Wednesday, February 26, 2014


We could talk all day about the difference that we hope to have on the people around us, but sometimes those people end up impacting us more than we ever anticipated. Marcus is a perfect example.

We visited Marcus at his home under an overpass of US 31. He was pacing protectively of his two-tent neighborhood when we called out to him. Upon hearing our greeting, he was delighted to have company and invited us onto his territory.

As we got closer, he politely turned off his Walkman that blanketed the sounds of cars passing overhead with rhythm and blues. He smiled a toothless, genuine grin, introduced himself, shook our hands, and started a conversation that we will never forget.

At four years old, Marcus moved to Birmingham from New York with his grandmother after their neighborhood became too crowded. He attended West End High School, where he graduated and went on to join the Air Force, working as a mechanic.

Although he didn’t like traveling so frequently and his lack of independence during this time, he spoke proudly of his years in the Air Force, saying that he was glad he was able to serve his country nobly, describing it as “dying for the wealth of death”.

Following these years in the military, Marcus was able to go to school thanks to the G.I. Bill, ultimately graduating with a degree in accounting from UAB. Upon graduation, he moved to Georgia to serve his country once again.

Unfortunately, due to the cars passing overhead and how enthusiastically he was about speaking to us, much of Marcus’s story was left unintelligible and disjointed. We were unable to piece together how, exactly, he ended up underneath the overpass.

Marcus told us that he has been living in the tents for the past seven years. He, along with one woman and two other men who were not present at the time of the interview, all call this overpass home.

They choose not to sleep in the shelters around the area for fear of their belongings being taken in the night. Despite the harsh weather conditions Birmingham experienced over the past few months, they chose to remain vulnerable and exposed just to stand guard over their possessions.

Marcus told us that they primarily get their food and clothing from people that stop to drop things off for them, for which he expressed endless gratitude.

We noticed the looming “No Trespassing” sign hanging above his tent and asked about the police presence in the area. Marcus told us that they are able to stay as long as they keep it clean and don’t cause a commotion, saying, “We believe in them, and they believe in us”

There were so many quotes from Marcus that were spoken so gracefully that I could barely scribble it down fast enough:

“People think homeless people have an attitude that they don’t care about other people, but it’s both of our jobs to be nice to each other.”

“We love our life, but we love to hate.”

“My old age is coming, new people are coming in, and nobody is taking a stand for love.”

He spoke with so much truth and conviction that I forgot that he was the one that called a tent under an overpass home.

One of the most incredible things about Marcus is that, although he is homeless, he still lives his life with intentions of serving others. Marcus told us about a friend of his that challenged him to live with a purpose, despite his conditions, by spreading love and helping everyone he can.

Instead of seeing the streets as his prison and homelessness as his sentence, he sees it as his mission field and his calling.

We started this project with the goal of making a difference.  Perhaps that difference goes hand in hand with Marcus’s calling of spreading love. Perhaps that difference began with us. 

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.”

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


          At an outdoor table beside the Civil Rights Institute sat a man with his cane. This man, whose name was Sylvester and whose words I could barely hear over the intruding sound of passing traffic, is a family man with a toothless grin and a quiet soul. His story is simple yet boasts more resonance than he realizes, especially to the two college students that had the privilege to speak with him that day.

          Sylvester, born in Birmingham in 1944, took more convincing to open up compared to those we had talked to in the past. He spoke with a hesitance that exposed the walls he had built throughout his seventy years of valleys and mountaintops. 

          “You know about the ghettos, you’ve seen them. They’re rough.” He spoke briefly about his upbringing, informing us that he had been raised by his mother and grandmother in parts of Birmingham that often made him question his safety, “but the good Lord pulled me through.”

          He began working at the age of fourteen as a dishwasher in a nearby cafeteria, graduated high school, and initially went into the construction business. In the following years he also worked in a foundry and as a truck driver hauling dynamite.

          Growing up in Birmingham during the civil rights movement was a feat that didn’t register to Sylvester as particularly interesting, just a part of his life that he felt like he could do nothing about. He was nineteen years old and living just around the corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church when the explosion occurred that killed four young African-American girls.

          He remembers the peaceful protestors parading by his house, but he never marched with them. He remembers the civil rights leaders speaking optimistically about the years to come, but he never attended a rally. He remembers the hope of his people for the years to come, but at the time he was uncertain if change would ever happen. Like so many, he recalls this as a time of hoping for the best and staying out of dangers way.

          Despite the chronic discrimination in his daily life, Sylvester held no hostility toward white people during this time.

          “They were humans just like I was,” he stated confidently, as if that was the obvious mindset to have. “I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple, or orange, they are all the same.”

          He spoke optimistically about the progress that he has seen take place within his lifetime, saying that it is truly amazing how far we have come and how thankful he is to be able to witness it. He does note, however, that there is still a ways to go and he hopes to be able to witness the next steps as well.

          Sylvester’s first priority and favorite subject was his family. He has one daughter, who works in Birmingham as a kindergarten teacher, and three grandchildren that he spoke fondly of.

          Perhaps the first true smile that I got out of Sylvester that day was when he was able to talk about his eleven-year-old great-grandson. His face lit up as he told me about being able to spend time with him, although it’s not as often as he would like due to his lack of transportation. He told me that if his great grandson grows up to know one thing, he hopes it is his heritage and the importance of where he came from.

          Sylvester stopped working at the age of 62 after not being able to find steady employment and being held back by his decreasing mobility. On the day I spoke to him, he hoped to get his own apartment in the following days and be on his way back to being independent.

          With his eyes looking into the distance and his mind looking back onto his past, Sylvester stated, “The good Lord has helped me survive, and that’s the best part.”

          At an outdoor table beside the Civil Rights Institute sat a man with his cane, humbled by his own history and hopeful for the future of those he will leave behind.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


“I’ve felt like jumping in the river myself and just drowning.” After everything I had heard, I couldn’t blame him for these words. They were said confidently, shamelessly, and initially appeared to be his first negative comment of the otherwise optimistic interview. However, two strong-willed heartbeats later, Dennis added, “But I know its gotta get better.”

After a bone-chilling afternoon spent crossing the same intersections and watching our shadows become stretched beyond recognition against the asphalt, I heard Alan finally say the words we were both dreading, noting that it was a good time to head back for the day. A small part of me was almost relieved that the search for our first Face ended this way. Perhaps our lack of success meant that the ones we were looking for were all inside somewhere staying warm. I justified our lack of success just long enough for us to turn one final corner and see a man standing alone at an intersection.

Dennis, fifty years old and not slowing down, embodies two of the most important qualities that it takes to be a true southern gentleman: kindness and hard work. He dreamed of going to medical school, has never been to jail, and, until now, remembers always having a job. Growing up on a farm in McCalla, Alabama, he was raised by his aunt and uncle who engrained in him a mentality drenched in the ideals of honesty and Luke 6:31. From a young age, Dennis had a longing to help people however he could. He took this desire and went on to trade school following his high school graduation. Soon after he started working in construction and was able to travel the United States building Wal-Mart stores and working at state fairs.

His cross-country tour was nothing short of an adventure. While building a theater in Iowa, he decided to stop by the address of his birth father that he happened to remember from when he was a child. To his surprise, his father was still living in the same house and instantly recognized his son, despite the last time he saw Dennis was when he was only five years old. They are still in contact today.

He also recounted experiencing Hurricane Katrina from the makeshift safety of a Louisiana motel. After eight and a half hours of wind and rain, there was substantial flooding and the roof was blown off the building.

With a knot in his throat, Dennis spoke briefly of his wife of twenty years who died while he was in Louisiana.

After being laid off during the state fair network’s off-season, he returned to Birmingham and tried – unsuccessfully – to reunite with his brother and two sisters. He has now been without regular employment for two and a half years. He instead works odd jobs for people around the city and regularly stays at the Firehouse Men’s Shelter in downtown Birmingham.

Dennis believes that the greatest misconception of the homeless community is that not all of those who are down on their luck are struggling with addiction. In fact he describes many of the people in his situation as people who wind up homeless because they lived on faith. Growing up, he never thought much about the homeless, but always gave when he could because he was told it could happen to anyone. Now that he is there himself, he notes in hindsight the importance of planning and saving money.

Even though he spends his days on the streets and the nights at shelters, he demonstrates incredible understanding toward all people. He spoke on multiple occasions that one of his current frustrations is that businesses commonly approach him with potential jobs with no follow through. However, after vocalizing this, he quickly added that he couldn’t blame them because he knows there are so many factors that affect employment.

Dennis held a bag given to him by a thoughtful passerby, containing items like food and blankets to help fend against the bitter cold that was cracking our knuckles. He expressed his appreciation, but said that what meant the most was the momentary conversation that he was able to have with the woman who gave him not only the gift, but also a moment of humanity.

With a life of incredible circumstances and remarkable hope, we were thankful to be just a step in the walk of Dennis, alone at the intersection, perfectly positioned both on the sidewalk, for photographs, and in his life, to look as hopefully forward as he does boldly and honestly behind.


We ran into Dennis again about two weeks after this interview in another part of downtown Birmingham. His smile upon recognizing us meant more to us than he could ever imagine. He told us that he was deciding between getting a grant to go back to school or going back into truck driving, saying "the truck will be my home until I can find a real one".