Back in the fall of 2015, I was walking around Downtown El Paso, taking photos of random people that I found interesting.
One group that always catches my eye is the homeless population that passes through town; especially if they have a pet dog or cat with them. That’s where I first met Chuck. (not his real name. He never wanted to embarrass his family)
Chuck was outside of Church’s Chicken, and I asked if I could take a couple of photos of him. His speech was halting, but he agreed. After snapping a few shots of him and his dog, I invited him to lunch. The thought of a hot meal brought a huge smile to his face. He hadn’t eaten in a while, at least not more than a sandwich purchased at a convenience store somewhere.
It was while we were eating I asked him if he could tell me his story, tell me how and why he became homeless.
“At age eighteen,” Chuck began his story, “I was a drug mule in San Diego.”
“I couldn’t afford any place to live, even with roomies,” says Chuck. “When I turned eighteen I didn’t want to be a J-Dub (Jehovah’s Witness) anymore. I was dis-fellowshipped and then shunned. My mom and dad wanted me gone. I was told if I did this thing I would make the money to get an apartment.”
Chuck wasn’t lucky.
The first time coming back into the United States from Tijuana he was caught with enough marijuana to be sentenced to four years in federal prison.
After prison, Chuck did find a place to live, with the help of the halfway house. Then, one night, he was woken by the sound of the front door slamming.
“My roomies, they left,” said Chuck. “When the left they took what was set in the bills jar. Left me nothing. Even taking the television, and a couple of other things. The police in California said it was a domestic situation and could not nothing, that I would have to take it to small claims court.”
Chuck was left him homeless once again.
“The back rent, we were paying three months at a time,” said Chuck. “Just how we had it with the landlord. Another J-Dub who wanted to give me a sort of chance to get me back onto my feet.”
Even still, the landlord only let Chuck go so far before he was evicted.
“I tried my parents again,” he said. “I wanted to remake that bridge between us. No luck.”
“I wouldn’t start that habit of asking for money,” said Chuck. “I wanted to work for what I needed. I wanted that. That just so much an easy sort of thing to do.”
Chuck had several odd jobs. He would work landscaping for a day, or two. The next few days he might have been washing cars at a used car lot, getting them ready to hit the sales lot. As time went on, as he moved from day job to day job, things became harder.
“I wasn’t the freshest person walking in for that small job,” he says, of how he began to look and smell. “Finding ways to keep clean, make your clothes clean or even take a shower is not always easy. Sure, I get it, there are shelters you can go to, and I did that when I could get a spot in one.”
That is the story he wanted to share the most. What it’s like to get into a homeless shelter and get back on your feet.
“To get one of the few spaces that would open you had to be there, you had to line up sort of early in the day,” said Chuck. “One of them, this on that was behind this one church in San Diego, they wanted you in that line by five if you wanted a spot. Okay, good, but you got people who get into that line a couple of hours before that. They had like sixty spaces and about a 150 people, or more in that line!”
Even here in El Paso, finding shelter space is not easy.
“You got what here?” he sort of asked himself. “you got two that I know of, and I spend a few days in each. They were not safe. Not safe at all. And to get in, it’s just as hard as anywhere in the country. Then there are drugs!”
Chuck, though no longer a Jehovah’s Witness still followed many of the teachings.
“I don’t use,” he says. “I ain’t going to use drugs or even drink. You look at other guys on the streets, and that’s all they want for. They want that money to get that bottle of whatever, or whatever they can shoot up into them to get them past what pain they have.”
Having gotten to know Chuck, trying to help him reconnect with family or find friends, I’ve come to know him. I’ve come to know what It’s like to be homeless in this country. The fights he’s had, the struggles to get medical care.
I know what it’s like to find food when no one will help you for fear you will get drunk, or high with what they give you.
It saddens me.
I was also saddened by the fact that his family, who – when I did speak to them – said they wanted nothing to do with him. When I asked why, he said it was a case of religious differences.
Those differences, those beliefs, whatever they may be, should not be enough to destroy a family and a man’s life.
Chuck’s day-to-day life, his existence was regimented. He knew where he needed to be to try and find work and in what parts of the country.
“I go to North Carolina, the Virginias, all about there searching for people to hire me,” he says. “Sometimes I can find something that will get me close to being able to just kind of starting over. But never really.”
When you are homeless, carrying everything you own on your back, it’s not easy. No one wants to hire you. No one wants to take a chance on you.
Still, Chuck had yet to give up his hope of reuniting with his family.
“My winters, I go back for San Diego,” he said. “I see them. I try to talk to them. They just turn me away.”
The world turned away from Chuck, and away from hundreds of thousands just like him.
This past Thursday, just after four in the morning, my phone started to ring. I let it go to voicemail.
Whoever it was, they kept calling.
I finally answered.
During that phone call, with a police officer from back east, I could hear Chuck’s voice.
“The people think the worst of me. I know I live like this…I don’t like it, being out here. I’ll end up dead on some road or some side alley and then what?”
Chuck was found dead, behind a convenience store. His dog, nowhere to be found. Someone had rifled through his few possessions.
“We found your number,” said the officer “with a few photos of him and his dog.”
The photos were the ones I would take of Chuck when he would come through El Paso. He would spend a day or two at my house, shower, clean his clothes, and then move on to San Diego after getting him a bus ticket.
“Cases such as these,” said the officer, “where the victim is homeless, we assume the perpetrator is homeless as well. By and large, these sorts of cases remain unsolved.”
On Saturday, as I was mourning the sudden loss of someone else, Chuck’s family finally called me back.
When I told them of the death of their son, I was met with nothing short of anger.
“Good!” his father yelled before slamming the phone down.
Before meeting Chuck and getting to know him, I would take the common view of the homeless population that comes through El Paso.
Most of them are found on street corners and busy intersections, begging for change. Most, yes, are only looking for a handout to support a drugs habit.
Still, there are the ones like Chuck who only want a second chance in life. Those are the ones we need to search out
We also need to make getting assistance, getting back on your feet much easier.
The shelters here in El Paso do what they can, but is it enough? Is just giving someone a place to sleep, without any real chance of finding employment or permanent housing enough?
I don’t think so.
The next time you are downtown, or sitting at that red light, watching someone beg for change, do use caution – but take a moment to think.
Maybe, just maybe, they are like Chuck, desperately hoping that second chance will one day come.