The sentiment is rarely articulated – by either the guests or the workers – but everyone who has stepped foot under the roof of that shelter understands what it means to be homeless. You don’t matter. Your opinions, your struggles and most importantly, your life. None of it counts because you contribute nothing to the machine that is free market capitalism.
“You don’t matter. YOU don’t matter. You DON’T matter. You don’t MATTER. YOU DON’T MATTER”
The phrase repeats itself in countless ways; being made to wait hours at DSS, churning benefits, the impossible labyrinth of paperwork that must be navigated, deplorable housing conditions, “benefits” that barely cover the necessities to simply survive. The sound of their inconsequentiality roars, deafening, in their ears every second of every day…sometimes for years.
It’s no wonder he didn’t hear the freight train rocking down the tracks before it slammed into him.
Ernie was 60 years old, a retired commercial artist and robotics programmer that worked for Kodak and Bausch and Lomb. The first time I met him he asked if I could draw, when I replied in the negative he showed me how easy it was by sketching out a budding rose. I attempted to copy it which caused him to laugh until he cried, “it looks like a piece of shit stuck to the end of a twig!” His laugh was infectious.
We got closer once the winter shelter began. I sat with him for hours at a time, talking and laughing about the crazy shit he used to do when he used to get high in the early 80’s. He told me about how he’d drawn ad layouts for A1 steak sauce and Sealy mattresses; about the days he’d be so drunk he’d fuck up the robotics orders, sending millions of dollars in parts to the wrong warehouses.
When I came back to the shelter after Halloween weekend he was gone. He’d been working to get Shelter Plus, so I figured that he’d found a spot for himself. I didn’t put the clues together when I heard the story, but just hoped it wasn’t one of our guys.
Being that he was homeless, he only got a two line obit – he had been dead, gone and buried before we even knew about it: