Wednesday, February 19, 2014


          Not everyone wants their story told. So many of us measure self-worth based on personal achievements; where we are, and how we got there. We are told that our story is our identity, and so we must embrace it whole-heartedly and wear it on our sleeve so the world may deem it valuable. However, not everyone wants their story told, a fact that I am slowly learning through this project.

          I thought for sure that Willie was going to reinforce this lesson. He was perched comfortably on a bench when we approached him. We began explaining the blog, what we were trying to accomplish, and what his role would be. When we were finished, our monologue was met with intense, prolonged eye contact for—no exaggeration—at least fifteen uncomfortable seconds.

          By about the sixth second I was beginning to conclude that Willie was not interested, and was just about to cut the tension with something along the lines of “that’s totally fine, we respect your decision, it was nice to meet you, have a great day." Just as I was about to recite my closing remarks, Willie said bluntly, “But I’m the one that’s homeless."

          Willie’s initial concern was that two college students were about to cash in on his story, leaving him behind on his park bench. We understood his apprehension, and after we explained that there was no money involved for either of us, he finally agreed to an interview and a few photographs.

          His story begins in Birmingham, where he was raised by his grandmother, the mother of fourteen and grandmother of twelve.

          “I was young. You know how young kids are, strange and wanting to see something, so I left.” He had a cousin living in Chicago, so he moved there for his high school career, playing for the school’s basketball team.

          For six years he worked with a company called Holy Family that made moldings until the business relocated, leaving Willie unemployed. He moved back to Birmingham and has been without steady work since.

          Willie suffers from seizures, further complicating life for a man who spends most of his time on the streets of Birmingham. He was made aware of this when he woke up in the hospital after his first seizure left him helpless on the sidewalk. Two men who were interning nearby found him unconscious and took him to a hospital, where he has been in and out for the past three years. He expressed deep thankfulness for those two men, saying that he thanks them profusely every time he sees them.

          As a person who has spent most of his life between jobs and financially down on his luck, Willie has adopted strategies that make his lifestyle more manageable.
          Just as it is in the world of tailored pantsuits and leather briefcases, the people he or she knows are the greatest commodity a homeless person has; it is deciding who to associate with and trust that is the greatest challenge.

          “You can always tell by how a person carries themselves,” Willie informed me. “You can tell by how they answer your questions. You might say ‘how are you doing?’ and they might say back ‘What you wanna know for?’ It’s the attitude.”

          Willie told me that most of the relationships he has made within the community have been fleeting, many left Birmingham in search of work. The few others that remained found work in the city and managed to escape homelessness.

          Not everyone wants their story told, but thankfully Willie agreed to share his with two college students. Despite life giving him every reason to not look forward to tomorrows, Willie left us with invaluable insight, a handshake, and said, “Any day the Lord wakes you up is a good day.”

1 comment:

  1. Your writing about the people in these stories is wonderful. It's a good reminder to me that though many of them are mentally ill, not all of them are, and regardless, they are still people deserving help and respect.
    Help must come from different places - from society stepping in, from a better economy that stimulates job growth and from the homeless themselves. Thanks for sharing their stories.