MAXWELL:  Haunted by faces of homelessness

10/1/1994 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Turning onto Southeast First Street, I saw a man begging a woman for money. His clothes were filthy, his beard matted and nappy, the hair on his head a tangle of ancient dreadlocks. He had a dirty burlap bag slung over his shoulder. He was skinny and had the glare of a person not in control of his senses. As he walked, his brogans seemed to hydroplane on the rain-soaked pavement.

I’d forgotten about him as I pulled into the parking lot near the Occidental Plaza Hotel where I would stay for three nights. Once settled in my 10th floor room, I stared out the window facing glimmering International Place. I looked down at the street and was surprised to see the same beggar. He turned right, went past the James L. Knight Center parking garage and disappeared into the throng of shoppers.

As I was about to turn away from the window, I spotted piles of cardboard, vegetable crates, old sheets and carpet remnants under the Metromover platform. I couldn’t believe that heaps of trash were so close to the Occidental, the Hyatt at River Walk and fewer than 200 feet from the front door of Bijans on the River restaurant. With room rates at $120 a night, I was ready to become angry until I saw a pile of trash moving. Then another moved. A stack of carpet remnants moved. Crates moved. Several sheets moved.

All of that trash was alive. Slowly, arms, heads and legs appeared. These were people. This was a homeless squatter camp.

Sure, I’d been around the homeless all of my life. But this seemed different. Perhaps the elegance of my room and the fact that my boss was footing the bill made this encounter different. No matter. I felt guilty. Sick to my stomach. Then, as if to remind me of my good fortune, the beggar reappeared, walked to a pile of cardboard and crawled inside. As heavy rain began to fall, I took a shower and watched CNN. After about an hour, the rain stopped and again I looked out the window. The homeless camp was flooded, but the piles of trash were still there.

A few people emerged to survey the damage. I wasn’t ready for what happened next: A young woman and a small child crawled from the stack of cardboard the beggar had gone into. Both were emaciated and dirty. I wanted to cry. Then the beggar came out and stood beside the woman and the child. All three were soaked. Off they went, toward Brickell Avenue, the child grasping the man’s hand. That night as I was returning from dinner, I saw them begging in front of the Holiday Inn restaurant. I gave the man $5. Then I looked into the little girl’s beautiful, ebony face and handed her $5.

What else could I do? I had to buy some peace of mind. That night, I kept getting out of bed, staring down at that stack of cardboard, wondering about the child. Is she wet, hungry, scared? Will she have a future? What kind of future? Three days later, I drove home, knowing that I would never see the little girl again. The $5 I’d given to the child hadn’t eased my pain. I wanted to return for her. I didn’t, of course.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.

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