DALLAS, TX. —
Roberto looked around, nervously, and motioned to me with his finger over his lips as we approached the entrance to his home: a small, worn pathway that led into a dense bamboo forest.
“They’re always watching, listening,” he said.
Besides the semblance of parting stalks, one couldn’t see anything but a dense thicket of long, green cylinders from the street.
I took a deep breath, and followed him in.
There, maybe two yards into the urban jungle, he had built a hut — made from boards and tarps and crates to hold his mattress above the foliage-laden floor.
He looked back at me, and my camera. The single tattooed tear beneath his left eye drooped from wrinkles; the products of years and stress.
“I’m not,” he reminded me, “gonna smile.”
I had met Roberto at the nearby Valero gas station an hour earlier after he offered to wash Bertie’s windshield, which was filthy with bug residue from our latest drive, to Dallas from Tulsa.
He generally made enough to survive this way, and by washing windows and navigating plumbing issues for the station and a couple nearby businesses.
Roberto — originally from Corpus Christi —had struggled for many years with crack and meth addictions. He had gone to prison, years ago, for robbery. It was a convenience store, and there wasn’t much to be had. He made off with $97, a case of beer, and some peanuts for his niece. He was slapped with seven years.
When he got out, he found housing, and a job at the Dallas convention center, via a former offenders’ program, where he worked up until the start of Coronavirus this spring.
After he was laid off, Roberto lost his housing; that was part of the deal. He stayed as long as he could with family, but when he felt his welcome grow stale, he collected objects from road sides and dumpsters, and built a hut in Oak Cliff, near Hwy 35E. When he was kicked out, he built another. And another.
Finally, he had found a refuge in this bamboo grove behind a Burger King; a sanctuary where the core was dark enough that he could see nearly to the road, but no one could see him.
That was how he wanted it.
Roberto lifted the 32-oz. styrofoam cup, and put the straw to his lips.
He was home and savoring, at last, the strawberry Steele Reserve —over ice — that he had received in exchange for some cleaning he did for the Valero station. He had quit his other vices years ago, even beer, and no longer liked the taste.
But now that he was on the streets again, he needed something to calm the nerves and anxiety that rose in him when he was out in the world, exposed.
He had told me to watch my “audio” multiple times. He heard messages in the backfiring of loud exhausts. He watched for cameras in the elms and fence posts leading up to our arrival, and warned me to conceal my camera until we were safely in the confines of his abode.
Now, he could exhale, and nurse his last vice.
“I’m cool, calm and collected right now,” he said. “Because I have my strawberry.”
It was dusk, and a cacophony of birds descended onto this gaping canopy — Roberto’s makeshift roof — and he seemed to like the phenomenon, for it clouded the noise of the streets.
“Have you ever seen 100 birds land in a place in the evening, and then they all leave in a big hurry?” he asked, some light on his face. “It’s like that here.
“It masks everything.”
Roberto had agreed to be part of my photo project after I had showed him some previous portraits, but he did not want to feign something.
“Those people look happy,” he said, of some portraits from Skid Row. “I am not.”
Roberto had had engaged me with friendliness as he scrubbed Bertie’s windows, asking me questions as if we were meeting at a nearby brewery. When I gave him $20 for the work, he offered to use it to buy us both pizza from the nearby Pizza Patrón, which I declined.
But he didn’t want to be beholden for this new duty in some way he hadn’t agreed to, and I understood.
“You can be,” I said, “exactly as you are.”
As we walked back to my van, down the corridor of fast food parking lots and forgotten, trash-filled alleyways, he walked with a limp — the product of gout and ganglia.
I asked him: wasn’t it possible to get back on the list — for housing and for a job?
“Probably,” he told me. “But I don’t want to.
“I don’t want to get back on the list,” he continued, “because I don’t want to work — I’m sorry. I don’t want responsibilities. I don’t want to go to appointments, I don’t want to go pick up my check.”
I looked at him, and took a beat.
“What do you want?” I asked.
He looked away from me, toward the streets that sent such reels of anxiety and paranoia, looking at nothing in particular, and everything, at once.
“I want to die,” he said, and paused. “Or I want to find hope.”
In all the time I spend amongst unhoused communities, “I don’t want to have responsibilities” — the words that Roberto spoke to me — is a refrain I hear fairly commonly.
For some, that very sentence elicits an uneasiness, in part because we are deeply engrained in a capitalist society that values work and productivity above all else, and we struggle to see worthiness in any other terms.
While publishing stories about individuals experiencing homelessness, I have heard many people say things like “those people don’t WANT to be helped.”
With those commenters, I question how they have managed to generalize a population they’ve never met; populations that typically run the gamut in terms of back stories, life span on the streets and motivations.
But more importantly, I question who’s definition of “help” we’re using.
Being in a state of extremely low income, compiled w/ common afflictions of physical and mental illness — all of which Roberto seems to fall into the category of — is exhausting, and beyond what most of us can imagine. The energy to simply be alive and subsist takes a lot. Too much, often.
Piling obligations and asterisks upon minimal assistance — removing the constructs of autonomy, independence and adulthood — often does more harm and good, pushing people away from desperately needed resources because they want some basic control of their own lives.
Free assistance, w/ strings attached, is no longer about meeting critical, undeniable needs.
When I left Roberto, he didn’t thank me for the $20, or for telling his story.
“Thank you,” he said,” for listening.”
I am here to offer these ideas:
• That a person’s productive output does NOT determine their value. That their desire to contribute to society does not qualify their license to live.
• That we should share our resources freely in the true sense of the term — without expectation of what we deem to be appropriate gratitude or movement toward change.
• That regardless of our personal resources, we should show love. Listening and caring are gifts we can all give for free.
I dream of a society in which the only claim necessary for human rights — food, housing and water — is life itself.