Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"THE HOMELESS ARE PEOPLE TOO" -- A Short Autobiography

A project is presently underway to gather the stories of about 25 homeless people and put them into a book for the nation to read. Hopefully we will be able to get First Lady Michelle Obama to write the foreword to the book. Below is the story that I submitted. (It is still subject to editting.).....



THE HOMELESS ARE PEOPLE TOO
....,a-whop-a-do, a-whop-a-do. (From "Wonderama")


I was born in Atlantic city, NJ on February 15th, 1969 as Eric Gooden. When I was 8 months old, I was almost killed by my parents who fractured my skull. I don't know which one actually did it or any of the other gory details. However, after my hospital stay, I went to a foster home in Atlantic City, where I stayed until I was 5 years old.

In August of 1974 I was taken in by Rudy and Joanne Sheptock who lived in Chester, NJ at that time. They took in Mary Elizabeth who was from Morristown, NJ at the same time that they received me. together we were the 9th and 10th children, with the Sheptocks having had 6 biological children and 2 adopted ones already. The following year, we moved to a 3-story mansion in Peapack, NJ. Mary Elizabeth and I were adopted that same month. They would eventually have a seventh biological child and adopt 25 for a grand total of 32 children.

We received much exposure due to the size of our family. We were often filmed by news crews or photgraphed for the newspaper. A documentary was made about our family by a Japanese T.V. crew. We were visited by Thomas Kean when he was governor of N.J. in the early 80's. My parents were the guest speakers at many churches and pro-life meetings because of adopting so many children. There is even a book about us called "Our Growing Family" which was published in 1980.

The Sheptocks moved to Interlachen, FL beginning in December of 1984. (The move took about 3 months.) I was in the 10th grade at the time and would eventually graduate from highschool in June of 1987. I went to Georgia for about 9 months following highschool and then returned to Florida where I got a job in the Enviromental Services Dept. of Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I worked there from May of 1988 until February of 1994 when I had a disagreement with my supervisor and walked out. I got my last check and returned to New Jersey. My money soon ran out and I found myself at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission at 2009 Bacharach, Blvd. I was now officially homeless.

I travelled back and forth between Atlantic City and Philadelphia via the NJ Transit train for 6 months and then hitch-hiked down the coast to Florida. I arrived back in Gainesville, FL on September 19th, the birthday of Joyce Ann Williams who I'd dated from May of 1990 until my abrupt departure in February of 1994. I went to visit her, only to find that she had died on August 11th, 1994 from sclerosis of the liver. I haven't had a relationship as good as ours since then.

I would spend the next 10 years (from September 1994 to August 2004) moving to various locations within the coastal states, sometimes relocating in order to do farm work. I've done cabbage in Hastings, FL as well as white potatoes, sweet potatoes, watermelons and tobacco in North Carolina. I even planted a few onions in Lyons, GA which is near Vidalia. I saw first-hand how farming contractors often prey upon drug-addicted homeless people by hiring them, giving them drugs on credit and forbidding them to leave while in debt due to their drugs. Though I used crack from April of 1998 to August of 2005, I managed not to get sucked into the debt trap myself. In spite of having used drugs, I retained my sense of moral responsibility and paid my debts.

In August of 2004, I went from Orlando, FL back to Gainesville where I would spend the next 11 months. In may of 2005 I participated in my first protest while part of a small group of homeless people, concerned citizens and homeless advocates who were speaking out against the city's decision to close the bathrooms in the downtown bus terminal at 5 PM rather than 7, as this would greatly inconvenience the homeless population and was seen as a move against them. (Gainesville and Orlando, FL, where I've lived for a total of about 14 years, both made the list of 10 U.S. cities that are considered to be meanest to the homeless population.)

During these 11 months in Gainesville, I was living in a tent city in the woods and working at labor halls (having also done day labor during my years in Orlando). While waiting to be given an assignment by the dispatcher, I would watch T.V. and catch the latest news. It bothered me to no end to see the constant reports about the Iraq War, knowing that it was predicated on lies. So, on July 6th 2005 (Bush's 59th birthday), I began hitch-hiking from Gainesville, FL to Washington, DC, completing my journey on the night of July 31st, 2005.

That night was the last time that I used crack. My money ran out on the morning of August 1st and I quit cold-turkey. I didn't know where the labor halls were and was never one to steal, not even to support my habit. Besides, I was a man on a mission. I was intent on doing whatever I could to address the dishonesty for which many were dying in Iraq. On September 24th, 2005, I participated in my first war protest on the Ellipse in Washington, DC. Since then, I've participated in about a dozen large war protests involving up to a half million people.

In mid-June 2006, two women came to the Franklin School Shelter, where I'd been since August 2nd, 2005 and told its 240 residents that then DC mayor Tony Williams planned to close the shelter and replace it with a 120-bed facility elsewhere. As a result of this news, about a dozen of us formed the Committee To Save Franklin Shelter. We organized rallies and protests and met with members of DC Government in order to stop the closure. During our fight, 60 beds were added to the shelter, proving that the shelter was still needed. We prevailed against Mayor Williams 9 months later and celebrated our victory in March of 2007.

However, Adrian Fenty had become mayor 2 months earlier. He had promised to keep Fanklin School open as a shelter while campaigning to become mayor. But in April 2008 announced plans to close Franklin School Shelter. A new Committee To Save Franklin Shelter was formed, with me being the only member from the original one. We fought tooth and nail to prevent the closure again, but lost this time. The mayor abruptly closed the shelter on September 26th, 2008, for which reason his administration has been taken to court in the case of SHEPTOCK, et al v. FENTY, et al .

Since the Franklin closure, the economy has worsened, more people have become homeless and the homeless and their advocates have begun to pressure DC Government to create more shelter and to stop slashing the funding for various social services during this economic downturn. This particular fight is ongoing and seems like it may continue for quite some time, as we seek to change DC Government's paradigm for dealing with homelessness and poverty.

Mine is definitely an unusual story insomuch as I've had a wide variety of experiences that don't often occur in a single lifetime. I've been abused; adopted into a large, inter-racial family; lived in a mansion; been homeless and advocated for the homeless. I've been featured on T.V. and radio, used drugs, quit cold-turkey and spoken out against various wars. I've had a girlfriend to die at a very early age and even had a short marriage which is hardly worth mentioning. Despite the whirlwind of sorrows that have befallen me, I suppose that I have retained my sanity (but might be too crazy to know that I'm crazy).

It's enough to make anyone ask where it's all leading to. Many are they who say that God (or providence) has something great in store for me. Few are they who take a stab at just what that might be. My guess is that I'm doing what I was meant to do as I advocate for the homeless. I don't plan to quit until the poor and homeless are being treated humanely and our nation has come up with comprehensive solutions to homelessness. I'm not sure that I'll ever quit. That, of course, begs the question: "Just what is it that I don't like about how the homeless are treated and how do I plan to change it?" There's no short answer.

First of all, we must preserve the social safety net for the underprivileged people of our nation. The unfortunate truth is that those in DC Government (and probably many other local, state and national governments) have a backwards paradigm for dealing with homelessness and poverty. When the economy is good, they don't mind having social programs like food stamps, rent supplement, WIC and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- a DC program that gives $428/month to unemployed mothers). When the economy takes a nosedive, they want to cut off the lifeline.

On the contrary, governments should create employment programs and encourage people to find employment when the economy is good and there are jobs to be found. Then, when things get bad, the government should provide a social safety net to carry people through the hard times. The problem is that they think in terms of affordability rather than practicality. When enough people are employed, governments are raking in tax revenue and can afford to care for the unemployed. So they do. When unemployment skyrockets, tax revenues decrease and the government wants to wean people off of the system, in effect cutting off the lifeline when people need it the most.

Secondly, we must avoid stereotypes. Let's bear in mind that most statements made about all homeless people are inaccurate. Not all homeless people are mentally ill. Not all of them use drugs or drink alcohol in excess. Not all of them are dirty. And the list goes on. It is actually a good idea to go to a homeless shelter during check-in or to a soup kitchen during the meal and survey the crowd. One would find that most of the homeless dress neatly, carry themselves well and would not stand out as being homeless if they were spotted away from a shelter or soup kitchen. I am firmly convinced that anyone who takes me up on this will find what I've said to be true. (Hopefully, my writings say something about my own level of intellect.)

Thirdly, we must remember that we are all just a paycheck away from being homeless. Since the beginning of the 2nd Great Depression (or whatever you choose to call this economic downturn) many college-educated, middle-class Americans have become homeless. Some have said things such as,"I'm middle-class. I shouldn't be here." (In actuality, they used to be middle-class.) Fact of the matter is that it can happen to anyone. It behooves you to be nice to the homeless, as you may be eating or sleeping right next to them some day.

Fourthly, it is a good idea to befriend a homeless person or two. People often ask me how they can help the homeless. I tell them that there is not a single solution that works for everyone. Each person has their own story as to how they became homeless. So, befriend a homeless person or 2. Take them out to lunch occasionally. Talk to them one-on-one and find out their story. Let the individual tell you how to help them. Furthermore, most homeless people want to tell their story to a friend who is not homeless. We hate to just be fed. We want conversation. If all you want to do is feed somebody, there are plenty of pigeons in the world. The homeless want to be spoken to like human beings.

And that's a perfect segway into my fifth and final pointer which is that you simply treat the homeless how you'd want to be treated if you were down and out. (Is anyone ever "up and in"?) A little bit of common courtesy can go a long way.

Hopefully what you've just read will help to shed some light on the plight of the homeless and help you to see them as people first and then as homeless, My story, while unique in some ways has its similarities to the stories of other homeless people. Most notable is the fact that there is a lot more to me than my homeless status. Homelessness is an economic status. It says nothing for my level of intellect, personality or what I did before my fall from grace. Maybe, instead of speaking of us as "homeless people", folks should refer to us as their "homeless neighbors" or "people who are homeless". Regardless of our present, past or social status, "the homeless are people too".

(That last statement is a modification of the theme song from the '70's kid show called Wonderama, which later changed its name to "Kids Are People Too")

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