From the Editor

The first time I saw a homeless person was in Dallas, Texas. I was 20 years old, practically skipping down the sidewalks of the city, excited to see one of my favorite bands at a show. All of a sudden, a small avalanche of cardboard spilled from an alcove in a building. A man appeared from beneath the trash, and I stopped to stare. I had never seen anyone living on the street before.

I had seen men with backpacks wandering the roads in Arkansas, but I had always romanticized them as the nomads of the highways. I never thought anyone could go hungry in our state — with all the grains, vegetable gardens and live game at our cultural fingertips. To be hungry was to be without skill, or without determination.
And, of course, I had heard the stories of people who had visited larger cities and had given homeless people money or food, only to find that they really wanted liquor or drugs. This made it easier to ignore the homeless man in Dallas and his request for money.

I was recently forwarded a fact sheet produced by the University of Arkansas Sociology and Criminal Justice Department that presented data on homelessness in Northwest Arkansas. According to the study, an estimated 2,000 people are homeless in Washington and Benton Counties.

In my four years living in Fayetteville, I had never interacted with a homeless person. I’m sure someone climbed aboard the same bus as I or passed me on the sidewalk, but no one had ever asked me for a handout. I had heard of the Seven Hills Homeless Shelter, but I had never been there.

Out of sight. Out of mind. To me, homelessness did not exist.

To understand homelessness in NWA more fully, I visited Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick, a professor of sociology at the UA who specializes in researching quality of life and homelessness. I learned that many people aren’t aware of homelessness because there is a lack of visual evidence. Formal and informal networks such as shelters, churches, friends and family, keep most of the homeless off the street.

Most of them.

Determined to see homelessness firsthand, I followed a lead about campsites of homeless people hidden in wooded areas around town. I shouldered my backpack, grabbed my camera and headed into the woods. After my meeting with Dr. Fitzpatrick, I knew I could be walking into a potentially dangerous situation. Chronic conditions such as mental illness and substance abuse are a major factor in long-term homelessness, and I knew that anyone living in the woods could react to my intrusion with hostility.

I found only the abandoned fire pits and garbage heaps of those who had come before me. The residents left behind sparse evidence — a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, shredded pieces of clothing, and a cooking pot — across three different sites.

I trudged across the street to another wooded area, chatting with my roommate whom I had brought along as a bodyguard, when suddenly we heard a man’s voice from inside the woods. It was like a shotgun in the stillness, and we froze, listening.

“Hey man, we got more beer to drink!” The man cried. Another man tossed back a muffled, inaudible response.

In order for us to reach the men, we would have been forced to walk through a small trail on a steep downward slope, our peripheral vision completely blocked by foliage. We listened for a moment, and decided not to venture forth.

Around the corner, we found a man with a knee brace sitting in a plastic lawn chair. He said he had a place to stay but was waiting for his disability check to come through. Further up the hill, a woman lay on the ground, with a small black dog tied to a tree beside her. She did not feel like sharing her story. Another man sat on a pile of lumber with a black trash bag at his feet. He did not speak English. I admitted defeat and went home.

Later in the week, with the help of Marian Riner, homelessness liaison for the Fayetteville school district, I was able to conduct an interview with a mother who had been homeless for almost two years (Readers can expect to see that interview in a future article.) I told Riner about my experiences in the woods, and she sighed, saying it was the common misconception that all homeless people have substance abuse problems.

Riner interacts with families and children who are experiencing homelessness, a growing demographic in this time of economic crisis. Her patience and compassion proved paramount to my curiosity, and I saw firsthand that the real victims of homelessness are the children who are displaced when their parents encounter financial devastation.

The pantry walls in Riner’s office are quickly emptied of food and household items. With a 36 percent increase in homelessness from 2009, all networks are feeling a strain on their resources. Riner says all contributions are helpful — food, money, underwear, socks, sweatpants, clothing for school-aged children, and household products like laundry detergent.

I asked Dr. Fitzpatrick what he would say to encourage the community to donate, especially in a time when everyone is battening down the hatches and conserving all resources.

“Everyone does the best he can with what he has,” Fitzpatrick says,” but don’t do nothing.”

Categories: Commentary