We just woke up a man with a swastika tattoo on his hand. Next to it, an "SS" symbol, and the words "FUCK OFF," all in block caps, probably written at the jailhouse. The man's other hand is swollen from breaking it in a recent fight, and his foot has a chunk of flesh missing on top, from the flesh-eating bacteria necrotizing fasciitis—contracted, it seems, in a fit of bad karma.
"He kicked me in the face," says the man's wife, who has just woken up next to him, and is now rolling a cigarette from freshly procured butts. "And to this day I still blame all the drugs he had in his system. But he didn't take care of the little cut and the next day [his foot] was the size of a balloon."
If building relationships is what homeless outreach is about, then it also takes a special kind of person to get past the judgments most of us might make when faced with such people, who are truly down on their luck. Is it ever tempting for these outreach workers to judge, though? I mean, she's casually telling us he kicked her in the face, like it was nothing.
"If we do that, we're done," says Guy Rabe, who's been an outreach worker with the homeless nonprofit JOIN for nine years. "I don't see the individual in front of me as any different from myself."
"That's kind of the philosophy," says Jarvis Allen, who's been doing the same job for two years. "That these are people just like us, but facing different cultural and socio-economic issues."
Take this particular couple, for example, who Rabe and Allen just woke up at 7:45 am on the Eastbank Esplanade, under the I-5 overpass. Rabe recognizes that the man's tattoos would be "an impasse for any standard employer." He has seen them housed, through JOIN, for about a year and a half. But they couldn't stop inviting guests 'round, and there was a suspicion of fencing stolen property, so they got kicked out (they were not arrested for a crime). Nevertheless, another outreach worker is working with them both to get a second chance at housing soon.
"For me, it really is one of those cases where it's about the longevity of the relationship," says Rabe, who has known some of his clients for a decade and not given up on them through several attempts at being housed. Which is when it strikes me: I don't have his patience.
But I wish I did. Rabe and Allen have countless similar conversations every day, whether it's with meth addicts in need of ID to turn in scrounged scrap metal, or with people fleeing violence from others on the street, or simply with the guy living in a van who wants help with his taxes before he moves into housing. But that was just last Wednesday, June 18, and it seems their perseverance, tenacity, good faith, and humanity are required anew, on a daily basis.
As Rabe is talking with the man and his wife I notice the homeless couple's tone soften after a few minutes. Rabe suggests the man should stop by JOIN later to get medical treatment for his broken hand, and all of a sudden the guy has warmed up completely and we're exchanging our best rat stories.
"I used to have a cat and a rat, the cat was called Cheeseburger and the rat was called Stuart Little," he's telling all three of us, now. "And nobody would believe it, but these two would play together all the time."
"Stuart Little used to go up to Cheeseburger and just bite him on the ear," says his wife. "Just to get his attention."
And she's giggling like a schoolgirl. You simply wouldn't know that a minute ago they'd both been relating the details of a nasty episode of street violence. And the conversation continues.