Late night, beer fueled insights from Callowhill…
“I used to live at the Parker before it closed. Now I stay with my daughter sometimes, the Sunday Breakfast if I’m downtown…a lot of times I’m on the street.”
It was heartbreaking watching Frank try to retain a composed sense of independence, or at least support, before succumbing to the admission of a reality few of us can ever comprehend. When I moved to Callowhill a few weeks ago, just a few blocks from the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, I did most of the moving alone. A friend helped with the last few boxes, but I met Frank in the early morning after I arrived at 10th and Hamilton.
As soon as I parked, several men approached me offering to help. I brushed them aside. I just wanted to power through it, and honestly I didn’t want help. “You can’t move all that yourself!” one exclaimed. “I’ve got a system,” I jokingly replied before he said, “alright man, you’re crazy” and walked away. Frank was the third. By then I was sweaty and frustrated. When I turned him away, he got agitated, probably because I was quite agitated myself.
But then, as he walked away down Hamilton he began muttering, “get a job, they tell me…they got a job, they won’t give it to me.” I waved him back, asked him how much he wanted. He didn’t seem to know how to respond. I didn’t know how to do this, I’d never negotiated labor off the street. I opened my wallet, looked at what I had, and asked, “what will $42 get me?”
To be honest, it didn’t get me a lot. Frank was probably in his late 60s and the wear of little if any healthcare showed. Feeling a bit guilty, I probably wouldn’t have minded if he just walked away with $42 at that point, but he wanted to help. He was far from useless, how we perceive those sleeping atop steam grates in the dead of winter. He could certainly lift and carry the minimum fifty pounds required of most hardware store jobs.
The $42 got me much more than help with several boxes and a stubborn mattress, though. It got me stories, and insight into an epidemic we often stereotype and unfortunately mismanage.
In the 1970s Frank worked as a laborer in Camden doing what we were doing that Saturday, moving stuff. He wasn’t affected much by the go-to blame we place on the loss of American manufacturing, but rather our civic lack of investment in our own local citizens. He had rented a house at the time with plans to one day buy it. After his daughter finished high school and moved to Norristown with her fiancee, Frank began questioning whether that would ever happen. Less jobs were available, and the minimum wage he was earning began to mean less and less as the cost of living rose.
To save money, he left the large house and moved across the river to Center City. At the time, there were a number of hotels that rented by the week and month. The Adelphia, the Sylvania, others that predated the convention center that have been completely forgotten along with the neighborhood which was once there. Old City was just beginning to leave its industrial history behind, and the neighborhood was an odd mix of modern renovations amid relics of its flophouse past. The one most of today’s locals remember best was the Parker at 13th and Spruce.
Frank bounced around from rooming houses, hotels, and small apartments throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Some of these were decidedly more expensive than traditional apartments, but in all too many stories like Frank’s, financial hardship experiences are spiraling ones. Even in the 1980s, it was getting harder and harder to find a landlord willing to look past intermittent work, no W2, and pummeled credit. Frank tried to avoid places like the Parker at first, not because it was the den of violence and crime we falsely attribute to it, but because weekly rents could sometime mean spending several hundred a month at a time when studios could cost less.
Health and safety codes began shuttering the smaller rooming houses throughout Old City, the convention center and the Vine Street Expressway demolished several older hotels, and others were converted into traditional residences. By the 1990s, Frank found his footing again, moving into the Sylvania. “It wasn’t the Ritz,” he laughed, “but man that was a nice apartment.”
He mentioned one Christmas when his daughter came to visit, a small tree covered in fake snow and colored lights he put in his one window for the occasion. “I wanted her to see I was doing alright. I was doing alright.” His young grandkids loved coming to the city, he’d take them to see the light show at Wanamaker’s Department Store. They’d sit in the window of the Sylvania pointing to anything and everything below. “‘What’s this? What’s that?’ I’d just make up stories. They’re grown up now. I went out to see them for Thanksgiving last year.”
The Sylvania began evicting tenants in the early 2000s, and it would be converted into The Arts Condominium in 2008. Frank thought he’d be able to find another place in the city, even if it was out in West Philadelphia. By then, though, the building boom had driven prices well beyond what he paid at the Sylvania. “If they gotta pick between a college kid without a job and me working (sporadic) jobs, they’re gonna pick the kid.”
Fighting age and younger competition for local labor opportunities, Frank found less and less work right when he needed it most. He was either going to have to swallow his pride and move in with his daughter, or move into the Parker.
He moved in with his daughter for a while, reassuring her that he was looking at apartments. The search wasn’t going well but he never let her know that. By then, she was living in Vineland. Borrowing her car, he found occasional work throughout South Jersey, but he faced the same competition. Living in New Jersey also made it hard for him to get back to Philadelphia where he had lingering contacts for the occasional job. Too often he’d find himself driving to the city, burning through everything he’d earned on gas or parking tickets.
At this point it was easy to wonder why Frank hadn’t planned better, why his daughter wasn’t more willing to help, or why he didn’t seek assistance from the city. As if he could tell exactly what I was thinking, he responded directly.
“My daughter’s great. She’s got her own life, though. She’s always asking me to come stay. I got a phone,” he said holding up an Android with restrained pride, “and we talk. I don’t think she knows. I could never tell her, she’s my baby.” It’s impossible to know just what it’s like without experiencing the years it takes to end up in Frank’s shoes.
“The city doesn’t help. They say they do, but they don’t.”
By the time Frank moved back to the city again, several of the massive housing projects that once dotted the skyline had been transformed into sprawling suburbanized developments. They help the city’s disadvantaged, especially families, but in far smaller numbers than their former monolithic apartment blocks once did.
Much of the project housing synonymous with inner city poverty, like Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green or Philadelphia’s own Martin Luther King Homes, was razed after long becoming home to nefarious activity. Once the vestige of those in need, the void left in their absence has yet to be truly filled. They failed in the sense that they could no longer provide safe accommodations, but many of those evicted were left with nowhere to go. With a lagging minimum wage and rising rents, many former residents from places like the Martin Luther King Homes found themselves in Frank’s same spiraling shoes.
One can’t help but wonder if City Hall thinks the streets are a safer home than the projects it once operated.
Finding a room at the Parker was Frank’s last resort, and it’s the last thing he speaks about in the here and now, seeing himself in a current state of transition. “It’s not what people think. Hookers and drugs. I’m sure that’s there, but I never saw any. It’s just a down place. When I lived over on Locust (at the Sylvania) I had girls over,” he said with a smile. “The Parker’s fine. Everyone just has desperation though, ya know? Lots of Mexicans, people without papers. Those she-mans. Where do they go?” It was interesting to hear Frank speak of these places in the present tense, as if they’re still around, resistant to truly accept where he wound up today.
When the Parker finally closed three years ago, they all had to leave. “No one wants us. They say they wanna help, but they don’t wanna see us.”
You see it every day, people begging for money on the side of the road, in front of convenience stores. And then you see it all over again, on the faces of passersby: “Get a job.” The enraged disgust has no political home, it’s become ingrained in the mindset of every ordinary American and Philadelphian. Some of the most self-righteously aware feign sympathy with occasional donations and charity work, or putting a bumper sticker on their luxury SUV. But when they pass places like the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, or see people like Frank, they only consider how much their real estate investments will go up when the muck is finally gone.
Some of the most idealistic claim not to judge homelessness, but they certainly judge the homeless.
A while back, Frank put in an application at Walmart, something he seemed unenthusiastic about. He fills out applications at various places after the nights he spends at the Mission, after he’s had a fresh shower. But at $7.25 an hour, what would a part-time job get him? He’s long since bothered looking for work in restaurants or retail businesses in Center City. Even for a position washing dishes, proprietors see a homeless man, skin weathered by the panhandling sun when Frank walks in. And at $7.25, Frank makes more than that sitting outside businesses in Old City and around the convention center with a bucket.
Homelessness is often derided as a complex problem with no solution. And for some, it is. Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic is one clear case of that. But Frank doesn’t touch the stuff, or any drugs. “There’s a lot of drunks out there, and drugs. I don’t mess with it.” It makes them forget the reality of their situation, but it turns out to be one that spirals exponentially to Frank’s. But for Frank, and those who’ve found themselves without a regular bed or shower for financial reasons, the solution is less complicated. “It’s the goddamn minimum wage,” he said with the exhausted resolution of a wise old sage.
And he’s absolutely right. Philadelphia’s own City Hall, perhaps more than any, is fearful of the unknown. Raising the minimum wage prompts outrage from businesses and cries that it would destroy our rebounding economy. But other cities have proven a livable wage is not only doable, it’s beneficial. When anyone can make $15 an hour, able bodied people like Frank can afford a roof and a shower. They don’t have to tax burdened organizations better spent on those with addictions and disabilities.
It reverses the spiral, allows those desperate to contribute to the city to contribute, and it instills pride in those who want nothing more than to work. America of late, especially within the last twenty years, has become a society that has painted people into corners and bucketed the rest. Frank is no longer seen as a man working odd jobs where he can find them, struggling to find a room, hopping from place to place. He’s just “homeless,” and when he approached my moving van, that’s all I saw. Today’s America is us and them, and under the current administration it seems to be us versus them. With Trump’s spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway recently suggesting retirees get jobs if they’re able, we may very well soon see a rise in octogenarians wandering the streets begging for change. It’s a horrible future, one that could see many more people like Frank struggling amongst the streets of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation.
“It’s the goddammn minimum wage.” In the past, we’ve managed to provide a realistically livable minimum wage, and we saw far fewer people like Frank. What differs now is our callous detachment from our cities’ least fortunate, ironically devout liberals spending $6 on coffee guilt ridden by the “bum” asking for their change outside the cafe. Our solution to homeless isn’t to provide a home, it’s the simplistically affable want for it to just go away so we can go on enjoying our pricy creature comforts and lofty lofts.
If the “FML” moment of your day is ignoring someone like Frank, just imagine how shitty their past few years have been. It’s a sickening plague far more insidious than homelessness. We have the gall to complain about the ineffectiveness of a phone we spent $600 on last year as we wait in line to throw $700 at a new one, while capable men and women sleep outside. The homeless aren’t gross, we are.
If you ever find yourself crossing the street to avoid a homeless man or woman, I strongly suggest you resist such an inclination. Ask yourself why you want to cross the street. You don’t even have to give them any money, but if you stop and reflect, I think you’ll find an interesting answer. They’re people with families and pasts not unlike your own, and stories you’ll never hope to sympathize with. But maybe, hopefully, you’ll find a way to empathize with their humanity. Be human. That’s the very least people like Frank deserve.