The kids I talked to at Urban Street Angels’ Tuesdays-only shelter said the people and the place are marked especially by mellower volunteers and an overall “vibe” that is milder and calmer than any other shelter at which they’d ever stayed.
“You hear that?” Dippolito interjects midway through our interview.
I tell him I don’t really hear anything unusual, nothing more than sounds you might hear in a family room where the TV is on as some family members head for bed while others stay up to watch Jimmy Kimmel.
“I know...” His voice trails off. “It’s nice.”
A few nights before he had awoken outdoors somewhere in East Village to find cockroaches crawling on his body. He didn’t realize that in the darkness he had chosen a spot to sleep near a drainpipe — a portal for vermin that he’s learned through experience to avoid.
“You get so-o-o-o tired,” he says. Then I see it, the toll of homelessness writ plainly across Dippolito’s face, exhaustion you’d expect to see on the face of a middle-aged wage-slave whose just lost his only friend. He sighs, “Everything is hard. Where am I going to wash my face? Where am I going to use the bathroom? How am I going to eat this morning? You’re like anybody. You wake up and say, ‘Damn, a cup of coffee would be nice right now. But it can take a couple of hours to make that happen. Some days you’re so exhausted by the time it’s dark that if you make a mistake like, where you decide to lie your head down, you might wake up with bugs on you.”
Rather than spending the next morning working to find a way out of homelessness, Dippolito explains, one can spend half a day trying to find a shower or at least a sink at which to rid oneself of the sense of being a human roach nest. “All you want is just to reclaim your humanity at that point,” he says.
Dippolito’s heretofore dignified demeanor seems suddenly threatened. I don’t push. It’s time to move on. But he asks me to wait. I ask him what he would tell someone younger than himself who suddenly found himself homeless. His voice softens and he thinks for a minute. “There is hope. There are resources and people who are willing to help you.”
Focused on me
Shay Brown is 23. She’s been homeless for “a few weeks.” She’s staked out her personal space for the evening by placing several neatly packed reusable grocery bags, carry-on cases, and backpacks around her, dispersing them symmetrically on the ground and across a sofa where she sits. Somehow Brown has alchemized around her an energy that could be described as intensely private. It’s hard to cross into her boundary, but I do.
“I’m a little tired, but sure we can talk.” Her voice is soft and lilting.
Brown is uncommonly precise in the way she enunciates her consonants, especially the letter T. She says she ate before coming to Urban Street Angels and promises I’m not keeping her from the pizza I see being laid out as a late-night snack. Brown seems a little shut down, though not exactly standoffish. “This is my second time here,” she says. “Last time I came, I had my boyfriend’s mom with me, so I wasn’t alone. This time I’m alone. I don’t know where my boyfriend is, and it’s a little upsetting.”
Brown is a beautiful, young woman of color. As an African-American experiencing homelessness, she says she has chosen to sleep outdoors on occasion rather than face what she says is racism inside some shelters and other homeless-services facilities. I nevertheless ask Brown if this organization is different than any of the other shelters.
“I know when someone cares and when someone doesn’t,” she replies. “I know when someone’s here to help. I know Jerry’s here to help.”
She speaks of Jerry Troyers, founding boardmember of Urban Street Angels — more about him later. Brown first encountered him when the organization’s main work was taking food and services out to homeless youth on the streets every Friday night.
Shay Brown wants to be a political scientist. She says she knows how she’s going to get there. “I start school [at San Diego City College] in a couple of weeks,” she says. “I’ve applied for financial aid. I’ve been approved. I will use my award for housing and food, just like you’re supposed to do. I love politics and that’s what I’m studying.”
Brown knows where her blind spots are as well. “It’s him. It’s the boyfriend. I don’t do drugs. I’m not someone who can be around that. I am now focused on taking care of me. But it’s hard when you love someone so much.”
I envied “normal”
It’s tough to describe the pang of an empty stomach at age 13, when your body is rapidly growing, but you’re homeless, and your dad’s broke yet somehow patronizing a beer bar while you and your brother wait outside for him hour after hour. I learned years later that when we were broke, Daddy drank by beating drunker men at pool. I remember feeling sick with envy watching kids around my age getting in and out of “normal” cars with “normal” parents for a “normal” family dinner at the Chuck E. Cheese down on the other end of the strip mall. God, I wanted to be “normal.”
Is there a feed tonight?
The warm air inside my Prius is comforting as I look for the glowing digits on the console that tell me it’s 53 degrees outside. I’m in Ocean Beach, mid-January. It’s 15 minutes after 5 p.m. and the sun has just set. Whatever sunlight remains in the short daylight hours of this wet day is blotted out by the bloated clouds that burst just after I park the car and start walking. Rain hits the pavement so noisily that the figure walking toward me from the ramp of an alley off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard just a few feet away from where I now stand in a church parking lot between Cape May and Brighton Avenues has to shout in order to be heard.