Josiah Stone pauses outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which offers a weekly lunch for the homeless.
For Josiah Stone, home is a mailbox. “A real mailbox,” he says. Mounted on the rural Oklahoma cabin that Stone inherited, where there is no plumbing or electricity, the mailbox is a symbol of permanence in a life that is impermanent by design. Stone lives on the street in Richmond, by choice. “The world is my home,” he explains.
For most of us, home is ground zero. It’s square feet and a ZIP code where we conduct the essential aspects of our lives; it’s where we eat, sleep and spend time in the company of the people we care about. Homes are built slowly, forged out of the experiences we have there and how we feel about them. They also encompass intangibles such as security, a sense of belonging, identity and emotional well-being. But without a structure to house them, where do those things reside? This time of year, when the calendar calls us home for the holidays, where do we go when there is no such place? What does home mean to the homeless?
Josiah Stone washes up at the Greyhound station on North Boulevard.
Stone blames his descent into homelessness on “stinkin’ thinkin.’ ” Chronically hyperactive, he grew up in a dysfunctional home, which he believes led to a drinking problem. “I was an anti-social, selfish and entitled kid.” There was a foray into religious fervor before he realized that “not everyone thinks like me. I didn’t know that. My passion has been my destruction.”
“I live on the streets because I like the risk — going to the edge.” —Josiah Stone
Stone is dressed in cargo pants and a hoodie, a steel gray ponytail coiling between his shoulder blades, the dog-eared paperback in his hand a constant companion. At age 55, he reads constantly, driven by a thirst for history and spiritual enlightenment. Balancing on a kickstand next to him is a two-wheeled golf cart packed half-full of books, the sum total of his possessions. In another life, he used a cart just like it to play 18 holes on a day off from his chiropractic practice.
“I just couldn’t take my situation anymore, staying in one place, having obligations. I was very successful, but I was bored, restless. I kept thinking, ‘Is this all there is to life?’ ” Now he feels he can make decisions without the distractions of responsibility. “I don’t ever want to have a home. I want to be available to live my life, to help bring humanness to the world wherever I am.
“I live on the streets because I like the risk — going to the edge. It’s a compulsion to see what God’s going to do. There are wonderful spiritual experiences that happen out there,” Stone explains. A few years ago, he had reached the end of his resources when he found himself in Franklin, North Carolina. He hired on as a day worker at a construction site, carrying 60 pound packs of asphalt shingles up a ladder. The foreman offered Stone a $100 bill for his services and a full-time job at the end of the day. “I had earned the money,” Stone says. “Now I had to earn his trust. He wanted to see if I’d run off, or come back the next day.” He stayed for two years.
Stone describes home as a place where he can lay his head in safety, peace and warmth, with his basic needs met. It can be temporary, sometimes on the ground, often in a homeless shelter. “I take my home with me. I am content with that. There is nothing I want to accumulate or achieve or be known for, except to lead a decent life and make a contribution,” he says.
Stone is among the estimated 900 men, women and children in the city of Richmond and its surrounding counties whose circumstances classify them as displaced. Some are mentally unstable; many struggle with substance abuse; most have had run-ins with rotten luck. Saints and scoundrels, they are a mashup of personalities and experiences that have landed them in a shared no man’s land where they struggle to survive, with varying degrees of dignity and success.
Many homeless Richmonders find refuge in one of 12 local shelters. Each shelter serves a different segment of the population: families, veterans, single women, single men. There is a medical respite shelter that cares for patients who are recently discharged from area hospitals.
Qualified residents can stay in a shelter for up to 60 days. They are assigned a case manager who helps craft a plan for a more stable future; they eat three meals a day and have access to shower and laundry facilities. As an alternative, congregations across the city that are affiliated with CARITAS, a church-based social services organization, provide an overnight stay in a fellowship hall that includes dinner, breakfast and a bag lunch to go. Sometimes there is a shower, and a generous parishioner will take dirty clothes home to be washed.
Without the benefit of those services, “life on the street is like an all-day job, every day,” says Amos, a quiet, middle-aged man with a gentle smile dressed in a red-and-black-plaid hunting jacket. “It takes eight hours sometimes just to conduct life, and you’re always tired.” The daily routines we find comfort in are a tedious burden for the displaced. As Maslow’s pyramid of needs plays out in real time, the most basic of necessities — fresh drinking water, sanitation, food — become a person’s life focus.
Home for Antoinette Carter means “doubling up” — sharing space with a close circle of friends who let her camp on the couch for a few days. Carter, who is middle-aged, walks with a cane. She’s a good cook and treats her hosts to barbecued ribs or her special macaroni and cheese while she’s staying with them. But it’s complicated, because she can’t sleep in when she wants to, and she has no privacy. She also wants to be sensitive to her friends’ privacy, their schedules and their lifestyles. A few weeks ago, she says, the house where she was staying was robbed at gunpoint. In a degrading display of cruelty, the thieves forced Carter to lie on the floor so they could walk on her back. They stole all of her medications. She suffers from several serious health conditions, and the experience shattered her fragile feeling of home.
“[Homelessness] is an experience that I would not wish on my worst enemy.” —Antoinette Carter
Carter worked for many years as a certified nursing assistant until her health began to fail. And then, one month when her disability check didn’t stretch far enough to cover the rent, she got sucked into the vortex that flung her out on the street.
She hopes one day to have a place “that I can call my own, that I can furnish to my liking. A place with a key.” She longs for privacy and control over her own time. Most of all, she wants to have her family with her. “If my children would take more advice from me, because I know more, maybe it can help them from going down the wrong roads that I went down.”
Someday, she hopes to open a homeless shelter. “I started to write Oprah one day, to ask her to help me start a shelter. [Homelessness] is an experience that I would not wish on my worst enemy.”
Neither of Carter’s adult daughters knows that she is homeless. One of them is incarcerated, and the other lives in Richmond with her husband. Carter protects them both from the truth about her living situation because she doesn’t want to burden them with her troubles. She tells them that she rents a room. The holidays are celebrated as a family in the daughter’s home. But next year, her younger daughter will be released from prison, and Carter dreams of having a place for her to come home to.
John takes a break from panhandling to tend to Amanda, his and Vicky’s canine companion.
For Vicky and John, what defines home is people — a group of people, affiliated in their enduring interest in this couple who have lived on the same street corner in the Fan for the past year with their dog, Amanda. Like Amos, they ask to be identified only by their first names. “We have regular people who come by every week to check on us. They bring food, Gatorade, treats for Amanda. She gets more than we do,” Vicky says, grinning with pride. “The people who work in the stores know us, and the police have been wonderful, looking after us.” And they have each other. “John makes me feel safe. I couldn’t make it without him. He won’t let me panhandle. He protects me. I have everything I need — John, Amanda and God in my life.” Then she considers the special trials and tribulations that can surface in a relationship on the street and smiles. “We bump heads, but it’s made us stronger.”
A GoFundMe campaign started by the trio’s most ardent supporters a few years ago raised enough money to set them up in an apartment for a year. When the money ran out and neither had found work, they moved back to the street. Vicky has 20 years of experience in accounting and has worked in restaurants on and off. John can lay bricks, wash dishes, cook, do electrical work and carpentry. “But when people find out that you don’t have an address, they don’t want to hire you,” Vicky explains.
She and John met through a friend and have been together for 15 years. After she moved in with him and they were both between jobs, they lost the apartment. She remembers watching an episode of “20/20” about homelessness years ago. “I laughed,” she says, “thinking, ‘I would never let that happen to me.’ Now I know better. ‘Don’t get too grandiose,’ I tell myself. ‘Don’t forget where you come from. You never know where you’ll be tomorrow. ’ ”
John and Vicky spend their days on the same corner, Amanda curled on her cushion, Vicky in a lawn chair reading the books she borrows from the Little Free Library a few blocks away (“Watership Down” is her favorite.) John holds a sign that solicits donations from passing motorists — the man on the corner and the man in the car, connected by a simple gesture of generosity that will fill both of their hearts.
On the day we talked, there was an urgency to their efforts. Hurricane Matthew was hurling itself at the East Coast, and the two wanted to get themselves and Amanda into a hotel room to take refuge from the storm. John’s face was serious with concentration. “I just want people to give me an opportunity. I am a man who is loving, caring, understanding. I just want what everyone else got.” As it turned out, they collected enough money to check into a hotel and weather the storm.
At the end of a typical day, they pack what little clothing they own, along with their important papers, onto a bicycle, load Amanda into her tow-behind bike trailer, and set out in search of a place to sleep. They leave the rest of their belongings on the corner, covered with a heavy black tarp pushed up against a privacy fence. When they return at 5:30 the next morning, their things are still there, undisturbed. Whether protected by the unspoken creed of the street or because they simply went unnoticed, it’s a pile of important stuff that no one messes with.
“I would give my right arm for a good night’s sleep. You sleep with one eye shut and the other on a no trespassing sign. Your feet and your clothes are always wet,” Vicky says. One winter night, she and John chose a picnic table to sleep on, just to get off the penetrating cold of the ground. “We woke up in the morning covered in snow. We couldn’t even see our bodies,” she says, and laughs. “There’s so much people take for granted. Sleeping in pajamas. Waking up when you want to. Making breakfast in the morning.”
The couple have found that it’s best to limit the number of things that they own — it lightens the load of responsibility as well as the load on the bike. They wear the same clothing for a few days in a row and then throw it away when it becomes soiled. A visit to the thrift store or a fruitful dumpster dive, and they’re re-outfitted for a few days. Then the cycle begins again. Personal hygiene requires some additional ingenuity. They wash up as best they can in public restrooms, looking forward to a shower on the days when they can collect enough cash to check in to the pet-friendly hotel where Amanda is welcome. “I’m not going to look and act homeless,” Vicky says. “I have that much self-respect. It makes you feel better about yourself when you keep yourself up.”
Both Vicky and John have children of their own from previous relationships. But, because theirs is a mixed race relationship that the children don’t support, the two don’t spend time with her children at all. The kids think that they share a rented room. So, Amanda brings a feeling of family to their life on the corner. The pit terrier mix was 2 weeks old when Vicky found her. Now, 10 years later, the dog is a calm, devoted presence in two lives where consistency is hard to come by. You can see in her eyes that the feeling is mutual. But Amanda also brings complications to the relationship. Because homeless shelters in Richmond do not allow pets, having Amanda means that staying in a shelter is not an option; the three of them sleep out in the open. Amanda prefers to snuggle up to them at night, trading her own bed for the comfort of their companionship. “She has to be touching one of us,” Vicky says, smiling. “Amanda makes me feel happy and safe.”
Antonio Ponton’s family is part of the problem. Ponton, who looks much younger than his 42 years, met his German wife online. As their long-distance relationship evolved, he left his home in Alexandria and moved abroad to marry her. When he returned to the United States to start a new life here for the two of them, he assumed that his family would take him in while he looked for a job, and then she could join him. He was wrong. Now he is stranded in Richmond, estranged from his family, sleeping on the street, working as a day laborer and talking with his wife, Susanne, daily on FaceTime. He says he has been promised a job with a solar panel start-up. If that happens, it will be the beginning of a new life for both of them.
“I learned a lesson,” he explains. “Be better prepared when you move from one place to another. Try not to depend on others. Depend on yourself so you won’t be let down.”
Ponton took a computer apart when he was 7 years old and reassembled it himself. Today, he passes the time at the main branch of the Richmond Public Library, honing those IT skills — preparation for the career as a network administrator that he aspires to. “Every day is a life lesson, some things you apply, some you throw away: that’s one of the fascinations about being human,” he reflects. He also enjoys spending time with friends — a small group of people he met on the street who earned his trust. “People with the same intellectual level, political views, religion as me,” he says. “Someone I can relate to.”
Relationships like those, especially friendships, are complex on the street. Community for the homeless is often a collection of acquaintances that is made tenuous by issues of transience and trust.
“I know people, but I don’t have friends,” Vicky says. “They’re just acquaintances. I’ve had bad experiences with friends. People betray you, take over your corner, manipulate you to get what you have.” She and John had been sheltering on the porch of an abandoned house at night, storing their belongings there during the day where it was dry and secluded. Then someone reported them for vagrancy, and the police asked them to move on. The next day, the porch was occupied by a new squatter who, they suspect, reported them himself so that he could commandeer their spot. Scarcity creates competition.
But there is a refreshing flip side to this dynamic. It’s an unspoken code of caring on the street that is universal. “Street people give whatever they have — food, clothing, cigarettes — to each other. If you pay it forward, something good will come your way,” Stone explains. “Encourage the defeated, the negative, give them what they need. Hold no prejudice, love strangers.”
“I am a man who helps in any way possible,” echoes Amos. “If you need information, food, bus fare – and I have it to give, I will give it. I like telling other people positive things, helping other people; leading them in the right path; showing them what to do, what not to do, where to get help.” Sometimes those who have the least to give turn out to be the most giving.
Reflecting on the people who drive past him on the street day after day, Ponton says, “I just want them to know, that I’m just like them ... I just want normalcy in my life, having the essentials — shelter, food, a job and someone to love.”
When you’re homeless, home is what you make it, wherever you make it. It’s in the love of the people who share your life on the street, and in “owning” a spot on the sidewalk by virtue of being there. It’s in the sense of belonging that comes from shared experience, in the comfort that comes from caring for an animal and in the safety net of a city that wants to help. Castle, cottage, condo or street corner, by choice or by chance, they’re all the same. Only different.