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Al's Story: Homeless in Philadelphia

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Published: October 25, 2006 by the Philadelphia City Paper

Al sits on a wooden park bench outside City Hall every evening when the weather's warm. The bench is bolted into the barrier blocking the stairs to the subway station. The wood's grain has been wiped away by years of use; it's clean and smooth except for a faded black blotch that was once a wad of gum. It is underneath the clock tower and to the right, if you're facing west.

Al's been a regular here for a lot longer than I've been passing by, and well before the city's recent announcement that the ranks of the homeless are growing despite the mayor's 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness. He's got a big smile that narrows his eyes and a slightly matted salt-and-pepper beard. Like most homeless men his fingernails are long and yellowed and his skin is burnished by layers of impacted dirt.

Al's always doing crosswords. He does three a day. That's how he passes time, bent over folded newspapers filling in blocks with a pen. He's very friendly. Strangers approach all the time to ask questions. Where do you go at night? How do you eat? Ask him and he'll tell you about being homeless in Philadelphia.

The homeless on the Parkway have resource networks, updated daily by word of mouth. Who's feeding and when, where to get mail, cash checks and catch showers. Al has developed a comprehensive system after years of meeting his own needs.

When it's warm he likes to sleep beneath City Hall -except when cleaning crews come, spraying a noxious mist that makes him think of Lysol on steroids. It gets rid of the piss smell but reeks so strongly of oranges that it keeps him awake.

He gets a charity meal on the Parkway, hits day centers for showers and clothes, gets medical treatment at free clinics. His Social Security goes direct deposit into his credit union account.

He doesn't get much government assistance; a couple hundred dollars monthly is his only income. Unlike other chronically homeless who live penny to penny, Al has some money put away.

He's too old to be outdoors come winter, though. He saves up during summer then finds a room in autumn and holes up there until the flowers bloom.

Many think the homeless should get jobs, but Al is a retiree. I asked him how old he is. Sixty-six; a little late in life for a new start. I assumed he worked before, and he had; for most his life he did the thankless tasks reserved for the minimally skilled. Janitorial and factory work. Not jobs that afford much of a retirement.

Al said that eventually he couldn't pay bills. Used to be, he said, you got a decent place for $150 a month. Rents went up, but his pay didn't. Al moved outdoors one summer, squirreling away for the winter. He never returned.

Wasn't he concerned about being homeless at his age? He said he takes life as it comes. But sleeping on cardboard laid atop concrete takes a mean toll. Will he be homeless at 70? Seventy-five? What happens when there's still nowhere to go and Al can't go on like this?

Even minor medical problems are hard to fix when you're homeless. An abscessed tooth requires traveling across town to the free dentist and another trip to a place that pays for medications. It takes a whole day to get a bottle of antibiotics. The cost of prescriptions worries Al. He can't afford one bottle of pills, so how will he pay for expensive prescriptions he's bound to need in old age?

All he can afford for winter is a rooming house room with three other guys in it. I asked if it had a kitchen or private bathroom. He said he didn't get much for his money. I imagined Al sitting up in bed and doing crosswords while three other guys snored. October is the time to move, Al said. It's getting cold out here at night already. I asked if I would see him again; he said to check back next year. And I will.

Come spring I'll look for the old man doing crosswords on the bench in front of City Hall.


I saw Al on Tuesday, bundled up in a dirty hand-me-down winter jacket standing outside the Ridge Avenue shelter. I almost didn't recognize him because his matted beard was shorn down to gray-flecked stubble. I asked him what he was doing there; shouldn't he be in-doors like he told me he would be last month? He said he looked at some places but couldn't afford any; money is tighter this year than he thought it would be. He was fresh from the hospital after his lungs filled with fluid and he passed out on his bench in front of City Hall. He woke up in Jefferson hospital. He was there for four days. I asked him if he was going to be okay and he told me that he would be fine because the doctors gave him six bottles of medicine for his heart to take with him when he left. Six bottles for a chronic heart condition. Al assured me that everything would be okay as long as he had a shelter cot to crash on at the end of the day. For everything else he would just have to make do. He was going to have to keep taking things as they come.
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Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. He primarily covers urban drug culture and poverty issues and has made recent contributions to both the Philadelphia City Paper and the Inquirer. Read more.
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