SPECIAL REPORTS

Surviving Street Life

Norfolk Homeless Take it One Day at a Time

Norfolk needy 'feast' at one of the multitude of outreaches meant to give them daily subsistence. © Adam R. Cole 2008

A Union Mission worker delivers a hearty soup to a Norfolk homeless person. © Adam R. Cole 2008

“Surviving.”

It is the resounding word for most of these folks, people that call the streets—or one of the shelters—home. Those who live day-to-day on temporary labor jobs and meal hand-outs, hoping for a better tomorrow while trying to make the most of today.

John Mayo, 49, is one of so many just happy to be alive. He rejoices in that fact after nearly drowning himself in drugs, the crack and cocaine variety. The substances took his life away—job, house—and almost literally killed him. Yet he’s here, at one of the shelters, Union Mission, enrolled as part of its live-work program, which allows people a part of the program to receive room, board, spiritual uplifting and the family-like support needed to re-enter the world anew. On this day, an early Sunday morning in the middle of August, he’s 15 days into the program and quietly savors the prepared breakfast just after service at Union Mission.

“I could be dead right now, but I’m not,” said Mayo. “I have a new beginning. I have a second chance. I’m just trying to take it one day at a time.”

They all have their reasons and their stories, of what it was that brought them here, to the streets, hopping from soup kitchen to soup kitchen, trying to find work at day and laying on mats inside a shelter at night.

For Mayo and so many others like him, it was drugs; his tango with substance abuse began for him when his wife of 18 years was taken in a car accident in 2000 and then accelerated when his son was shot in front of his house in 2005.

Drugs got the best of Reggie Keaton, 54, as well. For this one-time Army sergeant (9 years in), his journey with narcotics was also brought on by deaths in his family; despite an overdose in 2003, he kept up with the habit and never took life seriously, getting jobs and then literally walking away from them.

Nathanial Turner, 56, said he had tried every kind of fix possible; he would end up being incarcerated, in a charge linked to drugs. He was let out in late July after 8 years in prison, though found himself on the streets not sure where to find work.

Bernard Ward, 42, saw drugs do the same to him as the others, to ruin a life that included house and family. He recently moved from Hollywood, Fla. and found his way into the Union Mission, at first trying to get situated in Virginia Beach. His only hope on arrival was to start over, start fresh. He’s willing to endure the pains of homelessness for that new beginning.

* * *

Life out here, out on the streets, is not easy. There is never comfort, there is never true rest. There is always that fear, that you’ll be harassed or even worse that you’ll be beaten up, taken for what little you have. You carry around a couple bags, if that, a meager set of possessions that at least gives you a tiny semblance of humanity.

Most do truly just aim for survival, just to make it to the next meal, just to have a place, anyplace, to put their head at night. Once past survival, they look to gain their human dignity back in the smallest of ways, to do the simple things of life like laundry or to buy a soft drink on an especially hot day.

Night for the homeless brings on a quiet celebration, as it symbolizes another day done and the opportunity—no matter if they are on the streets or in shelters—to let their bodies rest and to lay to rest the hardships away of struggling to find work and the other multitude of complications they face.

You can feel the peace around 8 p.m. at Union Mission, when men of all ages (the woman have a separate sleeping arrangement) lay out mats on the Mission’s entranceway. The calmness inside that foyer, compared to hoots and hollers that may go on there in daytime is tangible. There is a mutual respect and a brotherhood, a shared existence that leads to tight bonds. Certain individuals, if they’re lucky, may have their own room, though only for a couple weeks, 30 days tops while they seek work.

And then the sun rises, day begins again. Life starts over, fresh. The race for survival begins anew. A job may be waiting out there and then again, it might not.

Meals are the only assured thing for them due to the benevolence of a cornucopia of Norfolk non-profits that cater to the homeless. The homeless shuffle in, tired and sweaty from a hot day in the sun, are passed a bowl and a spoon, and given a moment (no more than 20-30 minutes) to relax and slurp up the day’s offering. It’s not much but to these people, it means a lot.

Within this environment of homelessness and often hopelessness is love, by those that have a deep sense of compassion for others and want to uplift them, want to make them feel that life can be bright instead of gloomy.

Michael R. Janet, 55, an African American who sports a Michael-Jordan-like bald head, is one of those that gives of his heart. He’s a chef extraordinaire at Union Mission, serving hundreds of people each day. Janet and his team make the hearty soup for transient patrons of Union Mission, the women that make up the family shelter, and the full meals gives to the staff there that are on a work/live program.

For Janet, who spent time in Vietnam, served in the merchant Marines, did some time in the civil service for the department of the defense, and then worked in the yacht industry, found himself needing to fill his life with purpose, to return to a Christian life that he once practiced, one of faith in God and one of selflessness to others. So he found his way to Union Mission and started meals, to fill hungry stomachs and hungry hearts.

As a Christian, Janet knew that that he had to do something that wasn’t about him and more about what he could do for other people.

“You have to pick up your cross daily,” said Janet, referring to the cross that Jesus Christ was hung on and the biblical reference to picking up your cross daily as a commitment to Christ-like living each and every day. “Lord has blessed me and so its up to me to bless others. I try to put a little love into each meal.”

* * *

Just like the word survival, the word purpose resonates in the air amongst the homeless. Some have been close to death but were not taken under-and for that, they know that God has them on this earth for a purpose, a purpose that each is still struggling to find, but at least is cognizant of it and working toward it.

Though each reached this point of homelessness in their unique and individual way, they share a common sentiment of hope – and that despite their past battles, they have a new beginning inspired by the fact that have begun a renewed faith in God.

For Mayo, it was in the midst of a near-drug overdose in 2007 that the Lord revealed something powerful to him.

Mayo recalls that rock bottom moment vividly, saying he thought to himself at that time “let me off this planet.” And it was in that moment he had a powerful realization that there was something better out there for him. And at that moment he came back to God. He says the Lord spoke to him then telling him ‘you’re going in the wrong direction.’ And then Mayo said, in his heart, Let me follow You.

Keaton recalls a similar meeting with God, at a similar near-death moment – he had already overdosed twice previously and shrugged it off. It was an awakening, he says, God speaking to him, making him realize he has a purpose. Keaton is now a custodian for Chesapeake City Schools in Chesapeake, Va.

Turner had that moment with the Lord in his prison cell, when he had a true chance to reflect. He believes he is fortunate to have gone to prison, to transform into a better person, to become strong in Christ; the old temptations still knock at his door but by the power of Jesus in his heart, he is able to turn them away. And that essence, of a God living in him, is the best kind of fix, he says.

* * *

So many continue to wander the Norfolk streets, simply trying to lay their heads in a safe place. A reasonable size are content with continuing this transient existence, hopping from meal hand out to meal hand out. But there are equally many trying to get out of their troubles, to press on, to find work, then find a home. Those that turn to God say they already have found the answer to their troubles – and know that as they rely on Him, He will slowly but surely guide their steps to life’s necessities.

All know that it is about endurance here, to keep going forward even in the hardest days. Though the difficulties are ever-present, hope is equally ever-present, as is a desire to find a purpose for their lives—and ultimately, to survive.