Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Mayor of Hemming Park

It's easy to not see people who are homeless because to see them reinforces our own worst fears regarding health, safety, and the sometimes fragile nature of our own lives. Despite our desire to avoid, we encounter them in cities large and small and sometimes wonder what caused them to fall off life's highway and end up homeless. The reasons are numerous from drugs, mental health issues, or financial set backs; but once there, it is ever so hard to climb back out of the hole that homelessness becomes.

 Every city has an area where the homeless congregate and for my town it is Hemming Plaza. It is a park in the heart of the city which rests in front of all places City Hall. The park itself harkens back to a time when downtown was bustling but has fallen on hard times because for the most part it is now a place for the homeless to watch the day flow by. My photography group decided to do a give back project and hand out personal hygiene products to people in the park while doing street scene shots in the area. An interesting way to watch the day flow by for photographers.

I encountered Roy, who I call the Mayor of Hemming Plaza, because he was personable, and seemed to go out of his way to help the other men who frequent the park. I didn't ask for a story of how he ended up homeless and he didn't feel the need to provide one. It is what it is as the saying goes, and we bonded over stories of the different cities he had drifted through which made for good conversation.

He went into the grim details of the dance involved in living on the street and bouncing from shelter to shelter while working odd jobs to maintain a small day to day existence. Gaining a foothold was a difficult task even sometimes when he had money in his pocket. He didn't mention the mental processes he went through to one day decide no matter the challenges he was determined to get off the street, but one day it simply came to him.

He mentioned he was a military vet and used that as an opening for temporary shelter and later began to build on the sense of stability that provided. He ultimately was able to get a little place with a bed, a few
pieces of furniture, a TV, and his prized possession a refrigerator. Simple things by normal standards but for him the act of being able to take a shower when he felt like it, watch a TV show, or walk over to get a snack from his "box" without having to depend on anyone else, were major accomplishments. 

He still does odd jobs to support himself and enjoys his little creature comforts, but in between the lines I could hear that the pull of the street is still strong despite it's struggles. The way he describes it you just know that Roy fights an ongoing battle to stay off the street. Returning from time to time to Hemming Plaza I guess is his way of scratching that itch. 

I was glad my group had chosen this project because it opened my eyes in a number of ways. That fact alone allows me to say:  The next time you encounter a homeless person before you turn away, put yourself in his shoes. I say that because Roy is a small success story that is still being written.

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