A man holding a stack of clothes, a slurpee cup and a blunt stands outside his tent construction

“I’m not,” he said, “gonna smile.”

DALLAS, TX. —

“Shhhh.”

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.

Amidst Coronavirus, stimulus checks offer hope, hindrance for off-the-grid homeless

This is a story about unprecedented opportunity in the midst of an unprecedented global catastrophe, and how our collective failure to see it led to the further victimization of  a chronically neglected community.

Shorty leaned against the plexiglass window outside the brick building, her wide cheekbones springing toward her eyes and pulling her entire face into a smile.

“Drumroll please,” she crooned, her small, wiry frame a coil of energy. 

We were at the Los Angeles Mission in the heart of Skid Row — one of the country’s largest communities of homelessness; a tent city smoldering beneath the wealth of downtown Los Angeles’ soaring high rises. We’d come to the charitable organization in downtown LA, to ask, again, about any mail for Shorty; to keep going through guessed motions even though I had no confidence that one day a government check would show up.

I had arrived here, to Skid Row, in April, curious to see how Coronavirus was affecting a community that in some ways mimics a developing country; where sewage is tossed into the street and water is accessed from fire hydrants.

One of my many adopted projects was this: to try to find out if it was possible to get a CARES Act Coronavirus stimulus check for someone like Shorty — an unhoused woman who is essentially off the grid, lacking income, taxpayer status or a history of government assistance.

Over the two-plus months I spent in the community, even sleeping side-by-side in a tent for a few nights, this would be a process that would take me on a roller coaster through highs and lows; twists and turns that served to both offer unexpected hope and reinforce the very structures of oppression that created such a conundrum.

But in this moment, back at the Mission, Shorty was feeling optimistic. 

“Happiness is on the way,” she sang. “Peace and quiet and serenity is ON. THE. WAY!”

When the man working the window indeed produced a government-marked envelope, it felt like a miracle; a victory won against long odds.

But the real miracle, though I didn’t know it then, would come later.