Stories from the American Homeless

Sophia Muce, Copy Editor

I’d never had a conversation with a homeless person. In all honesty, I was afraid to. They could be dangerous. They may use the money I give them for drugs. They should look for a job instead. In reality, I knew nothing about what being homeless meant and how people got to that place. I wanted to educate myself and find out how I could help the homeless population in New Britain.

Why don’t homeless people work at low-wage, entry-level jobs, which should help them get over their homelessness?” – anonymous user

Brandon Brown is a proud father to his three children, a devoted husband, an apartment maintenance worker, and homeless. For the last three months, the paychecks he picked up at the end of his 50 hour work weeks funded trips to Wendys and hotel rates. His family is now squatting in a vacant apartment owned by his employers.

When Brown signed onto his job building low income housing, his employers were aware that he was homeless. He hoped that the consistent income and a bit of help from the company would secure his spot in one of the apartments he built.

“I’ve specifically said I don’t want to take away from somebody, you know? But at the same time, at this point, something’s got to be done,” Brown sighed.

I should clarify. According to Brown himself, he is not technically homeless; he just doesn’t have a home. Because he makes enough to pay for a hotel room, the Colorado state government does not consider him homeless. He reached out to different governmental organizations and saw money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but because he is employed, the benefits ran out.

“I said, ‘well, at this point, I’m literally squatting in a vacant apartment. So, does that qualify me for homeless?’

‘No, unfortunately.’

I said, ‘okay. Well, thank you very much. Going back to work now.’”

He was sick of pouring his paychecks into hotel rooms. He wants a consistent place to shower. He wants a stove to cook dinner. He wants an address so his children can register for library cards. When his work days come to an end, he wants to go home.

Studies by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness showed that on a single night in 2020, more than 580,000 people across the country experienced homelessness. The amount of homeless people in America has steadily increased for the last 4 years, but for the first time since the data collection began, the number of unsheltered families is up. Brown, his wife, and his children are among the 90% of homeless families who have found shelter.

Brown seemed the happiest talking about his children. His 18-year-old son, 16-year-old daughter, and 11-year-old daughter keep a positive attitude. “They are amazing,” Brown says, smiling into the phone. “I won’t say it’s been, you know, a walk in the park. But there’s been moments where they’ve just really shone through with their resourcefulness. Like wow! Who taught you that?” he laughs.

Most have their own perception of what homelessness looks like, but it is impossible to put it into a single box. It is a spectrum. Some sleep on the streets. Some frequent local shelters. Some battle addictions. Some work. Some are young. Some are old. I wanted to get the stories of people all across this spectrum to get a better understanding of what homelessness in America looks like, so I posted on Reddit to reach out to others like Brown.

“Why don’t homeless people just go stay with their families?”anonymous user

His freshman year of high school, Ethan Christy, an 18-year-old originally from Michigan, went to his principal and told him about his abusive household: his parents were alcoholics in a rocky relationship, ending in three divorces and multiple evictions. His father had guns in the home, and would walk around pointing them at his family while Chisty’s mother sat idly by.

This wasn’t his first time asking for help. He reached out to Child Protective Service numerous times to talk about his parents before turning to his principal. According to Christy, Michigan CPS has a reputation for being unhelpful. “I had been in contact with them like five times,” he says. “Ended up not working out.”

That day, he asked the principal if he could participate in a program that allowed disadvantaged students to graduate early. Christy said his principal thought it “wouldn’t be a good choice.”

“So I was like, ‘okay, I’m just not going to go to school.”

At the age of 15, Christy dropped out of high school and left home. In the summer, he drove to his two jobs on a moped. When he couldn’t find a friend’s couch to sleep on, he took to park benches. By the age of 16, he saved enough money to buy a car and slept in various parking lots on cold winter nights.

“Sleeping in the car when it’s negative 13 [degrees] outside is not fun,” Christy says. He poured his money into drugs. He was drinking, smoking, taking pills, and ingesting cocaine. It was difficult enough for him to find a place to stay as a minor, but now he was running out of funds.

His cold, drug-filled nights in parking lots came to an end after a phone call from a friend. She had just been released from the ICU after overdosing on the same pills Christy was taking. “That was the only thing that kind of sobered me up,” he says.

He drove down to Tampa, Florida in June where he slept in a Walmart parking lot and showered at the gym across the street. With a sober mindset and two new jobs, he finally saved up enough money to rent an apartment and begin his new life.

“There are many homeless people who are lazy, and are always looking for a handout.” – anonymous user

Trevor Medina, a 21-year-old from Chicago, spends a lot of his time parked outside a Starbucks in his van. He’s using their Wifi to develop websites for his online clients. He’s been living out of his van for the last six months. “It’s not like the hashtag van life shit that you see on social media,” Medina laughs. “It’s a little bit harder.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Medina was studying computer science at Michigan State University. When the campus closed, he moved back in with his parents. Medina is a young Black man who was adopted by his two white parents. As he got older, he and his parents grew apart, and their differing ideologies created tension in the family.

He recalls one of the incidents that pushed him to leave home. He was video chatting with a friend, talking about the first presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. At some point during the conversation, Medina made a comment about police brutality. Around midnight, Medina heard his doorbell ring.

This was nothing new to him; Medina has a history with suicidal ideation, so the police have come to do wellness checks many times before. Medina said that his parents often invited the police inside and encouraged them to look through his personal belongings. Medina says his parents have a “if you have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t matter” mentality.

He opened his front door to find three police officers holding up riot shields, guns drawn. Medina held his hands up and asked them what they were doing. One officer informed him that they received a call concerned that he wanted suicide by cop. His parents allowed the police to enter their house.

“I was like, ‘well, you guys are concerned that I’m suicide by cop. Why are you guys coming inside of my house?’” he asked. His parents assured him they were just doing their job.

The police eventually left and Medina confronted his parents about the dangers of letting them inside of their home. “We have Black Lives Matter protests for a very particular reason,” he said. “People do die from police.” Medina alleged they were all arguing when his father physically assaulted him. Medina fought back, and later that night was arrested for domestic battery.

He no longer felt safe in his own home, so he saved up enough money to buy a van. He’s relieved to be away from his parents, but he’s had a hard time living on the road. “There’s no support system,” Medina says. “When it comes to cooking and finding water and electricity, Wifi, all that stuff… it’s all your responsibility.”

I asked Medina if he has thought about turning to any governmental organizations for help. He said that his ego gets in the way. “I feel like part of me would benefit from a government program, but I also feel like another part of me would lose my dignity.” He feels the same about homeless shelters; he is afraid to trade his dignity for peace of mind and shelter.

Medina isn’t the only homeless person who chooses not to use homeless services. Jason Wasserman, a professor of sociology at Texas Tech University, conducted a four year research project to find out why. Wasserman discovered that many homeless people deny social assistance programs because, in order to enroll in many of them, the homeless must submit to a drug-treatment program. Not all homeless people are drug addicts, so not all programs are sensible for everyone.

As a student at Central Connecticut State University, when I pictured homelessness, I didn’t imagine a father of three, a 15-year-old high school dropout, or a freelance web designer. My mind consistently jumped to those begging for money on the side of the road.

No matter the day of the week or the ever-changing Connecticut weather, each time I exit the highway to drive onto campus, I see someone holding up a sign asking for money. That was homelessness to me, and I bet other CCSU students feel the same. While those people standing outside may be less willing to share their stories, they still matter all the same.

“You’ve got to realize that all those guys that are standing out there and begging – anything helps.” Brown said. “That’s someone’s son, brother,” he says, voice wavering. “We’ve always got that negative connotation with the homeless stereotype.”

I wanted to find out how we, as students, can help the homeless population in New Britain. Brown pleaded for students to volunteer their time to the homeless in any way that they can. “You are not going to solve their problem,” he explains. Instead, visit local homeless centers. Sit down and talk with them. Listen to their stories. “I think you just need to realize, these are people too. Hard times come on all of us.”

Christy said that rather than giving homeless people money, students could donate sanitary items to help them maintain their personal hygiene. “If you’re on the street or in a car, the smell builds up and everything you have starts smelling,” Christy said. “That was one of the hardest things.”

“Anyone who wants to understand homelessness should change the way they look at it,” Medina said. Some may be technically homeless because they don’t have an address, but those living out of their vehicles or trailers might feel like they have a home. He believes that there is a difference between being without a house and being homeless. “I think that’s the biggest thing I would try to push onto people. Try to redefine your definition of homeless.”

CCSU President Dr. Zulma R Toro said if CCSU students want to help the community, they should contact Jessica Hernandez at the Office of Community Engagement.