Ain't too proud to beg
Six stories of hardscrabble lives on the streets of Detroit
Published: October 5, 2011
With the workday done, Cerello walks home to a three-story abandoned apartment building just yards from the corner. Once inside, he uses a pipe to jam the door shut behind him.
The first floor has been used as a toilet by squatters, and it stinks. The second floor is smelly and dirty. The third floor, dark and airy, is his home. "See, it smells good up here, right?" he asks.
He sleeps on a mat, next to a pile of neatly folded blankets stacked on a chair. A little battery-powered lantern is hidden under his pillow. Nearby, two other mats have tousled blankets on them, where another homeless man sometimes spends the night with his girlfriend. Cerello points to a sheet of plaster that dangles from the ceiling, where the rain caved it in the other night. And that hole's only going to get bigger.
He's got no plans to get off the corner, no dreams of a better life someday, no backup home for a building that lets the rain inside.
"It's hard to say because I don't look at it like that," he says. "I don't make plans if I had this or I had that. I don't know if I'll ever have this or that. I live day by day. I have hope, but I don't rely on hope. I rely on surviving. I got to eat every day, I got to wash. It's hard, man. But I like it. I challenge myself, and it makes me strong."
The traffic signal turns red, and yet again there's not a single car stopped behind it.
Cason Pointer, 44, has been sign-holding since morning, but has little to show for it. He has nothing to sit on, so he's been standing here the whole time on a Saturday morning. "It's tiresome," he says. His face is weary, resigned. "It's more work than people think it is."
During the workweek, the I-10 exit ramp at Howard traps hundreds of commuters at a stoplight for an unwanted morning sales pitch from Pointer. But downtown Detroit is a Monday-through-Friday place, and on weekends you can go hours at this spot without getting so much as a dollar from an occasional driver.
Some people are simply unable to handle the pain that life throws at them, and they drown it with a bottle or puff it away with a pipe. A few go too far and lose everything. Pointer was one of them.
A few years ago, he was married, working as a roofer, about to buy a house, when his wife left him and he turned to the bottle. "I just started drinking and lost it," he says through broken and missing teeth. Then he laughs. "Well, I used to drink a lot before then too."
A downward spiral later, and he lives in downtown Detroit, with a doorway for a bed and an exit ramp for a workplace. He stashes his blankets for the day with a guy who runs the booth in a nearby parking lot. And somewhere in the city, he has an ex-wife and two sons, 15 and 17.
Pointer tried staying with his mother for a while to get off the streets, but that went bad. "That shit don't last long," he says. "If you ain't got nothing to give to a motherfucker, they complain about you eating they food, you hear them talking about you on the phone. I tried that already. I said, fuck it, I'm gonna stay out here."
Begging on the street is brutal in the heat, but bitter in the winter, he says. Last year, he got frostbite in his toes. He walked to an emergency room, didn't think the pain medication they offered was good enough, stormed out and returned to the corner. But the toes got worse and he had to go back.
"It got infected so bad they had to cut it," he says. "I lost three toes." They didn't even put him under, he claims. "No, honestly, they did it right there in the bed. They just numbed the foot. I guess if you ain't got no insurance that's what they do."
Because his spot has such slow weekends, he doesn't face much competition for it. So after four years here, Pointer has declared it his own, a bold breach of etiquette among the sign-holders. "I had a problem once with one guy," he says. "I mean, he was here before I got here one day and he didn't want to leave. I had to rough him up a little bit." The interloper didn't return.
He explains a hobbling fact of life echoed by the other sign-holders — if you take care of yourself, if you look too good, handouts will dry up.
"You can't be clean-shaved or nothing like that, 'cause if you clean-shaved they figure you ain't homeless. They got churches around here that'll cut your hair and give you stuff, but you get a haircut and a trim and stuff, you come out here you won't get no money. I did it once, and you know, they tell you, 'You ain't homeless, you too clean.' I even had cops tell me that."
He looks himself up and down — bushy beard, dirty clothes, bad teeth, and laughs. "You gotta look homeless," he says. "You gotta look all raggely-like in the face. You can't have on no clean clothes."
He doesn't think too much now about getting cleaned up, or getting off the corner, or getting a job. Only one thing, a single goal, runs though his mind: "I want my family back," he says, looking to the ground. "That's what I would like."
She stands on the green grass of the median, hunched over, as if shielding herself from the cold even though it's a warm night, as she holds a little sign tight to her body.
Bonnie Allen, 52, squints through thick glasses at oncoming eastbound traffic on Warren Avenue where it crosses the I-75 service drive. She's the image of timidity.
This is her usual corner, but she won't defend it if challenged for it. "I don't call this my spot because I don't own it," she says. "You'll be up here fighting and stuff if somebody tries to claim it. If somebody else comes along, I'll leave. They can have it."
The cooperative rules that regulate relationships at other corners don't work in favor of someone as docile as Allen. She regularly gets challenged by more aggressive panhandlers.
Like when she came up here around noon today and had to walk away after she spotted someone in her place. She just waited them out nearby, watching her spot with a dejected face, which isn't far from her usual expression. But once it opened up and she walked over with her piece of cardboard, another panhandler arrived and rudely displaced Allen, sign-blocking her. Allen walked away again and waited.
"I'm not going to be arguing about it, 'cause I can't," she says. "I'm just not gonna get in trouble up here, or I won't be up here at all. I just leave, you know?"
That same vulnerability draws offers normally directed at street hookers. "It ain't happened that much, but it's happened," she says. "I ain't doing that; that's why I'm out here doing this, not to do no shit like that. I ain't never been into nothing like that. I'll go this way before I go that way."
Allen wound up homeless a few years ago, she says, after she finished a jail sentence and discovered her roommate sister had moved away. She served time after getting caught stealing from a big box store. A friend who worked there would wheel brand-new washers and dryers and refrigerators out to the dock behind the store, where the pair would drive off with them.
This median is a prime spot, because traffic from Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center brings streams of suburbanites past her on their way home. Most days she'll work until she gets about $25, then she'll sometimes rent a room at a little hotel over on St. Aubin, the kind of dumpy flophouse that caters to transients.
But it's better than the homeless shelters in the neighborhood, she notes. Especially for someone unable to stand up for herself in line or hustle to claim a seat.
"It's a big hassle. You got your rules that you got to follow, you got a lot of people around you and everybody's not the same, everybody's not friendly and don't know how to get along and stuff like that, so I don't care for going there that often."
Her timidity both helps and hurts, providing an easy target for bullies but drawing sympathy from those who might not normally be inclined to give money to a street person begging on the corner. But even someone as harmless as her isn't immune to the occasional mean-spirited driver.
"Once in awhile they'll say stuff, mean stuff to you, but I don't worry about no words," she says. "I laugh it off. There are all kind of people that do crazy stuff. But then again, there's people out here that treat you better than people you know."
He has a home. And a job. Plus he's young and fit. But he's begging on the corner.
Michael Shea, 41, doesn't claim to be homeless. Just broke. "Hungry. Please help. Will work." is all that's written on his sign. He says he's proud of its honesty. "Now you have guys who say 'homeless' or this or that, their signs are bullshit," he says.
He's sitting on a low plastic crate on a muddy patch at the top of the Cadieux exit of westbound I-94, a spot he's worked for four years.
During that same time he's also worked as a landscaper and a plumber, and has done some construction work and worksite cleanup. Usually they're one-day jobs he gets when a truck or a van pulls up to his spot and offers him $10 an hour to come with them and do manual labor somewhere. He's had enough of that business lately that this is his first stint here in a while. "In fact, usually I'm booked up for like two or three days, but the work just fell off this last week or so," he says.
He lives with two roommates in a nearby house, one of whom is a sign-holder too. For $10 a day, Shea has his own room there. "It's all right," he says. "We all get along. Nobody steals anything."
Unlike some other corners around town, this one's a free-for-all, and he can't get off his squat little plastic seat because several other sign-holders are loitering nearby, waiting to snatch the spot if he so much as steps away for a second.
"We get along, but we get in arguments sometimes," Shea says, pointing to the hovering panhandlers. "We pretty much do a couple of hours. We don't get too greedy. Everybody needs a little help, you know what I mean? But that's why I can't get up right now, 'cause they're all waiting for me." Once he gets $25 or so, he leaves for the day. But for him, getting it is a struggle.
"I look too clean," he explains. "My teeth are too white. I'm young." Few things anger drivers more than a seemingly able-bodied beggar. He's had doughnuts hurled at him. Pennies too. "I guess the people that got the cars and the money, they've worked for it and they don't take too kindly to people sitting here begging."
But this spot is so high-volume that he can get what he needs by the end of the day, and he's even been graced by a visit from a $100 driver. Only once, though. "It was a colored kid," he says. "It was the holidays."
Unlike almost all the others out here wielding their shredded little signs, he's one of the few who has a real home to go to at night, and real jobs he can work. But he doesn't make much at those jobs, and some days there are no paychecks. Working this spot ensures that he stays above the line that separates people like him from the others on the corner whose home is outside.
A man in a truck gets stopped at the red light. He looks at Shea and rolls his window down. "You want to work?" he asks. "Yes I do," Shea replies. The man says he'll be back for him later.
It's hard to know what moves drivers to give to one panhandler and not another. It can be a well-crafted sign. Or a pained expression. But nothing draws more sympathy than a dog without a home.
Pudge the dog is homeless because his owner is homeless. The 5-year-old chocolate lab stays with Tim Taylor wherever he goes — the corner where he begs, the bridge under which he sleeps, the party stores where he buys his meals. And the sight of this furry, gentle companion draws scores of well-wishers.
"They really look after the dog," says the 55-year-old Taylor, chuckling. He's sitting on an overturned milk crate set on a grass-and-concrete island where I-94's Livernois exit spills into Michigan Avenue on the city's southwest side. "The dog gets better treatment, better food and everything than I do."
Taylor grew up and lived in Belleville, where he had a home on a lake surrounded by the woods. He was a journeyman roofer for years who breathed so many asbestos fibers that he had to stop working. A lawsuit is still pending, he claims. "It got so bad I'd have to hit an inhaler three times to get up a ladder," he says. "Took me about three years after I was off the roof to where I could actually breathe halfway decently."
Then things got worse. "My mom died," he says. That was eight years ago. "I just started drinking a lot." He drank himself out of a job and a home and into a life of begging on the streets of Detroit. "I go from making $40 an hour to don't make that in a day," he says.
His first few months in Detroit were spent sleeping in a grove of trees that skirt the bridge along the side of the freeway he now sits next to. From there he moved to an abandoned warehouse across the street, where he stayed for four years until it recently got demolished. Now he sleeps under a bridge.
Taylor found Pudge at the bottom of a pile of old tires in that warehouse. He heard the puppy's whimpers and dug it out, one tire at a time. "Evidently she was the runt," he says. "I fed her with a baby bottle for three, four weeks, then she got healthy and now she's probably one of the smartest dogs around."
The dog draws smiles and donations and more repeat visitors than the scraggly Taylor would ever get on his own. But a couple of years back, a cop took a dislike to Taylor and his dog for some reason. "He come by one day and says, 'I catch you out here again I'm gonna take your dog and put him to sleep,'" Taylor says.
The next time he ran into him the cop kept his word, grabbing the dog, throwing him in the back of a patrol car and driving off, leaving Taylor sitting there with no means to follow him.
Some truckers who know Taylor saw what happened and went to the Humane Society to get the dog back, but couldn't until Taylor paid for a license and vaccinations for Pudge. Soon, regulars who'd come to know the dog saw Taylor, alone and forlorn on the exit ramp, and began a campaign to raise the money for him. A local TV station even did a story on the incident. The money soon started coming in and Pudge the dog got his freedom, rejoining his owner back on the streets.
Nowadays the dog sits patiently most of the day as Taylor holds his sign and waits for the day's money to come, bit by bit. Once in a while, Taylor throws a little rubber ball for Pudge to fetch, which he brings back with a furiously wagging tail.
Like most of the others wielding signs, Taylor insists he wants to get back to a normalized life. Yet like the others, where would he start? He has no address and no family, hasn't held a job in years, hasn't associated with normal people in a long time, and if he tries to clean himself up he can't make money out here anymore. With obstacles like these, it's easier to stay with the routine he's established on the streets than it is to try lifting himself out of it.
"It's hard, man. It's hard. It's a struggle to get back on your feet when you're out here."
So here he sits, just as throughout the city dozens of others are doing the same thing — like the meek woman who's nervously watching her spot, like the ex-con wondering if something will be hurled at him in anger today, like the desperate man who can't stop wondering how he lost a family. All of them with different stories but now living the same life, one stripped so bare it can fit on a small cardboard sign.
Taylor holds his sign up as another driver is forced by the traffic signal to stop next to him. The woman behind the wheel looks at him, looks at the dog, and then looks away, just waiting for the light to release her.
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