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Where the Heart Is: Part Two

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Talking to the homeless man in Love Park left me curious about the lifestyles of Philadelphia’s homeless. I had so many questions about them that I thought that needed to be answered, not so much on a social level, but on a personal level. I took a trip to a homeless shelter in North Philly to talk to an individual who I heard much about. A friend who had read part one of this segment had told me about a man who had no home, no car, and very little possessions. What made him unique compared to the average homeless individual was that although he was living out of a homeless shelter, he was not a victim of a lack of education, something that a large portion of Philadelphia’s homeless suffer from. In fact, he’s quite the opposite; he was a professor of law at a local university. Unfortunately, a legal battle during his divorce from his wife left him incapable of being financially independent. Before he knew it, he was left out on the street with nothing but a few possessions.

When I arrived to the shelter where he is currently rebuilding his life, he was hesitant to answer some of my questions. After agreeing to keep his name and location undisclosed, he sat down with me to talk about what he has been through. Before we started to talk, he stressed to me that his financial situation does not mean he couldn’t work for himself. “I understand your reasoning for covering the homeless, but I’m a professor of law. I worked my way up the ladder once and I can do it again. I just don’t want to seem as a charity case in your article. And that’s what being in this place has taught me. A majority of these people are perceived as social dependents. Freeloaders, if you will. I wasn’t aware of the many complicated and unique situations that force people like myself into homelessness. Before coming here, I had a very conservative and bias outlook on the homeless. It was a situation that I personally thought that you would actually have to try to be in. Of course I never thought I would see myself in this situation, but I now know that it is more than apathy towards work that gets people here.”

Seeing a professor of law lose his life to a legal battle was unsettling in the sense that legal troubles could happen to anybody and potentially take the same toll as it did for him. What most people don’t know is that most homeless individuals are brought into poverty by legal troubles. But I still wanted to know about his lifestyle, his family, and his means of reclaiming his life.

“My mother died when I was in law school,” he said. “I was an only child to a single mother and our extended family wasn’t close. I met my then wife when she was working as a secretary in New York. To make a long story short, our marriage was short lived. Since she was entitled to mostly everything I worked for, she used that to her advantage and got greedy.” After getting slightly upset, we decided to move on to a different subject. “It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have anyone else to ask for help. After the passing of my mother, I stayed mostly to myself while getting my degree. I find it ironic that I have been independent for all of my life, working for what I needed, just to find myself in a dependent situation like this.”

What I saw was a man who was still confused as to why a situation like this had happened to him. I could tell by asking him what his plan was that he was too proud of a man to accept the situation as it was. “I need to get everything together before I start my life again. And that’s going to be more difficult than I assumed. For instance, if I fill out a resume’ or job application, I can’t put an address because everyone knows that this address is a homeless shelter and I’m worried to disclose that. To be honest, I try to ignore that I’m here, because my mentality is just telling me to get the hell out of here as soon as possible. I don’t want anybody to know that I was ever in this situation, including myself, so I’m trying my hardest to put this behind me and forget about it. Now, I realize that might be a little irrational, but I have to do it.”

“What do I plan on doing when I leave this place? Teach, of course. I can’t go back on it now. I’ve worked too hard for it. And I won’t go back on it. I’m not going to let a divorce define the rest of my life. I still have some good years left on my watch!” he said as he laughed. I told him about the man that I met in Love Park and the optimism he had that inspired me to write these articles and asked him about his own optimism. What makes him look forward instead of dwelling on the present, what keeps him going, and what keeps him positive. “I would say that my gratitude keeps me sane. Of course I’m not in a good place and I have come across some not so good people. But I have my health, my confidence, my passion for teaching, my optimism and hope, and a place to sleep for the time being without feeling like an outcast. These are things that any legal system or divorce can’t take away from me, I know this. And as long as I have them, I’ll surely overcome this obstacle.”

Here this man was, just as the man in Love Park. Broke, homeless, and with very few possessions, but an optimism that almost confuses me. He was left behind by a ex-wife and a field of law in which he taught. He had no family or anybody else to ask for help and was forced to start over in a homeless shelter, yet he still has the energy to smile and think positively about the future; something I’m not quite sure I would be able to do myself.