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Those sad men, sometimes women, who stand on street corners or downtown, with their cardboard signs, declaring themselves homeless and in need of money, have become more of a common sight all around Athens. I’ve stopped and offered money more than once. I’ve watched others give money or a bottle of water, even bring them food. While some may be annoyed by them, I can’t help but wonder, is this their only hope for a life for themselves?  

Everyone suffered from the pandemic, but the economy has rebounded and there are “help wanted” signs everywhere. There are churches and organizations for those in need, yet here are these homeless souls, spending their days relying on passersby to help them. Regardless, during the past year on my daily early morning walks, my perspective changed when I saw how some of them were making the best of a very bad situation. 

When the sun is just barely rising and the streets are quiet, that is when I head out to enjoy the morning air and watch the first light of a new day. As I pick up trash along the sidewalk and streets, I see men sleeping at the bus stops on Baxter or huddled up in a dark corner of a building at the nearby shopping center. They often use a large piece of cardboard for a bed with only an old blanket or coat to protect them from the weather.  

I’m always a little apprehensive when I first see them so walk quietly by. Invariably, the next morning, they are gone, leaving remnants of their past night — the cardboard, some half-eaten fast food, occasionally, cutoff ER wristbands, and sometimes the pungent smell of urine.  

It must be an awful existence but over several months, I’ve encountered and come to admire a few individuals who have made unique adjustments to their homelessness. 

My first such encounter was a spring morning when I came upon two older white women, one with a walker and the other with a cane, each in a sleeping bag behind the brick wall enclosure at the bus stop in front of Clarke Middle School.  They were close to the wall, protected not only from the wind but shielded from anyone sitting inside the enclosure waiting for the bus. I couldn’t believe they had cleverly found such a safe spot to sleep each night. If I hadn’t spotted some paper trash near the backside of the wall and gone to retrieve it, I would never have seen them. 

Over the next few days, they were there pretty regularly but then as the weather warmed up, I no longer saw them until I happened by the library and there they were. They were sitting quietly at a table with their sleeping bags stuffed into their carry all on wheels, their walker and cane next to them as usual. They seemed content passing the day reading magazines, enjoying each other’s company. I silently wished them well and hoped that if I were ever in their situation, I, too, would have a friend to be with day after day. 

Later in the month, approaching the bus stop to drop off the trash I had collected that morning, there was a middle-aged white man, I’d say in his mid-40s, immaculately dressed in slacks, short sleeved shirt and tie, with a nice jacket next to him on the bench. An open rolling suitcase was at his feet and as I approached, he calmly continued shaving with an electric razor and greeted me with a cheery “good morning.” We exchanged comments on the nice weather as he tucked the shaver into the side of the case, zipped it up, put on his jacket and with a smile, wished me “a good day.” Pulling his case on wheels behind him, he headed down the road to where – maybe to the library, perhaps a job interview or to attend classes at the university? He was there again later in the week, just as nicely turned out but after that, I didn’t see him anymore, and I hoped he would find a better life than what he was now enduring so gracefully.  

The most unusual person I encountered on my morning walk to the grocery store for the paper was a young black man coming out of the store walking in my direction. He was very overweight, sloppily dressed, wearing layers of shirts covered by an open windbreaker. He walked ponderously, weighed down with an overstuffed book bag in one hand, bulging knapsacks strapped on each shoulder and in his other hand, a Kroger’s plastic bag of several items.  

As we passed one another, he was staring straight ahead and never looked at me when I offered a polite “good morning.” He just slowly kept on his way as I went into the store. The second or third morning I saw him, just after he passed me, I decided to stop and watch him as he left the parking lot. He crossed Baxter and then slowly continued down the school’s driveway. As I lost sight of him, I couldn’t help but wonder, where did he go each morning carrying his heavy burden? I found out quite by accident.  

When I retired and moved back to Athens in 2014, wanting to become part of the community, I had joined a volunteer cleanup effort at Brooklyn Cemetery, a historic African American cemetery. I made a point after that, to visit it every so often, to enjoy a peaceful walk through its natural forest setting, picking up any trash along the bare paths and straightening up fallen vases of faded silk flowers. I became fascinated by the inscriptions on the headstones, and impressed with the many veterans of the two world wars that were buried there. 

This one morning as I was leaving the cemetery, I happened to look over towards a chain link fence along the east side of the property and spotted some discarded cans and bottles. As I carefully made my way through the brambles and trees to gather up the trash, nearing the fence, I noticed that the land dropped off steeply on the other side. My curiosity led me closer and to my amazement, right below was a lovely lush green meadow surrounded by trees with wild flowering bushes and vines. Most surprising, in the center of this beautiful setting, was a single, small blue child’s classroom chair. I wondered who would have placed it there? Maybe some morning I would try to find my way down there and carry it out, returning it to the school’s back doors.  

I kept thinking about that chair and decided I had to go back and rescue it. The next morning, I detoured from my usual route, went directly to the cemetery, back to the fence line where I had discovered it, and amazingly, there sat my silent, lumbering friend from the grocery store parking lot. So that’s where he went each morning!  

His huge body overwhelmed the small chair as he sat there so contentedly eating pastry and drinking a carton of juice from his Kroger’s bag. He obviously was enjoying the quiet beauty of the unspoiled forest around him, having found a wonderful way to begin each day. I carefully backed away from the fence, leaving him to enjoy the early morning in his unspoiled sanctuary.  

Weeks passed when I suddenly realized I no longer was seeing him on my daily walks. I decided to return to the cemetery; just maybe he would be there enjoying another morning in the lovely meadow. This time as I approached the fence and looked across to where the chair had been, all I could see was bare red earth with great piles of trees lying on all sides. An orange plastic fence had been put up around the clearing, and yes, the blue chair was still there, but now it was broken and on its side. In the name of progress and a new building, my silent friend no longer had his sanctuary. I can only hope he has found another peaceful spot for his breakfasts.    

These few homeless people that I’ve encountered on my morning walks changed my perspective on a way of life that I had only thought of as awful. They each had found ways to get through their days making the best of their situation. I hope other homeless have discovered safe places to sleep at night, a welcoming place to spend a few hours or a hideaway that provides some comfort. 

I still have tremendous guilt when I don’t give money to every person I see with their cardboard sign or can’t send money to every charity that makes a request. I am fully aware how blessed I am that I can afford a home. There but for the grace of God, go I… 

G.H. Williams retired as an art teacher/art therapist and moved to Athens from Florida in 2014. She volunteers at St. Mary’s Hospital, the Georgia Museum of Art, and the Athens Community Council on Aging.

Reader's Comments

Kathryn Kyker says:

This is an uncomfortable subject and I appreciate you reminding us that unhoused persons are all individuals. We all struggle with our responses but regardless of what you offer or do not offer, everyone deserves to be seen, to be acknowledged. Thank you for doing that.

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