Editors Note: To better understand the needs and experiences of someone who is homeless, Favian Quezada spent time with the homeless, participated in One Night Without a Home and visited a resource center.
The loud whistle of a train as it rumbles down the tracks swallows the silence as the sunlight falls over the horizon and the temperaturedrops. On this fall night, I am with 24-year-old Brandon in a wooded area near downtown Tyler. Scruffy, a little dirty and dressed in a flannel shirt and cargo shorts, he begins to gather everything he owns –– a few plastic bags stretched full of clothes and bottles. Ready to move on, he reaches for his cowboy hat hanging from a broken tree branch. Also hanging from a tree branch is Old Glory, faded from being outside too long.
“How am I supposed to take my flag,” Brandon said, as the wind grabs the flag waving it, “Oh well, I’ll just make another trip for it.”
Brandon has been homeless for almost a week. Family members kicked him out of his home, leaving him with nowhere to turn. He found Tent City and a spot to call his own. After sleeping a couple nights, scared, he found a group of people who were willing to help him in the woods and supply him with what he needs to survive the outdoors. Supplying him with warm clothes and a spot at their camp, he decided to head there and make a site.
As the night approaches, Brandon throws the bags with his belongings over his shoulder and walks up a long trail through the woods. In the distance, the illuminated Regions Bank sign on a downtown building lights the path that is filled with flickering campfires and makeshift tents made of tarps. Brandon is in his new home – at least for the night.
Brandon is among the homeless population that spends most nights sleeping in makeshift shelters with little protection or safety. Many people never think about the struggles that homeless people face. The nonprofit East Texas Human Needs Network, an organization that helps people who lack such basic needs as food and clothing, is trying to change that by sponsoring One Night Without a Home. The challenge was simple: spend one night out in the open as a homeless person would.
After spending time with Brandon, it is a challenge I was willing to take.
So, on the night of Nov. 19, I was among about 120 people who spent the night in Tyler’s Bergfeld Park as part of One Night Without a Home, an event also sponsored by The Salvation Army, People Attempting To Help (PATH), Tyler Junior College and The City of Tyler.
One Night Without A Home
One Night Without a Home begins with testimonials from people who previously fell on hard times. One by one they approach the lectern on the amphitheater stage and tell about their struggles with homelessness. Pausing, fighting back tears, they all thanked at least one of the organizations holding the event for helping them when they were homeless.
After the speakers finish, organizers pass out candles for a vigil. We are asked to remember those who have lost their lives living on the streets. When the vigil ends, the lights turned off and people do their best to try and find a warm spot to try to get some sleep.
It’s cold and the ground is hard and uncomfortable. Although I am wearing a T-shirt, a sweater, two hoodies and two pairs of pants while laying in a sleeping bag, the wind swept through, penetrating every piece of material covering my body. With the temperature dropping to 43 degrees, sleep never came. The sound of cars gliding by on Broadway Avenue could be heard all night, and the want for my warm bed grew by the minute.
I tried to lie down and get warm under a light, but the cold and noises of traffic made it difficult. So to pass the time, I walked around and talked with people to see how they were holding up. And, like me, they were struggling to get comfortable.
“Homeless people don’t have places to go. So, I kinda wonder what do they think every day. They don’t have everything that we have,” said Kiara Ross, a TJC student participating in the event.
Sociology Professor Ryan Button, is among those huddled in the cold in Bergfeld Park. He understands what it’s like to be homeless. He spent time being homeless after returning from the Iraq War. He has participated in the event in some fashion for five years.
“It (One Night Without a Home) is an experience and opportunity that allows students to come to a better understanding of their own misconceptions of the homeless,” said Button, who has students here as part of a class assignment.
Baily-Anne Kaytar is one of Button’s students. She tells me the experience leaves her with a better understanding of homelessness and appreciation for the things she has.
“We have some things and we do have our advantage,” Kaytar said. “We could look at the weather, so we knew what to prepare for.”
There’s always Hope
To gain a better understanding of the challenges the homeless face, I visited day resource center Gateway to Hope. Formed in December 2010, Gateway to Hope is located at 601 E. Valentine, and a few hundred yards from Tent City.
As I walked in, people sit at computers and some get ready to do laundry. Gateway also provides showers and clothes, which are stored in a separate building in the back. Since opening, some 22,500 people have passed through its doors.
Visitors walking in are greeted and hugged by the woman who started the program, Executive Director Pat Mallory. Known as ‘Mom’ by the people who walk through the doors, she has seen homelessness her whole life and tries to do what she can to provide a place for people to feel safe.
“There’s not anything in this building that wasn’t given,” Mallory said, “We’ve bought nothing.”
Even the old WIC building that they occupy was given to them by the city of Tyler. They also provide support groups, sewing classes and GED support.
As she reads the letters about her and Gateway to Hope, tears fill her eyes while she smiles with every word read. A sign that these people have touched her life as much as she’s touched theirs.
Mallory’s no stranger to homelessness having her first run in with the homeless at 6 years old, living in Winnsboro, Texas.
“My parents sat me down and told me we’re a family and everybody has to work in the family,” Mallory said, “So your job is to take care of the house.”
Mallory was told she was in charge. Having that attitude, she was walking home one day from school when she encountered a homeless man and asked where he was going.
“He said, ‘I don’t got no place to go,’” said Mallory, “and I said ‘Well what are ya looking for,’ and he said, ‘I’m hungry.’”
She invited the man to come to her house and made it clear she was in charge.
“They came in after while we’re sitting at the table eating and my mother goes ‘Oh my God,’” Mallory said laughing, “My daddy walks in and gets right in his face and he looks at him and starts to say something. And then he stops and he cocks his head and he said, ‘Jack?’ And the guy looked at him and said, ‘Jigs?’”
The man was her uncle, who as a 12-year-old child had run away from home in California. The family believed he was dead since they never heard from him until that day.
“We have no right to judge people,” Mallory said, “And many of them, their stories you wouldn’t believe.
A Better Understanding
Before meeting the homeless, and participating in One Night Without a Home, my understanding of homelessness was limited to the images I saw on TV or read about in the newspaper. In Tyler, there is a population of a little more than 400 people who do not have a home. To most, the stereotype of homelessness is a drunken person stumbling the streets looking for their next drink or a way to get their hands on drugs. The reality is that most are people trying to figure out how to get out of their current situations and provide for their families. Turning our backs and ignoring the situation will not make them disappear or get them the help they need.