Shaving with the homeless…REALLY???

philadelphia 8

By Kenneth Justice

~On Saturday morning I woke up in the apartment of a new friend I’d made the night before here in Madison, WI. I’m currently traveling to different cities on my Drinking in the Culture Tour and never really know what to expect as each weekend approaches.

Even though I’m a guy and not particularly worried about the hypothetical negatives that a worrisome mind could imagine, it was a bit surreal waking up Saturday morning because I wasn’t exactly sure where I was; it was so late when we walked back to the apartment the night before and I was crossing my fingers and hoping that I’d be able to find my way back downtown.

At 6am I gathered my belongings and made the slow trek out of the apartment complex; it was a maze of bland hallways and shiny elevators; every walkway looked the same and I must have found myself circled around at my starting point at least two or three times.

Eventually I found a door that let open into an alley and I was thankful that it was warm outside; I had neglected to bring a jacket and had the weather been biting cold it would have made my journey a bit miserable. Nothing looked familiar until I saw the white oval of the Capitol building poking through the skyline; I made a bee-line for it. The city of Madison, Wisconsin was built with the Capitol Building at the very center; if you’re ever lost you just aim for the Capitol and you will be back downtown no problem.

Nearly every business was closed except for the Starbucks Coffee and the place was packed. There must have been more than thirty or forty people hanging out inside, almost all of them were the homeless people I’d seen sleeping on the street yesterday evening. Unshaven, un-kept clothes, faces that said, ‘I’ve lived a hard life’.

I badly needed to shave. I’d left the apartment so quickly I realized that I hadn’t even taken the time shave or brush my teeth and as I stood in line to use the bathroom it suddenly dawned on me that standing there in line with the homeless, with my traveling backpack hung around my shoulders I probably looked like I fit right in.

It wasn’t long before I had joined a conversation with a number of the old men and soon began to receive the 401 on being homeless in Madison, Wi,

Many of us came here during the Occupy Wall Street Movement” he told me, “I’m not really sure if we actually expected anything good to come from Occupy, it reminded me a lot of the social protests of the 1960’s, I was a kid back then, it felt good to be a part of something; like I was doing something with my life….but then the Occupy thing just fizzled away. All the rich white yuppies who were keeping it going got bored, and so the rest of us were left hanging out here living on the street; stuck with nowhere to go” he said

Apparently, most of these homeless men were from different parts of Wisconsin. Some had grown up on farms, some used to have decent jobs, and all of them had grown tired of being a part of the ‘rat race’, “I just got so sick of waking up every morning and going to a job I hated. What was the point? Look at me, I’m an old man. Isn’t life supposed to ever get better than barely being able to pay for your electricity?” another man told me

However, none of them really wanted to talk about their predicament; they preferred sharing stories. One guy told of a time from his youth when they used to raise turkeys and how his father taught him to butcher them for meals. Another guy told a story about a job he used to have and his wife who taught at a college.

It always leaves me feeling differently when I hang out with homeless people. I can’t say specifically what it is that I feel, but perhaps the best word to describe it would be ‘connected’. Too often I feel detached from other people; especially other people who look and smell so differently from me. I think Western Culture kind of trains us to look away when we pass by homeless people on the street, “Don’t make eye contact’ we tell ourselves.

These men were among the friendliest people I’d hung with in a long time. They didn’t carry smart phones or laptops with them; so their entire life is spent talking to each other and being sociable. Hanging out with these strange men, I enjoyed more conversation and learned more about Madison, WI than had I tried to connect with the rich yuppies who began flooding the place a couple hours later. The two different crowds of people were so different;

—-) The homeless guys would instantly talk to me wither me even having to introduce myself

—-) The rich yuppies would barely look my way as they came in; their heads glued to their smart phones and sometimes they would order their coffee without even making eye contact with the barista

It’s a strange world we are living in. I won’t lie to you; I have a smart phone, a touchscreen laptop, an e-reader tablet, and an I-pad. I’m just as technologically efficient as the next person. I don’t know what I would do without technology. But as I sat there listening to the homeless people tell me stories from their life, my laptop was turned off and I kept my smart phone hidden away in my pocket; I didn’t need them.

Just a few thoughts as I sat here at coffee this morning,


Categories: Culture & Society

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62 replies

  1. Fascinating Kenneth. Especially the paragraph about Occupy. I also feel if you want a good story, the homeless are like a social network without buttons or tags or any of the other paraphernalia, the bodies in suits have become reliant on.

  2. I believe we would all be better off and communicate better if we turned off our devices more often. We need to look one another in the eyes and exchange our words, thoughts, emotions, and dreams.

  3. I find it you remind me of what I have found important..and not important…It always poses the question to myself…”why am I doing this…”

  4. I’m mixed emotions on this post, Kenneth. Having been homeless I have to say that dressing scruffy and being unshaven really give the homeless a negative appeal. You don’t have to do that! I’ve said this before. Most communities have places to shower, shave and even eat. Clothes get donated all the time so you can be clean as well. There are different degrees of homeless, some from choice others from habit. There are indoor and outdoor homeless. The outdoor often have drug addictions and can’t get inside the indoor ones. Alcoholics can as long as they aren’t stinking drunk.

    Some people are homeless because of some situational thing…others check out on being self-sufficient and do all they can to live off of the charity (even if it is a harassed panhandler type) of others. I am all for helping the homeless…but at the same time I don’t want to be an enabler that say…yeah go ahead…disconnect from responsibility…I’ll foot the bill.

    There are ALWAYS exceptions! Like the guy I met who because he was small bodied had been used to crawl through tunnels in Vietnam and was shell shocked for life. A sweet harmless person…kept himself clean, rarely talked…but needed the peace and solitude of hot food and a warm bed. As far as I am concerned, he’s got my support for life.

    When I left the shelter, I took others with me so they could get out of the system. In the end…they took me down. One stole money from me (forging checks) and the other invited her other homeless children who were addicts and drunks from the streets. Even when I told her they couldn’t stay, she continued to let them…and their friends stay. I would go to work and they would party at my house all day…while I was footing the bill. So I moved out and gave the landlord an extra months rent, plus a cleaning deposit and wished him luck. On the other hand…there are people , like myself who truly are homeless because of situational issues and do everything they can to change their situation and get out of the system.

    As for the differences is talking to yuppies and homeless…I completely agree. Being homeless allows you to disengage from the rat race and gain back your individual perspective. There is lots of time to think about what’s really important in life and to collect yourself again. final note, all of the homeless I knew had phones and used them just as frequently as anyone else. I suspect your guys probably had them as well…they practically give them away if you are low or no income.

    • Mrs P – felt the need to pause and add a thought.

      What a wonderful addition to the theme above. And I have to nod my head and agree that “visiting” the label is often taken as connecting with the label. Yet “being” (the label) is easy to feel unconnected to the label. So much easier to point out the negatives. Whether that be homeless, yuppy, parent, widow, old, young, rich, poor …

      The best bit about all of this culture tour (and this blog) for me are the conversations KJ stirs – before, during and afterwards (as here), and in doing so – broadening my tolerance/comfort zones by the day!

      Thank you both!

    • So what was the name of the shell-shocked guy from who crawled through tunnels in Vietnam that has your support for life again?

    • Paulfg. it’s good to broaden your comfort zones once in a while. Before arriving at the shelter my general opinion was that all homeless are bums. I likened contact with them to getting cooties, neither was true.

    • Bryan, I am not sure why you are asking this question. Do I remember his name? Yes. Out of respect, I won’t post it on any blog. I am a proponent of taking care of vets. Many people are doing some fantastic things for vets…but as I said, some just need hot food and a warm bed. I think they deserve that, don’t you? Was there some reason this question was important?

  5. Goes to show that money doesn’t buy happiness.

  6. I think we spend so much time plugged in that it’s like encountering another culture when we talk to people who aren’t. It’s like another world.

    On another note, I can’t help but be astounded at how similar Madison is to Iowa City, which is also centered around the “Old Capitol Building.” (since Iowa City used to be but is no longer the capitol of Iowa). I also have no idea when the local coffee shops open, but the popularity of Starbucks is no surprise. Have you seen the meme about the college kid who is so “poor” they live on ramen and yet they still find the money to buy Starbucks every morning? That’s unfortunately accurate based on my college experience.

    I wonder what it’s like to be homeless in a college town. In the journalism department, there were always people who wanted to interview them for stories. I’m sure they received care from students at the school of dentistry and school of nursing. Not that homelessness is easy, but I’ve always wondered if they gravitate to college towns because there are so many people who care. At the very least, there are people who are trying to solve problems in society. I wonder if they get much benefit from that…

    Just some thoughts this morning as I drink my own coffee ^_^

    • Living on Ramen but buying starbucks; TOO FUNNY!

      Your closing sentence there made me laugh out loud and I almost laughed coffee out my nose :p

    • Please tell me someone got a photo. That’s should go up on new Twitter, whenever that happens.

    • Lol yea….a photo of me choking on coffee thanks to your coffee comment; not gonna happen ;P

    • That’s basically what Psy’s “Gangnam Style” is about, TK, lampooning those that hang out in South Korea’s equivalent of Beverly Hills and living on ramen just so they can be seen drinking fancy coffee in cafés.

      Apparently, it’s not just a Western thing.

    • Jak, I did not even realize that was what the song was about!

    • Yup. Psy went to Berkley if I remember right, and his English is pretty good. Some points I read, but I also remember either video or printed interviews that he explained as much. He seemed a little bit baffled in a video segment where he was shown how his video really took off– Westerners seemed to just be focusing on group dancing to the song, and he didn’t seem to understand why an OSU Ducks mascot would be one of them.

      There are English translations to the lyrics on YouTube, but most aren’t very good.

  7. Kenneth:

    Very insightful post. I have lived in Madison for 16 years and it is a fascinating city. However, there is a strange disconnect in that there are a lot of well-educated, fairly affluent people who like to protest, donate money and support various causes. However, all of this activity, while very helpful and well-intended, can often substitute for an authentic connection with others.

    I have certainly done a lot of impersonal giving over the years, but in the last few years I have become active on a personal level, volunteering for prison ministry and having coffee with a downtown homeless person that I used to give money to. The irony is that although I originally did the latter because I thought I would be doing good for others, the experiences of deeply connecting with someone in very different external circumstances than myself and realize that deep down we are very connected through our same hopes, fears, dreams and disappointments have changed me in profound ways. I have gotten so much for out of my interaction with “others” (I use the term in quotes because the experience has made me realize they are not others) than I have contributed.

    W. Ockham

    • It was great meeting you this weekend! And your comments are right on; sometimes it seems like its easier to give money or throw a solution at a problem (like homelessness) rather than doing what really needs to be done; merely connecting with people and becoming friends.

  8. Great story. Makes me ponder on why we crave digital contact instead of real human interaction. *Mustturnofflaptopandgotalktosomeonenow*

    • Lol I like your hashtag there……. it can be really hard to turn the laptop off and talk to others, I know from firsthand experience 😦

    • Maybe that’s why we depend on digital contact so much, because we sometimes feel akward and self-conscious when we talk to (new) people. God knows I do. Is that why it’s hard for you too?

  9. Good comments also by Mrs P. to round out a great article. My kids have been on and off the streets, but they are not homeless. For them it’s about accountability and when they are on their own, they only have to answer to themselves. What I find fascinating is actually how little they can do without and their constant inner turmoil of ‘stuff’ vs ‘freedom’.

    • “stuff vs freedom”

      I love that paradigm a lot….. it gives me a lot to ponder

    • Alison, it really is fascinating that some chose the lifestyle. The elderly woman I took with me when I left the shelter would practically glow talking about the good old times when they lived under the bridge. She did have “stuff” which she paid to store for several years. We went and got it and honestly, it was a lot of cheap, broken, torn and stuff…but in it where those things that were precious to her. It made her happy to have them again.

  10. Great post as usual.

    But the one aspect you’ve highlighted is how the homeless connect and talk. The thing is……they don’t really have any other way of communication and connection. Some may chose to live this way and some homeless just may not have the choice.

    I wonder if you gave some of the homeless a mobile phone and/or a computer, whether they would fall into the same aloof invisibility, or anti-social behaviour, that the well-off community have.

    Up until a few years ago, I had none of the modern communication technology or white goods (e.g. microwave or dishwasher) that most people deem essential. I only bought a mobile phone when I sold my car and needed to occasionally call a taxi in a heavy rain shower or something similar. I only bought a computer when the one I’d borrowed in 2009 finally crashed for the 4th time and I get fed up waiting for a family member to be free to fix it. I could, and have, gone without most ‘necessities’ at various times in my life and I daresay could do so again (although I would miss the internet for my new(ish) hobby of digital photography).

    Being of a more mature age, (or ‘old’), I have learned how to do everything manually and go without.

    I think it is more the ‘high-flying’ executives who rely on modern technology, or the youth of today (who can’t function without a mobile phone and computer within arms length), who have lost the art of old-fashioned social skills and communication, that would have trouble Connecting. Gosh, I must be the only person around who doesn’t own a toaster, electric kettle or numerous kitchen electrical gadgets.

    I still say you must have a very approachable demeanour, or ‘Gift of the Gab’, Kenneth, because Anyone & Everyone seems to strike up a conversation with you or vice versa (and I mean that comment in the nicest possible way).

    Let’s face it……… computer, iPad, smart phone, tablet or what………you are the sort of person people LIKE to connect with.

    • Hmmm, well, I may have ‘the gift of gab’, but I also think part of it is that I’m pretty laid back and not very judgmental. People tend to be interested in talking to others who make them feel comfortable, and I’m pretty non-threatening if you ask me.

  11. I’ve found that the people with nothing to lose will be the most honest, the most open and the most willing. When people are scared that you can somehow take what they have they guard themselves quite jealously. The rich yuppies keep their heads buried so they won’t become a “target” while the homeless have to be open to interacting with strangers, otherwise they probably wouldn’t be very good at surviving on the street. They have to stay observant. When people live in fear, it’s hard for them to trust. Without trust can you really connect?

    • “when people live in fear, its hard for them to trust. Without trust can you really connect”

      This sentence really spoke to my heart. Gives me a lot to ponder

  12. If you like to read, there’s a great book about the modern-day homeless, called ‘Same kind of different as me,’ by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. The book has a slow start, as it gives background information, but worth persevering thru. It’s a good read.

  13. Unfortunately, human judge before seeing what’s behind appearance.
    Glad to see you back shaved and healthy 😃

  14. Wonderful story to read this morning. Thanks for your observations.

  15. Ms. P. Your comments are a nice addition to Kenneth’s experience and observations. Homelessness has many faces. It is a social problem that will never be effectively addressed if we do not expand our thinking about who is homeless, why someone might be homeless and who wants not to be homeless. A point that both you and Kenneth made is worth noting: None of us are as important as we think we are but none of us are as insignificant as we sometimes feel.

    • Excellent comment! (My apologies to Kenneth, this is a topic close to my heart…I shouldn’t barge in on your blog…but I am so interested in this exchange.) 🙂

    • Mrs. P– exchanges with the audience have become a regular thing here; I think you are all right. It is part of this grand discussion Kenneth has kept going, y’know?

  16. Ah, I loved this post. Those stories from the homeless, from the older people in our communities, is where all the wisdom of the world is kept and passed on. Those are the people who built this country, who fought and innovated and created what we have today. I hold all the stories I have been told inside of me like a sacred trust.

  17. I don’t mind technology at all – I just wish people were smarter about it like you; that they had enough manners to know when to leave it alone. Sounds like it was an interesting trip. 🙂

    • Jen, I wish I had a ‘back of the blog’ where I can share all of the stories that happened….. there was so much… and to try and condense them into one little article every morning is so tough

    • Yeah I’m sure it is. There are so many stories out there, it’s incredible. That’s why I think what you’re doing is so awesome. You have a chance to be exposed to more than most of us and learning a lot about people and how resilient they really are. Incredible. 🙂 Lucky duck!

  18. I don’t mind my technology, and I will admit that after church Sunday Mr. T and I stopped at Denny’s, and there was a moment when we both pulled out our phone and checked our feeds, and I snapped a pic of my baby, who isn’t such a baby anymore – but then we both put them away and spent the rest of the time chatting and laughing.

    I was very proud of us! I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my own actions, and it felt really good that without even trying, I was able to put away the phone and focus on the now. 🙂

    Hope you’re feeling better. And I’m really glad you survived the night on the couch! I was worried!

  19. In life it is a time when we need to lower ourselves or rise above our culture/understanding if we want to succeed in it and comprehend the meaning of “why are we here?”. For me this kind of character is indeed, a human being, the one who can communicate with a beggar or with one with a Ph.d.

  20. Kenneth, my post today is of a similar sort without the homeless folks. I mentioned you in it hoping you to have the answer. Thanks!!!

  21. When we strip away the trappings we are a lot more connected than it would appear just looking at us. Great post.

  22. Great story from the heart of Mad-town! I had a similar experience in Frankfurt Germany (one the richest, yuppiest towns in the world). I was with two others on an all-day layover on our way to Russia for a mission trip. So we went downtown and hung out, and there we met some Occupy folks. They were very friendly and we had a long conversation with them, got to pray for them and their friend who got beat up and put in the hospital the night before. Everyone else we saw seemed to be in a hurry to go somewhere else.
    Of course, it didn’t help that we knew very little German. 🙂 But it was a insightful experience.

  23. but then the Occupy thing just fizzled away. All the rich white yuppies who were keeping it going got bored…

    How sad, and ironic, but I guess it really does explain why the movement seems to be inactive currently. I do remember there was a fair degree of criticism about many activists using Apple products– especially as Apple products have carried a certain air of prestige and wealth.

    Might have been different if they were using homemade laptops running Linux…?

    • Jak,

      Great point; there were definitely a few ‘odd’ things about the occupy movement; such as what you’re pointing out, they would use apple products yet apple is a company that stood against everything they said they believed in!

    • Precisely, Kenneth.

      I don’t deny that Apple makes good products, but for someone like myself, they keep their price points way out of my budget, and cost of maintenance is fairly high, too (although I knew some users did their own repairs best they could). So, the perception remains somewhat that they are for the affluent. I’m basically one of those DIYers running Linux, and on a desktop, because that’s what I can afford on my small, “fixed income”, as it were.

  24. Th rat race is where we get lost in translation. To be forced to rush in one direction. like a leave on a river. pointing in one direction losing focus of what really matters or how to think differently.

    it is true it makes some of us think and step out ending up faceless and nameless on the side of a road. And be looked down on as some kind of illness to society. Just because some care to think fro themselves.

    It is that word we do not need names. but share stories to learn from each other tan to learn form a single given input. to think and talk free.

    Weird to see my first comment did not come through. maybe I made a mistake yesterday.

  25. good thoughts today. homeless people are more in touch with the brevity of life, and that alone makes someone more emotionally honest and interesting IMO..

  26. We are so plugged into other people lives with our gadgets that we sometimes neglect our own lives. Recently I have started making a conscious effort to not check Facebook, Instagram or whatever in my free moments. I think truly unplugging and paying attention to those around us is truly what we need to do once in a while.

  27. Kenneth, thank you so much for this. I spend every Tuesday with the homeless here in Philadelphia, giving out food and clothes, sometimes just talking. Just a smile sometimes, acknowledging “I see you.” It is the highlight of my week. Doing this grounds me, yes, but I come away with such a feeling of gratitude, feeling blessed. We were collecting money for the homeless at the train station during rush hour. Most of those who gave looked like they didn’t have two nickels to rub together. And most of the well-dressed business commuters avoided eye-contact. No judgement, just a reflection.

  28. Reblogged this on Tuesday Afternoon Homeless Project and commented:
    Kenneth reflects on his time with the homeless in Madison WI.

  29. You listen. You make a difference.


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