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Friday, November 23, 2012

Homeless Like Me (Episode 3)

Sleeping on the State House Lawn
Me, shortly after waking up
on the lawn of the State House.
By Bob Plain on November 23, 2012

Words can’t describe how thankful I am for the spate of warm weather this Thanksgiving weekend. I’m sure the thousands of other people who spent the night sleeping on streets of Providence would concur.

Because I know the area, it’s well protected, grassy and soft and – most importantly – close to other humans in case of emergency, I slept on the lawn of the State House.

While I could see my breath all night long, it never frosted; didn’t even come close. And being that I slept wearing long johns, thick canvas pants, a long sleeve shirt under a sweater with a wool hat on inside a mummy sleeping bag wrapped inside a tarp, I stayed completely warm last night.

The difficult part, as is the case with any winter camping, was waking up at 5 a.m. and needing to go to the bathroom.

Of course, being cold was the least of my worries last night. The biggest concern was for my safety.

I did keep a knife within grabbing distance, just in case, but I actually believe the risk of sleeping on the streets can be a little overstated. I don’t want to minimize the danger – because some homeless people are certainly desperate enough to do anything – but I don’t think that is the typical street person.

The people you have to worry about are the ones in the deep throws of addiction of mental illness, and those tend to be the type of homeless people that congregate around downtown, let alone the State House.

The vast majority, I’ve found on this project and others like it, live by the same sort of code us domicile-dwellers do: do unto others, or else. Homeless people may not have a police force, but they have each other – and they very much need each other – and the type of people who would do harm to others get ostracized from the homeless community just like they do in the homeful community.

I did have some company last night, but my visitors were neither homeless or law enforcement. Shortly after I bedded down against a marble wall of the State House, I heard three college-aged boys walking up the lawn towards me. When they got close enough to notice me, one of them shouted, “Is that a body?” and they all ran off yelling.

College kids are actually just as much a concern as other homeless people because they can be violent, not because of desperation, but because they don’t know better, or don’t see the homeless as people just like them.

After they ran off, I kept thinking what if one of them is a young John DePetro – someone who has aggression and anger towards the less fortunate. It’s possible someone like that could rally an entire dormitory to come and kick the crap out of me.

As brave as I’m trying to be about this project, I was definitely relieved when I woke up in the morning, just as I began to get scared as the sun went down last night.

Tonight, I think I’ll stay in a shelter if I can just to avoid that sinking feeling in my gut for a second night in a row. I cannot imagine having to live with that fear every time the sun begins to set.