Depending on whose set of statistics one adopts, there are currently between 500,000 and a million Americans who are homeless. Not counted are our neighbors who are jobless, vagrant, beggarly, destitute, down-and-out, impecunious, impoverished, necessitous, needy, penniless, penurious, poor or poverty-stricken.
And that also does not count prisoners. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.2 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails in 2013, about 1 in 110 adults. They are not homeless, because, according to the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, “People in jail are not homeless.”
I’ve teetered over the chasm of many of the above categories, having wintered in a tepee in the slop of a feedlot, nested in one-room tree house, lived 32 miles off the road in the high country without running water or electricity, bunked in barns, and slept in various rigs for months on end, but somehow I’ve always been able to find work, never taken unemployment or food stamps and have yet to be nudged over the edge into thinking I was homeless. That is not to say that it could not happen tomorrow. Recently I met a man to whom it had happened.
First, a bit of back story. Between 1998 and 2001, a group of people in Pendleton got together and came up with a plan to convert an vacated 1916 vintage Carnegie Library into the Pendleton Center for the Arts, at a cost of almost two million George Washingtons. The same set of fingers that delivers this, your monthly word pizza, typed themselves bloody gathering some of the funding for the project.
The result sits on Main Street, just north of the Umatilla River bridge. It’s a grand old dame of a building, two stories with tile roof and arched windows and stucco exterior, about the size of, oh, maybe a library. Inside is a large exhibition gallery, a performance auditorium, a crafts sales gallery, board room, big meeting room, and a basement full of teaching studios for all kinds of artsy pursuits.
Trust in Allah but tether your camel. As one deterrent to camel thieves, the Pendleton Center for the Arts is wired for security with motion detectors, smoke detectors, cameras, and a few spy-in-the-sky doohickeys pasted to the ceilings that look like half of a pantyhose container. From the desk at which I ply my grant writing craft, I can look at a screen and tell you who is coming through the front door. I first saw Jim on that monitor.
He walked slowly through the double doors, took three steps, spotted the plastic donation box that holds maybe twenty singles on any given day, then began staring heavenward at the circular stained glass skylight. Sixty-some years old, gray beard, green janitorial pants, off-white short-sleeved shirt, black Kedds, and a camo ball cap with a either a cross or plus sign in front. I arose from my cushy office chair and limped out to greet him.
“Howdy. Can I help you?” I asked.
“I thought this was a church,” he said.
His eyes kept wandering from the ceiling back to the donation box, then jerking away, like it was a striptease act he wasn’t supposed to watch but simply could not resist.
“Nope, art center. There’s a church across the street, though. What you up to?”
“Oh, I just came from the Salvation Army. I’m Jim, from Bend. My ex-wife is out here in the hospital and I came to visit her. Was going to bring the van that I been living in, but it is a gas hog, so I spend a couple of days putting doors and a shell on an old Toyota pickup truck so I’d have a place to sleep. I’ve been parked down by the river west of town, but it is out of gas and the police want it moved. Something about a three day limit. They are going to impound it if I can’t move it by this afternoon. Pretty much everything I own is in that truck. The folks at the Salvation Army said they don’t do gasoline and that I should try some churches. I thought this was a church.”
Now, I’ve been panhandled by the best, ranging from “Gimme five bucks. It ain’t the last five you are ever going to see” to “I’m raising money for the Pope’s widow.” But I am an easy mark because, deep down, I believe that someday when I am sleeping on a park bench under a newspaper blanket and needing a few bucks for a croissant and double latte, the great cosmic cash register will recognize my credit account and open to my needs. So I gave Jim twenty bucks and wished him the best of luck.
Three hours later, I was locking up the barn to head down the long dusty trail toward home and found Jim sitting on the front steps with a little bundle of papers in his hand. “Here are your receipts,” he said. I told him I didn’t expect an accounting of his expenditures, that the money was a free will offering from one human being to another.
“There was a day when the $20 would’ve gone straight into cheap whiskey, but I turned a sharp corner twenty years ago when I lost a son. I didn’t want you to think that you bought me a bender. You will see here in the receipts that $10 went toward gas from the Chevron station. They loaned me the can. And $5.50 went toward groceries, mostly noodles. Then I spent two bucks in the laundromat, but I gotta confess that the last $2.50 went for a double dip of mint chocolate ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Hope you don’t hold that against me.”
“No sir,” I said. “I consider ice cream to be one of the essential ingredients of life and would never hold a mint chocolate chip addiction against anyone.”
J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.