At night, anguish of homeless is heard but mostly unheeded



The four of them are sitting on the front steps of a deserted apartment building at Monument and Howard streets downtown midnight, drinking Thunderbird Wine out of paper cups and wondering how to survive the darkness one more time.

They're society's leftovers: three men and a woman, all around 30, living on the fringes of civilization and the edges of our consciousness, scrounging for a place to sleep each night and carrying the contents of their lives in plastic bags.

''Look for an empty apartment,'' one of them says. ''Wherever I find it, that's where I'll sleep.''

The three men are quiet and philosophical about their plight, but the woman is not. She's a shriek in motion, a cadaverous thing in T-shirt and golf cap and jeans, strutting and prancing along Monument Street, the wine loosening all the demons inside her. She wants to rage against the night.

''How come,'' one of the men says, ''this country got money for Saudi Arabia and not for the people in its own cities? How come . . . ''

The rest of his words are drowned out by the woman, whose shrill cries split the air. Some of her words are decipherable, most are not.

''Shut up, girl,'' one of the men tells her.

''Shut up your own self,'' she screams back.

The men roll their eyes at her. There is dignity even among the homeless, they are trying to say. They wish to conduct a seminar on their plight, and this woman is making them look bad.

''The country's turning its back on black people,'' one of the men says. ''Like this Bush, see . . . ''

''Black people,'' the woman cries now. ''Black people? Man, ain't no black people no more! Ain't no black people! We ain't black, we're hungry! We're just hungry, and that's the only thing that matters!''

The words all seem to be spilling out of her in capital letters. Exclamation marks seem to fly through the night air. She's got her face right up against one man's face now, letting all her hostilities out in the wrong place.

''You better back off,'' he warns her.

From behind her, one of the men reaches an arm now and puts his hand over the woman's mouth and drags her backward.

''My sister,'' he explains. He says they've been homeless for more than a year. He says he's looked for work, but no employer wants a man with a prison record.

''You know how we got through the last winter?'' one of the men asks now. ''Steam heat.'

''Steam heat?''

''Coming out of the sewer,'' he says softly. ''You get cold enough, you'll take heat wherever you find it, it don't matter.''

They've all been to the soup kitchens and stood in line for food. And they've been to city shelters, which struggle against tight budgets to stay open in the warmer months. It's a way to survive, but even in the shelters there are unexpected struggles.

''Homeless people hurting homeless people,'' the woman cries now. She's got her cup of Thunderbird in one hand, waving it about as she marches around the sidewalk. The men on the steps are trying to talk, but their words are covered by hers.

''We're stealing from each other,'' she says now. ''Homeless stealing from homeless.''

''She's right about that,'' one of the men says.

''Course I'm right,'' the woman says.

''There's a tension,'' another man adds. ''You definitely get on each other's nerves.''

The woman is not placated by having the men agree with her. She is off on other flights of attack, wondering why the war machine can always find funding, wondering why children can't find bread, wondering why her life has turned out so desperate and mean.

But she's got her face back against the face of a man on the steps, nose to nose, and he warns her again to back off.

''Back off?'' she says.

''Back off,'' he says.

''Back off?''

And suddenly the man throws a short left hook into her jaw. The woman staggers back as though struck by lightning, her wine spilling in one direction, her scrawny body in another. The man bolts to his feet. The woman regains her balance and charges at him. Punches are thrown back and forth. Now comes her brother, pulling her back and sticking a long arm into the chest of the other man.

''That ain't the way you should treat a lady,'' the brother says. ''I don't care what happened.''

The sister is outraged, still windmilling her arms around, still screaming, still struggling to get in another punch.

Suddenly there is a silence. Two city police cars pull up, lights flashing. Someone has telephoned about people disturbing the peace.

''It's all settled, officers,'' says the one man still sitting on the apartment steps.

''Don't I know you from somewhere?'' one officer says.

''Yeah,'' says the woman, ''you locked me up two years ago.'' She seems calmer now. The police assess the situation, chat amiably for a few minutes, try to cool the air. The scene is no aberration for the cops, who deal with society's leftovers every night.

The city has thousands and thousands of them. The woman on Monument Street is right: there are no black people or white people out here, just desperate people.

A single hungry or homeless person is a tragedy. A thousand are merely a statistic. The numbers numb us: If so many are out there, we imagine it can't be so bad. Or we turn away, having heard too much.

From Monument Street, two men grab their belongings and begin walking toward Mount Vernon Place. The third man and his sister head toward Howard Street, turn the corner and disappear.

A moment later, though, you can hear the woman's voice again, hollering at one more unseen demon. It sounds like a cry from the grave.

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