The following is a true story of how a homeless man got off the street.
His name was Ray. He stood on a busy streetcorner all day, head bowed, eyes closed, rocking from side to side. He was always neatly dressed and well groomed, but his hands held out the obligatory panhandler's styrofoam cup. Office workers in pantsuits would march past him, but upon reaching him they would sometimes stop and drop a coin or two into his cup. He would raise his head, make eye contact, smile brightly and chat with them for as long as they wanted-or, more likely, as long as they had time for. Then they would march on and he would bow his head again, close his eyes, and continue rocking.
It turned out that Ray had been a moderately successful businessman until he sunk every penny into a new joint venture, and his partner embezzled it all and fled to Dubai. Ray lost his home and his family and became a penniless street person. But even without resources, he knew what he was doing. He knew that the biggest danger to the homeless is, believe it or not, boredom. Without money or a home there's nothing to do all day. After a couple of years of that, your mind deteriorates and leaves you impaired. (A social worker named Julieta, who frequently worked with the homeless, confirmed this.) So Ray learned to meditate to keep his mind sharp. That was what he did while he stood with head bowed, rocking from side to side. But he also learned to talk whenever possible. When a passerby wanted to converse with him, he seized the opportunity, acquiring information and building relationships and remaining part of the world.
Most panhandlers have a carnival barker mentality. Deprivation has made them closed and distrustful. They want you to give them change, but, the second you've given it, they don't want to have anything more to do with you. That's why they starve and fail. Ray took the opposite approach. In his conversations with the strangers who walked past his begging spot, he joked, exchanged gossip and pleasantries, and gave people something of value in exchange for their money: a moment of entertainment and a good feeling. Maybe being a former businessman, who had spent his life exchanging value for value, helped him understand the importance of that. His busy hours were the morning and afternoon rush, when people walked from the nearby subway station to their offices and from their offices back to the subway. Among them he developed a small army of regulars who gave him some money every time they passed by him. Nearly every weekday he collected more money than some of his donors earned. It got to be that, on especially cold or snowy winter days, he didn't need to bother to panhandle, but stayed in the library where it was warm. And if someone gave him a muffin instead of change, he didn't do what so many homeless do, which is to wait until the person has moved away and then disdainfully throw the food in the garbage.
Ray was smart in not having any addictions, not even cigarettes. He met many homeless people and estimated that ninety-nine percent of them weren't homeless because of financial reverses. Their real problems were either severe mental illness or addiction. What made Ray smart was that, even after losing everything, he didn't become an addict, because the opportunities were there every day, all around him. And he took good physical care of himself. One evening, another homeless man staggered by and snatched his nearly full cup out of his hands. Ray glanced at a nearby stack of steel pipes left behind by a road crew and nearly picked one up, but decided against it. "I would have killed him," he said, "and why kill a guy over a few dollars? He probably needed it more than me."
Above all, Ray would talk your ear off if you had the slightest inclination to listen. Most of what he said sounded outlandish. There was the bank vice-president he'd heard about whose husband had a severe gambling problem and embezzled from the bank to fund it. There was the abandoned trestle across the Niagara River, absent from even the oldest existing railway maps, which criminals routinely used to cross the U.S.-Canada border. And do you know about that dollar-fifty Interac fee you get charged when you use a cash machine that doesn't belong to your bank? Someone noticed that that money was vanishing into thin air, so the bankers hired the world's top experts to find out where it went, and to this day they haven't found it. A sensible person had trouble believing anything Ray said, but boy was it entertaining to listen to.
One day, Ray disclosed that he had saved up enough money to get himself a place, and wasn't homeless any more. Shortly after that, sidewalk construction started that put his panhandling spot behind a builder's fence. And Ray vanished. Even after the construction was over, he never returned. He didn't need to return because he had approached homelessness the right way, and had conquered it, building himself back up from nothing.
And my only regret is that I never learned his last name. He'd be an ideal friend, and even guide, for anyone.