Commentary: Climbing in the Port-o-Potty One Last Time

By Angelo Anderson

 Imagine it’s 1:30 in the morning in January in Downtown Cleveland.  The snow has been blowing and falling for days with record breaking wind chills.  You have on a pair of very worn shoes dirty jeans, a hoodie and a jacket that’s made for spring.  You’ve begged a ride on the bus to get downtown thinking you’d go to one of two shelters for men, knowing that at that hour they might not let you in.  Sure enough they’re full. 

 Because you’ve been smoking crack for a solid two weeks straight, you’re dehydrated, hungry, exhausted and depressed.  Dying from exposure is a real possibility.  But you continue to walk to stay warm and look for a place to hold up for the night. 

 The first thing you do is search the garbage cans for something you can use to stay dry.  You find some plastic bags and put them over your socks, silently praying for help.  You get in the middle of the street where the walking’s easier and head over to Superior looking for a steam grate to sleep on.  There’s a danger to this, any burns can be bad and frostbite from sleeping too long in one position is a constant worry.  But you are cold and starting to shiver so that steam grate sure seems like a good idea. 

 Needing some sort of insulation, you start to keep an eye out for some large cardboard, not finding any should have been a warning of how rough the night was going to get.  

Getting to East 20th and Superior and you start to see the bodies.  They look like mounds of new piled leaves that are wet and stuck together, you’ve never seen it this bad, there’s cardboard, newspaper and blankets everywhere as men try to get as close to the grate without getting burned. 

 No space is left unused.  Fear of freezing is now a reality but you have to keep moving, maybe the cave has some room.  The cave is off Public Square in a large office building, with a huge truck bay.   Under the bay is space that runs back into the building about 5 feet and the back wall is the vent for the steam to escape.  Along the way you empty a newspaper stand because the cave can be dirty and damp.  As you turn to go down the ramp you smell the cigarette smoke and wet bodies of 20 to 30 men crammed into a very small space.  The prayers are steady now; promising to change, asking not to die, and seeking guidance to some place safe and warm.  Pain is now part of each step, you move your arms and do jumping jacks to try and warm up.

 As you come out of the truck bay you see the Convention Center and remember that they have tall vents that give off heat. Hoping, you make your way over to this oasis of life.  Like nomads in the dessert, men have been drawn to this last refuge of warmth.  How the tops haven’t caved in from the weight of all the men laying on top is a miracle.  You have to keep walking and praying like never before, this just may be it. 

 You think of all the family you’ll be leaving and wonder how long before they find your body.  You regret all the time lost as you pursued your addiction.  You reflect on how each day has been an empty existence revolving around a stem and lighter and something to smoke.  You come to the realization that you can change your life into something better if given a chance and you start to pray for that chance.  Then you see this port-a-potty and climb in.  You close all the openings with the newspaper you took from the paper stand, lift your feet off the cold floor and a pray for the opportunity to change.

 That man was me… I’m formally homeless and with the help of NEOCH I turned my life around.  The coalition is not only a voice for the homeless, poor and impoverished across the nation, it’s also a place where those who need hope, can find refuge.  They provide opportunities that help homeless individuals become better people.    With NEOCH, those seeking help can come as you are.  There are no barriers and the mission is advocacy.  They help with food, clothing, shelter, legal issues, health concerns and the genuine rights of the homeless population.

But they cannot continue without your support!  I had determination, but many lack this and are afraid.  Your willingness to contribute allows others to become whole again.  It helped me and I encourage you to pass it on.

 Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless in December 2011 and in Cleveland Ohio.