Editor’s note: This feature is the latest in a series we’ll be running over the next several weeks. To learn more about how the project started, check out the introductory post here. And please come back here regularly to see more.
“I’m homeless, not worthless.”
Robert is one of the good ones. I met him under an overpass on a very hot day after my wife and I were headed back from the watermelon festival in Carytown. His hair is dirty and his smile is broken, but he’s in very high spirits.
I’ve seen Robert before in my travels, but this is the first time I’ve had the chance to speak with him. I usually see him in the afternoons and I always nod and wave, always getting the same response back from him: a big smile and a wave.
“Even if they don’t give you any change, a smile or a nod is just as important to me. It makes you feel good knowing someone notices you.”
Robert is an electrician by trade. For 14 months, he said he lived with a family doing general chores, taking care of the dogs and cats, tending to the lawn, and doing other tasks around the house.
“I stayed in their garage for a little over a year until one day they told me I needed to leave. All of a sudden I was out on the street again. After I left, I went and hiked the Appalachian trail. Compared to that, Richmond is heaven. When you’re on the trail, you have no shelter and no guarantee of food. At least out here, I know where to go to get the things I need.”
As I said before, Robert is a very optimistic person, always smiling and laughing. We carried on for a good 90 minutes about life and general things. We made jokes and laughed together like we were old friends… and now we are.
We talked a lot about my project. He was interested to know how it was going and asked me if I was making any progress. I told him I expected the project to be published on here on RVANews and that I was excited about how many people would finally be able to see that the homeless are just like everyone else. He applauded me for making the effort to bridge the gap and bring awareness to something that plagues a lot of people.
He told me that he volunteers at a local church twice a month.
“You have to give back. You HAVE to. It’s the only way any of us are going to get out of this situation. You get back what you put into something. I want you to put this in your article: I’m homeless, not worthless.”
“Come stay out here with me for a couple of days, you’ll leave here humble.”
Keith is hilarious. We talked for what seemed like hours about everything you can think of. He is a retired Marine who fought in Vietnam… although, of everything we did talk about, we did not talk about his time in the service. He didn’t bring it up, and I didn’t ask. Besides, he was too busy laughing at how funny life is or carrying on about something else to even bother talking about something as horrible as war.
“I’ve been homeless for 5 years. I had credit issues and they landed me here. Now I make the best of things.”
“Are you from Virginia?”
“No, I’m from Jersey but when I hit the streets, I moved here.”
We talked about the homeless shelters in Richmond, and I asked him if he stayed at any of them.
“No they only let you ‘stay’ there for about 30 days and then they send you on your way to fend for yourself.”
Keith says homelessness is a problem that CAN be solved, but first we, America (Richmond), have to let go of this NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality that we hold onto. He said that people, in general, don’t necessarily care about the homeless because it’s something they can turn away from and not have to deal with.
“So it’s an out of sight out of mind sorta thing?”
“Sometimes I think these shelters see us more like numbers than people…. People tell you to get a job like it’s that easy. How many employers do you know that are hiring right now? Because I don’t know any and I look everyday. Right now I’m doing what I can to survive and right now it’s standing on that corner with a sign. Until something better comes along, that’s what I have to do and I’m not ashamed.”
We talked about family…
“Really no one is going to look out for us except one another. We form bonds out here like a family. We stick up for each other and help one another out. Who else is going to?”
Before I left, I told him I would stop and say “hey” whenever he was out there. I think he appreciated that a lot because he said “Yeah, come on back.” Then I offered him a couple bucks for some water but he humbly refused it.
I recently saw Robert in a convenience store and asked him how he was doing. He tells me he’s doing really great. I also asked him about Keith and he told me that some people he knew pitched in and bought him a bus ticket to Delaware and that he left about a month ago. I hope he made it there Ok.