Walgreens and asked an employee if they have a public bathroom. He told me they don’t but the McDonald’s across the street did. As I left the store, a homeless person who had assumed my old spot was asking people for money as they walked out of the door just like I was.
When I got to the McDonald’s I went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and my ears and nose were bright red. My lips were chapped and cracked and my eyes were very wide. I got out into the main area of the food court and sat for a long time until I felt entirely warmed up. My mind was focused 100 percent on my warmth level. Suddenly, a security guard with several teeth missing told me I needed to leave if I wasn’t going to be eating. I realized I would have to go face the cold again.
Once outside, all I could do was look for another place to get warm. I went into a Starbucks. I sat on a very comfortable couch by myself and tried to go to sleep a little. I wasn’t there long before an employee came and told me I had to leave because they were closing. I went into the train station. There was another homeless person with a long, white beard and long, white hair. He had two dirty ripped bags and an orange. He was talking to himself very quietly, moving his hands to the conversation. He took out some Vaseline from one of the bags and rubbed a big glob of it onto his shoulders. Then he took out a napkin from his pocket and wiped off his mouth and nose. Then he started talking to himself again.
He took a few steps out of the corner he was in, and a man standing with a friend in the station noticed him. The man started singing a Led Zeppelin song real loud and walked up to him. The man got all in his face and started making mocking remarks to him. Then the man said, “Well, do you f”-ing want a cigarette or what?” He didn’t say anything, so the man walked away with his friend. Then he went back to his spot and picked up his bags. He walked out the door, and accidentally left his orange. I took his spot.
After a while standing in the spot, I got on the ground and sat. Then I leaned over and went to sleep. I felt exhausted. I was not sure how long I was out for, but when I woke up, there was light in my face. Then I got kicked in the leg. I got up and grabbed my cup of coins. I realized it was a cop. He said, “What are you doing? You can’t sleep here! Get up!” He started to pat me down. I was still half-asleep, so I didn’t realize how stupid this was, but I went to see if I still had the two dollar bills that I had gotten. I had put them in my inside jacket pocket, so when I went to reach for them, the cop put his hand flat on my chest and pushed me against the glass window behind me and shouted, “Don’t you f”ing reach in your pockets or I will put you through this f”ing glass!”
He checked my inside pocket and saw that there was only the two dollars and no weapon.
“Where do you live?”
I tried not to answer.
“Where do you live?!”
I tell him Oak Park.
“Why are you sleeping here then?”
I told him that I was just not at home right now. I didn’t want to reveal that I was just doing it for the experience of homeless life.
“Well, you need to get on the train then; you need to go back home.”
He escorted me onto the train and watched me go down the escalator. Originally, I planned on coming back up when he was gone and continuing my homeless experience. Then I thought I had seen enough. I already felt less than human. I felt like everybody was better than me, and everybody knew it. Even when people would give me money it felt bad because I am a beggar, and they were just giving me pity money. So I pulled my hood off my head, I got on the train home, and I felt human again.
Shawn Goebel is a senior at OPRF High School. He wrote this piece as a journal entry for one of his classes.