NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Homelessness: Putting A Human Face On An Inhuman Condition

Rawlins Gilliland, Commentator

Homelessness is an abstract news story to most of us.  But commentator Rawlins Gilliland explains how coming to know someone homeless has made it personal to him.

For years I’ve told how I came to befriend a homeless man named Charles who lives camped in the urban forest near my home. But beyond the feel-good story, I’d like to share more of what I’ve learned from this relationship that put a human face on an inhuman condition.

For starters: People who have never known anyone homeless love telling me about "them;" warning "those people can be dangerous," sharing horror stories.  They suggest I have a "savior complex" because I got involved. Others idealize Charles as the rustic "outdoorsman" living the "life he chose" rather than an autism-spectrum victim who slipped through the cracks.

I’ve heard Charles praised as"‘happier than any of us," tacitly anointing him an enlightened rebel rejecting the material world. Actually, he’s a desperate hoarder from Gena, La., who once worked in the pastry department at the Fairmont Hotel who now has no idea what to do or where to go.

Nor do I on his behalf.  So let’s cash some reality checks. 

At 59, Charles is wearing out after walking 200 miles a month for 10 years to eat lunch served by David Timothy’s SoupMobile heroes. But getting food stamps without a physical address was tough. His Lone Star Card allows the purchase of soft drinks and candy but not take-out deli items. So Charles can buy a raw chicken, which he’s incapable of cooking, but he can’t buy a grocer’s ready-to-eat roasted chicken.

So he eats chili from the can and ice cream.

I help him sell his cans, gathered primarily from the nearby golf course trash barrels. Before I began driving him, he commonly hauled 60-pound bags six miles on foot to make $20. When our schedules conflicted, I fronted him some money. The next time we sold cans, without a word, he repaid me. Charles is a pragmatic man of character. 

With help from friends, I provide shoes, bedding, clothing. But he is not a taker. Each gift requires persuasion. Charles is also shockingly clean since every Sunday he compulsively washes everything twice at the laundromat. He showers year round, using a water hose at the golf course and hot water in restrooms.

Above all, Charles cares. His self-protective spirit cracked after he witnessed a woman’s death, killed by the train pushing her cart across the tracks. When a car hit a cat that was following him, he cried for hours.  Charles, who christened my two hounds the "party dogs," feeds the bread he finds dumped at intersections and ravines to the raccoons, squirrels and possums that cohabit his encampment.

Being a true friend to Charles, who inexplicably calls me Randall, requires a reciprocal respect balancing act; honoring each other’s boundaries.

Part of me that brotherly loves him knows his invisible misery today could be anyone’s tomorrow. But it’s our national human nature to believe that people like Charles are circumstantial anomalies borne of poor choices. Intact and unexposed to this parallel universe of diminishing returns, sheltered Americans dream on.

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.