By Andrew Fraieli
The visual of a mother and child walking down the street, then her gently leading the child to the other side to avoid someone sitting with a sign is easy to picture. The mother doesn’t mean to be cruel, it’s uneasy suspicion. But what does this teach the child?
They’ll ignore these people on their own, rather than ask if they need help, they’ll be too embarrassed, rather than acknowledge them and say hello. This happens so often that some people on the street have learned to ignore it, but not everyone. These people on the streets are human, but by habit, they’re seen as part of the sidewalk, and they become worse because of it.
Billy Albert works at the Veteran’s Inn for the COSAC Foundation and has for 18 years. Part of his work there is going out onto the streets and trying to bring people to the shelter — some who have been ignored for too long.
“We try to get so many people off the street and help them. Some of them are so — how do I put it — the world has alienated them so bad that they don’t even want to go anywhere or be anywhere, they just want to be in their own world,” Billy says. “And that hurts like hell, seriously. They’ll say yes, and you look for them, and they won’t be there. They’ve gotten to the point that they ‘yes’ people to death. What brought them to that situation is another thing and that bothers me to no end too.”
Mr Stratton — who declined to give his first name and now works and lives at the Veteran’s Inn as well — has the perspective of forgiveness to being ignored like this. “Well, you know, I learned to just turn the cheek. Hey, they could be worse off than me. People don’t realize that when you criticize somebody you’re actually in more misery than they are.”
“The way that I see it,” Mr. Stratton continues, “people better think on something; they can have everything in the world — right now — and the very next day you get a paycheck, get your envelope, you open it up, and you see that pink slip. You could have that same criteria of that person you criticized.”
Mr. Stratton currently works and lives at the Veteran’s Inn in Lake City run by the COSAC foundation. He’s been at the shelter for 18 years, a retired chef, having graduated from UF with a culinary degree, and a veteran with ten years in the Navy. He has two kids, a boy and girl who are 41 and 31.
Where Billy and Mr. Stratton have either witnessed or been affected by this alienation, Mike Asterman — having worked with the homeless for 50 years now — has been able to ignore it.
“I really can’t say being ignored as been a problem or anything for me — you know, everyone has got their own temperament. You have to kinda see through the facade, so to speak, and after a few years of me working with the homeless I was able to see through that.”
The facade is a front that many people put up in public, he says, with a different one for home, “So, you know, you kinda have to be able to differentiate between the two, and figure out which of these two faces is the real person.”
Mike is a pastor who’s chosen to live and work almost exclusively in the streets, “my ministry is out there,” he says.
Mike Asterman works and lives at the Veteran’s Inn as well. He is cousin’s with Mr. Stratton and has been working with the homeless for 50 years. His favorite color is blue, and besides the bible, he enjoys “certain western authors, certain science fiction authors, just depends on the title and if it jumps out and grabs me, I’ll read it.”
His perspective wasn’t always like this though, “When I was first out on the streets working with people, yeah, it kinda bothered me. But, over the years, of all the different types of people I’ve associated with, it became second nature to me to ignore that.”
Where Mike and Mr. Stratton have learned to ignore the ignoring for the most part, Ramona Montayne still finds it painful, “When I’m ignored I want to fall into — I don’t even want to fall into a hole — I want to be removed like I never existed; if I fell into a hole I’d still be there, trying to dig my way out. I just want to disappear.”
Ramona Montayne has been at the shelter for 16 years, her personality has changed over the years, as well as her favorite color.
“I used to love blue but that was just because I was boy-crazy, even as an eight to ten-year-old. I started liking yellow because my mom talked about how it was the color of sunshine, and I liked that and jumped on that bandwagon. Nowadays its green, or pink. I finally felt like I’d given into my own when I realized I liked pink. I never wore it because I thought it was too girly.”
Both Mike and Mr. Stratton say that people could be just one or two paychecks away from being in a situation like they were. Ramona says that to put that perspective into someone’s mind, it would depend on who it is, “If I knew them I’d try to bring up someone in their circle that you know was starting to see difficulty or had a little difficulty and you know multiply it in your mind. Use that little difficulty and say all it takes is one thing to put them in this bigger hole than the hole their in.”
Being ignored is a painful, embarrassing situation for Ramona, as it is for many people and as it would be for many people.
Anyone living on the street has either learned to ignore the alienation, or succumbed to it for the worst. Pushed away from society, criminalizing what they have to do to survive, and day to day people pretending they do not exist.
“Your homeless people are the most persecuted people,” says Mr. Stratton. “They see them sleeping on the street, sleeping on a bus, sleeping in an alley. Some of those people don’t have no income, they look in dumpsters, panhandle for a couple dollars. Some are recovering drug addicts, alcoholics, some are vets. Society has turned against them.”
In the end, Billy asks, “When did the homeless stop being human?”