How to hide from society in plain view - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 9, 2016 11:50 am

How to hide from society in plain view

"I didn't expect to be homeless. Until I was," said Brian, a vendor for One Step Away.

One Step Away, Philly's street paper about homelessness in the city.

(Courtesy photo)

Brian and I are selling street papers outside the Centre Square building on 15th and Market, and I’m feeling like an invisible man.

Considering all the hustle and bustle that happens daily in the shadow of City Hall, you’d think this spot would be prime for slinging some product. Brian says that might be the case — but street papers are not that product.

Brian is a vendor with One Step Away, the local nonprofit that prints street papers penned and sold by folks who are either in or have recently been in the shelter system. I’m shadowing Brian as a guest vendor for OSA’s Big Sell Off event, and so far today, Brian’s not been the first to tell me about the frequent drug activity on this block.

The first is a passerby who, after sharing that he spent some time as an OSA vendor and avoided this block because it is saturated with dealers, was kind enough to give me two quick tips that would hike up my sales rate: “You want to stand on the other side of the street, and you want to be a female.”

One Step Away is the only source of income for 82% of the organization's vendors.

When I told Brian, he laughed in agreement. Brian doesn’t sell papers at this location — he sticks to his stomping ground at 17th and Chestnut. Everybody has their turf, Brian said. Vendors occupy a block for a while, build up a customer base, and other vendors respect that. Unless they’re in the 600 Club.

Vendors in the 600 Club have sold 600 papers a month for three consecutive months. Keep in mind each paper costs a dollar, but Brian tells me most folks who do buy a paper will pay more. (A vendor named Jerry told me he once had a man give him $350.) Vendors get three quarters of the profit. One quarter goes to the organization.

When vendors hit that 600 Club milestone, they’ll get an orange badge signaling their sales dominance over other vendors. Like primal alpha-omega pack hierarchy, vendors in the 600 Club can kick a lower-tiered vendor off their own turf. 600 Club vendors have free reign over the city, according to Brian.

Brian is not in the 600 Club. He’s only been an OSA vendor since August 2015. Exactly a year prior, Brian lost his home and his job in one fell swoop — he says he was living in an apartment inside a restaurant he was working at when the business was shut down. Brian was, in turn, evicted.

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“I didn’t expect to be homeless,” Brian said. He chuckled. “Until I was.”

Originally from Orlando, Fl., Brian said it wasn’t all that long ago that he was living the “alleged American Dream” — he had a wife, two kids, a house, two cars in the garage, a work van, a fishing boat — until the marriage went sour, the business went under and his dad, then living in Philadelphia, was diagnosed with cancer. That’s when Brian moved to town.

In January 2015, 83,170 individuals experienced chronic homelessness in the US.

By August 2014, after feeling like he’d exhausted the generosity of friends letting him sleep on their couches, Brian found himself living in a tent in Fairmount Park. He spent nine months in that tent. He refused to enter the shelter system.

“To go into a shelter, I’d end up in jail,” he said. “I have a very short fuse with people. No patience. Knowing who I am, I knew it was better for me [not to enter the shelter system].”

Brian was in that tent through the winter of 2015. It was rough, he said, but he stayed warm. He was working odd jobs and was able to buy himself a propane heater. Inside, he had an air mattress and a pile of blankets. To stay out of sight, Brian said he draped a dark, heavy tarp over the tent. The conditions “weren’t ideal,” he said, but it was “better than sleeping out in the streets.”

He said he was never seen.

“I positioned [the tent] where you couldn’t see it,” he said. “Hidden from society, right out in the open.”

In plain view, just like the dealers moving “loosies and exotic herbs,” as one peddler phrased it to me recently, outside City Hall. But that invisibility can be a double-edged sword, and I’m learning that lesson selling papers today.

I pitched an elderly couple passing me by. “One dollar helps the homeless and buys you a lifetime of smiles!” Bowing out of eye contact, the man forcefully steered his wife and himself away from me. I was ignored consistently for the full hour and a half Brian and I were out there, but this one, for some reason, really got to me.

I found myself yelling at them as they hobbled toward the subway steps. “What am I, toxic?”

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nation's unsheltered homelessness population decreased by 11 percent between 2010 and 2015.

The death glare of a passing young lady reminded me I was in public, probably very close to what some would consider verbally harassing the elderly. The whole scene cut me to my core, so I walked over to Brian for some consolation and advice. How do you deal with constant, coldhearted public rejection? His smirk turned into a sympathetic grimace.

You need to develop thick skin, he said. But even he admits incessant public rejection still gets to him sometimes, too.

“It’s a hard thing to accept at first,” he said, leaning in. “I think people don’t want to acknowledge you, because if they acknowledge you, they’re acknowledging in their own mind, ‘It might happen to me.’ I think it’s this fear of where they could be someday.”

People are in denial about a lot of things, Brian said. By acknowledging vendors, he believes people are acknowledging they themselves could be one step away from selling papers at 15th and Market.

Before becoming a vendor this past July, Brian used to buy the papers himself.

At the time, Brian was living on whatever cash he could make working odd jobs for some friends. After 10 days with no work and nothing in his pockets except his hands, he considered panhandling. But he couldn’t do it — it just wasn’t for him. He needed a way to make money. A friend suggested OSA.

“I saw people doing it and I was like, ‘Ehh, I don’t wanna do this.’ It just didn’t seem like anything [worthwhile] to me.”

But his financial situation wasn’t getting any easier, and he finally gave OSA a shot last summer. That first day in August, Brian made $20 selling one paper. He’s been doing it ever since, and has made enough money to rent an apartment in Germantown. He sells papers until he makes $20 to $50, then spends the rest of the day job hunting at the Free Library. He’s hoping to land another gig as a fry cook.

According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 13.5 million people have experienced homelessness at least once in their life.

In just an hour and a half, I was only able to bank $7.41. Brian’s learned how to make three to eight times that amount it in a matter of a morning.

“What’s one thing you wish passersby understood about you?” I asked Brian. He retreated in thought for a moment.

“Not so much about me, but about the stereotypes of homelessness,” he said. “It’s not all drugs and alcohol. A lot of it is circumstances beyond our control. Some of it is caused by people with addictions or mental health issues. Then there’s other people that just through bad events in their life, they lose their job, run out of unemployment benefits. My case, I lost my job and my house in the same day. Some of it is circumstances.”

I spent an hour and a half trying to cut it as an invisible man, but my experience was voluntary. People like Brian can’t always say the same.

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