Homelessness

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By: 
Michelle Phillips

I was very much looking forward to a long awaited trip to Memphis from with my longtime friend Wendy. She lives in New Orleans and we decided to meet in Memphis for a long weekend to see Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, who is on his farewell tour, aptly named “Roll Me Away.” 

I have been to Memphis several times, but it had been about 20 years since I had stayed downtown. Walking around downtown was a strange juxtaposition of desolation and gentrification. Main Street is a tourist hot spot with upscale restaurants and shops, and it goes right past Court Square, where many homeless people sleep at night. 

I have touched on homelessness in the past in this column, but what I have not revealed is the reason I am an advocate for helping the homeless (aside from just plain humanitarianism). I was once homeless and living in my car. 

I had been jobless and finally landed not one, but two jobs just before I was evicted from my apartment. I was 19 or 20 and had no one who could help me financially at that time. I lived in my Plymouth Champ for a little over a month until I had enough money for a place to live, working in a bakery from midnight to 6 a.m., and on a road construction crew from 6:30 a.m. to dusk. I parked in places that were open 24/7 or occasionally at a rest area just outside Des Moines that would rarely make me move. 

This was in the 1980s, and I feel I was lucky to be able to pull myself out of that situation, but that is not always the case.  I tried to remember that in spite of financial insecurity, I had many other advantages that some do not. I do not typically tell people because they immediately judge you when they hear you have been homeless. It is like you have a communicable disease they may get by just looking at you. That is the same reason that I look at homeless people–really see them. 

Both traveling and here at home, I give homeless people food, water, money and clothing. These are not the things that will get them off the streets, but things they need to stay alive. The difference between Memphis and other bigger cities, particularly in warmer climates, and Madison is there is a much larger number of homeless people in those cities. 

One of the men Wendy and I gave food to in Memphis had no fingers. Another man, sleeping in an entryway to an abandoned building reeked of alcohol and remained in the same spot each morning until it became too sunny to sleep. Someone we gave money was being hustled from under an awning in an alley by the police during a downpour, soaking what few possessions she had.

Speaking of abandoned buildings, downtown Memphis was riddled with empty buildings, including skyscrapers, and reminded me a lot of downtown Detroit before revitalization began. The building directly across from our hotel was crumbling and the hotel manager, Rocky, told us that someone had been interested in it but a dispute between the landowner and the firm leasing it had prevented the sale. It had been vacant for near 10 years. He said he had been in the building and it was full of marble, floors, walls, windowsills, but was left to crumble.

Rocky expressed concern for the large number of buildings that were in similar condition. He also expressed his concern the high unemployment rate and increasing number of homeless people in the city. 

Just a few blocks away, from where we were staying is Beale Street, one of the most familiar and frequented areas of a city in all of the world. Tourists fork out $20 for a cocktail, buy cheaply made souvenirs and gorge on expensive meals, then walk around the homeless like they have the plague or will attack them. 

What some have forgotten is that the homeless are people, not animals. Yes, some of them have mental illnesses and some have addiction problems, but many are just like me, having a string of bad luck and bad timing, putting them on the street. 

I remember watching a “What Would You Do?” clip a while ago. They were dressing people up as homeless individuals, then positioning them where their family members would pass them on the sidewalk. Nearly every single person walked by their family member without noticing them. When host John Quiñones asked them about it they were shocked that they had recognized their friend, brother mother, etc. 

As the holiday season and winter approach, I implore you to start looking around and really see the homeless. Not look through them, or walk around. See them for what they could be if maybe one or two things had gone differently in their lives. Make a little emergency bag will socks, water, toiletries, snacks and maybe a small amount of cash and give it to someone you see in need. Buy someone a meal. Treat them as humans, and spread some humanity. 

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