My street dad was a Vietnam Vet

The following is the third installment of an essay written by Jaime L. Benshoff about her experiences being homeless.

If you want to read the earlier parts, you can find them here:

Have a great week!


Finding Home

Part 3 of 6
By Jaime L. Benshoff

I wasn’t always homeless; this was a recent occurrence and one that I had not anticipated in my life planning.  It had happened fast:  a car accident totaled my car, and the settlement wasn’t enough to buy another car.  In my mental illness I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to.  So, I floundered along, leaving a job across town since there wasn’t a bus, and finding a job I could walk to.  But I got behind in my rent and the landlord forced me out.  I had no money in order to put down a security deposit on another place to live and the family I had in town didn’t have room for me.  So, I abandoned my belongings and went by city bus downtown to live on the streets.

I got a sleeping bag from one of the churches; I found the homeless drop in center where I could shower, get my mail and have coffee.  I learned how to protect myself from other homeless people who would steal from you at night while you were sleeping.  I learned street justice.

Street justice in the homeless community, for example, means if somebody gives you something, even as small as a bottle of water or as important as a warm winter coat, either way in street justice you owe them and when they came to collect, you’d better be willing to pay the price being asked.  If you didn’t you faced the risk of theft of something like your id or a beating that marks your face so all the other homeless can heed the warning.

The only safe way to navigate being homeless was to limit what you accepted to what was offered to everyone, to what was community.  For example, if a shirt you liked was offered to you by a homeless man and you wore it, then you were under obligation to him.  But if that same shirt that you liked was in one of the community clothing closets, charities operated by churches where the homeless can get free outerwear, shoes, jeans, hats and mittens, even new underwear, if you found the shirt there you could wear it until it shredded and not incur any obligation.

Street justice also says you don’t give anything to a child or a pet without direct permission from the parent or owner.

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In addition to street justice there were street dads.

A street dad is a homeless albeit nurturing man who forms a protective bond with a homeless woman and teaches her the ropes for living on the street.  My street dad was a Vietnam War veteran who had weathered many seasons of homelessness.  In exchange for being able to sleep in the doorway of a downtown business, without fear of a trespassing violation, he swept the sidewalk in front of the business, keeping it clear of litter and cigarette butts.

His broom and dustpan he carried along with his belongings on a pushcart piled high with items organized in large plastic garbage bags.  He would park the cart in an out-of-the-way corner at the homeless drop-in center and take a nap on the floor when his sleep was disturbed.  He would protect me from the men who accosted me at the drop-in center, taking an imposing stance while growling, “Beat it, leave her alone.”  I was grateful for his help.

One day I was walking downtown and stumbled onto a community bike repair shop, manned by volunteer cyclists, located behind the French Broad Co-op.  It was a jumble of bikes, parts, old helmets, tools, and new inner tubes.  I hung around, the staff good naturedly let me stay.

A few days later I came across my street dad who was looking discouraged.  When I asked what was wrong, he pointed to where the wheel had broken off of his cart, forcing him to balance the weight and navigate the hills of downtown on two wheels.  I knew exactly what to do, and I led him to the community bike shop where the cyclists were only too glad to have the challenge of jury rigging what they could from available parts.  I seem to recall a great deal of duct tape was deployed as well.

Once word got out, I found I had earned my street creds and I was pretty much left alone.  I still took precautions however, just like my street dad taught me.

Next week:  Part 4 of Jaime’s story.

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