“Homeless in Charleston: Part 3,” Speak Up, May 23, 2022. Reprinted in toto with permission
By Vince Shumate, Guest Storyteller from Speak Up
This is part 3 in a three-part series. We printed part 1, “I Am Vince: Ten Days in my Life as I Fight Homelessness and Addiction,” on March 12, 2022. We printed part 2 on June 6. You may already know Vince Shumate from his award-winning essay series, “One Week on the Streets.” Vince is writing from Charleston, SC, where he’s battling homelessness, trying to survive, and wanting to thrive.
The Kindness of Strangers
After I tripped and fell on the uneven wet slate on the sidewalk I discovered that I had lost my head covering. It was cold that morning and somewhere both my hat and skullcap were lost. Fighting off the cold, I managed to walk to Charleston’s world famous “City Market.” The market consists of multiple long brick buildings in a line down Market Street. I figured there would have to be some vendor there who’d be willing to help me out. Although cold and shivering, I was not going to steal anything. (Boy Scouts and mother drilled into me, “Do not steal.”)
Right away I met a vendor at the market who had an open ear.
Her name is Ms. Margaret.
Ms. Margaret is the paradigm of kindness. She is the definition of the kindness of strangers.
She not only listened to my plight of falling on the slick uneven wet slate slabs, she really lent an ear to my whole story.
I usually don’t lend much of my story (life) to anyone because it’s just not safe to do so. Tidbits are okay. But you tell a person where you sleep and where you keep a few things, and you often end up losing both your stuff and safe sleeping spot.
But I could tell Ms. Margaret wanted to listen. So I told her everything about me. Including my face plant on the sidewalk, the broken ribs, and having a cold bald head. She offered me a choice of very high quality ball caps. I was so thankful. The hat and conversation instantly stopped me from shivering so much. But the warmth didn’t stop there!
A good hat for my cold bald head
I dropped by the market early the next day to say thanks again for the hat to and to talk about my appreciation of the kindness of strangers. Ms. Margaret was setting up. She was laying out stacks of clothing on her vending table and I said, “I like that color of that shirt and if I ever get finished with this article I’m going to come back and purchase one like it when I get paid.” She asked me which shirt I was referring to and asked what size I wore. I told her I’d come back to buy a medium or large if she had them in long sleeves. She pulled out a big medium with long sleeves in the color I liked and gave it to me.
Her act brought warmth to my body and warmth to my heart. For that I say thank you to Ms. Margaret.
There have been many kind strangers along the way.
Here’s another kind stranger that I know. This is someone I’ve been acquainted with for a while here in Charleston. He is an older black man with a calm character that you would not believe. He’s got a salt and pepper beard and always greets me with the smile of a friend. After the grin he always asks, “You doing alright?” After a fist bump or two we get down to, “How are you really?”
It’s called community. We get along. We converse. We communicate.
Everyone living on the streets has a spot of one kind or another. You can’t exactly call it a home because basically it is just a place where you lay your head. If there’s one thing to be said about the ethics of homeless society it’s the fact you don’t invade someone’s spot. If you know someone else sleeps there you just don’t go there. I guess you’d call it a homeless credo.
Well anyway, a couple of days ago I was on my way to my spot and I was about two blocks away and I got this feeling something wasn’t right. I get these feelings occasionally and they more often than not pan out correctly. When I open the door to my new spot I see a bike locked to the handrail. Uh oh. I walk down two flights of stairs to the bottom of the stairwell and sure enough is a guy laying on my cardboard and covered with my blanket
I woke him and said, “You need to get up and go. This is my spot and has been for quite some time.” He just acted like he was still asleep so I repeated what I had just said, except much louder. Still he pretended to be asleep.
So I reached down, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him out. What can I say? He broke the homeless ethic by stealing my spot.
He didn’t like that much at all. His reaction was sort of what I imagine poking a bear in the butt with a toothpick in the middle of his hibernation would be like. And this guy was near the size of a bear. He outweighed me by at least 100 pounds and wasn’t at all sober.
He got up angry. I didn’t give a hoot. I was cold, anxious, and desperate to lay down.
We got into a shoving match and I was not about to back down but I knew better to get into a punching match with him. So I backed off, started walking back up the steps but left him with a few words, “You took my spot but I’m going to get you your own spot. In jail. You’ll be arrested, taken to lock-up, then you’ll have your own spot on the second floor of jail with 63 other people.’
I went back about 30 minutes later to see if he heeded my words of wisdom. Apparently he had. He was gone and so was my blanket.
A Lucky Find
Things can turn up just as quickly as they can turn down.
I was at Waterfront Park at midnight and there was no one there. It was echo empty. There was a jacket laying on a bench. I looked all around but it was just me. Someone had walked off without their jacket. This was a case of finders-keepers losers-weepers.
This jacket is not a ripped up homeless hoodie, this was like a two hundred dollar coat. It had a zippered removable hood, a zippered removable lining that you could take out and wear alone, which also had its own zipper. The coat had multiple pockets (all empty) and looked waterproof, not just water resistant.
It was a huge find for me, especially after losing my blanket.
If it would have any name or if there were a way of tracking down the owner I would have done my best to get it back to them. I thought I should at least try. I took it, put it on over my own jacket and walked around for a while to try and locate the owner. I had the karma thought in mind: Find the owner, return it, and earn Good Person Points.
I searched and searched, but no one else was in the park, so I kept it.
I wore it last night and was as cozy as a bug in a rug.
These are a few examples of the uncertainties of sleeping rough. More coming soon.
I am Vince.