SW: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, you’re listening to Re:Work.
[“Palm Grease” – Herbie Hancock]
SW: I’m Saba Waheed.
SR: And I’m Stefanie Ritoper. For those following us, you know that each week our show brings you stories that rethink work. But what about someone who is out of work? What about someone who is living on the streets?
It’s very likely that in our everyday lives we walk, bike or drive by someone who’s homeless. We may be so used to seeing homelessness that it just becomes part of the normal city landscape – we don’t question it…or maybe we just don’t know what to do or how to act.
SW: But what if we do act. What if we take the time to stop and say hello. Have a conversation that may break apart our ideas about what leads someone to live on to the streets. In this week’s episode of ReWork Clarine Ovando Lacroux arrives as a college student in Tampa, FL and takes a detour that leads her to develop a very special friendship.
Clarine: I met Mac when I was in college in Tampa, Florida. Previous to coming to Tampa, I had lived in four different countries, moving around with my mother from city to city. I’m what they call a third culture Kid – a person who’s spent a significant part of their childhood outside their parents’ culture.
Some of the characteristics of being a third culture kid, they say, is feeling out of sync with peers, feeling like you belong “everywhere and nowhere” at the same time, feeling like you are always an outsider in different host cultures, and constantly on the quest to belong. And I relate to this. In Florida I was 5,000 miles away from family back in France and at 20 years old, I felt very lost. Lost in regards to who I was, where I belonged and what my future would look like. And for some reason this opened my mind and drew me to find out more about people who really had no home, to people living on the streets.
When I first arrived to Tampa, I remember being in shock at the number of homeless people – there were some 2,000 homeless people in the city at that time. You would see them panhandling on the side of the road, living under bridges or sitting around in the park killing time. I was in complete disbelief that one of the richest countries in the world could have so much visible poverty – and how easy it was for people to just walk by and ignore it all.
When I met Mac in 2009, he had been on the streets of Tampa for over 7 years. He’s in his late 40’s, African American and has a little bit of a southern accent when he talks. He’s always shaven, well dressed, and carries a slight scent of cologne.
And in fact, nothing in the way he grew up would have hinted that one day he might end up homeless. He grew up in New Orleans, to a middle class family. From high school he went to college at the University of South West Louisianna — the best four years of his life as he remembers them.
There Mac joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, where he felt a real sense of brotherhood.
M: Oh we did some of everything. Back then Hazing wasn’t looked upon as bad as it is today. So basically just a lot of hazing – a lot of fun stuff. We all had to shave our heads balled and we dressed in blue jeans and white shirts and we had to wear a lamp around our neck and carry this big old book and we walked in a straight line — twelve of us. We had to walk in a straight line. We had to do everything together. We had to learn everything about each and every one of us – mom, dads, sisters, brothers, where they were from, birth dates – we had to do everything together.
It’s just the overall memory of the brotherhood and the camaraderie that we had in school and how we pushed each other to do the best that we could do , and how we stood for – we tried to back up what we stood for you know what I’m saying. The things that we told people – we tried to do. It was a true brotherhood to where we tried to make each other the best that we could be.
C: After college and with a Sociology degree in hand, Mac got his first job at a Boys and Girls Club in New Orleans – an organization that provides children with after school activities and keeps them off the streets. After some time there, he ended up becoming the director, and running the center himself.
M: The biggest thing for me was just the fact that, when kids, when the bus would pick them up from school and when they ran into the center – how happy they were whenever the center was open and what not. How happy they were to be there, to have things to do, to have the opportunities to do things they couldn’t do at home, didn’t have access to at home and what not. So just the faces of people and kids being able to just have fun, have a good time. The opportunity to impact kids lives – to give them something positive to do in their lives and to see the positive effect that you have on kids was a great thing.
C: But after 15 years, Mac started to burn out. He left the Boy’s and Girl’s Club and continued to work with at risk youth in different settings but as with many human service professions, he started to feel like this work was a never-ending battle. It required long hours, and it was stressful. On top of this, he underwent a divorce, which he took especially hard. He decided to take a break from the work he was doing. But this new path would soon radically change his life.
M: I had started fooling around with drugs and alcohol, and not working – doing what I was doing before – I had more time on my hand. That particular activity – when it runs its course, there’s only two places to go: homeless or death.
C: And so began his journey into homelessness.
M: The first night was like total disbelief that I had allowed myself to fall from where I came from. I mean, I wasn’t raised like that had never seen nothing like that, other than, you know, you see people on the streets sometime growing up and what not. But I could never fathom that I would fall so low and what not.
C: When you’re homeless, the everyday things someone with a home might take for granted are all things that need a lot of planning and strategizing. Where to take a shower or use the restroom. Where to sleep at night. Where to get the next meal.
M: The biggest thing when you first become homeless, is to find other homeless people and you just travel in packs and wherever the pack goes you go with the pack. You may befriend one or two different people and they may give you certain tips and what not on how to be homeless and where to find somewhere to sleep at and what not.
Showers were uh, it was a place, a mental health place where you could go shower. So you could catch the bus early in the morning and go to hang out at the mental health place and take a shower. Most people had different places that they would take bird baths. You develop friendships, people would see you and would allow you to come clean yourself up, different office buildings, restaurants, things like that. It was all about the connections that you made and I mean you did what you had to do.
C: But being homeless goes beyond the physical constraints of where to sleep or shower, or where to clean your clothes.
M: Well the most challenging part was uh, keeping your sanity, keeping your mind. Being homeless is to have time and space on your hands with nothing to do and nowhere to go. As time goes along you become hopeless and start feeling sorry for yourself. You lose the desire to get up. It’s just a process that eats you alive. Trying to kill space in a day to find something to before you get to sleep. The longer you out on the street, you just become hopeless, you fall into depression and before you know it so much time has went by and you’re still living on the streets and what not, so you know, once you lose hope, it’s hard to get it back.
You know some people like to hang in the library, they like to read and be on the computers and whatnot. At different parks we can just sit in and read. And some people just walk. And for me, I spent a lot of time in the library and what not, reading and what not, keeping up with the world events. Because I wanted to keep my mind.
C: To survive on the streets, community was key. Mac found a new kind of brotherhood and developed a deep bond with the people he met.
M: Some of the people I would hang out with were pretty much like myself, had educations, came from good families, had just got caught up in, I mean nobody wants to get caught up in where drugs can take you at.
We all pretty much, we used to say that we were down on our luck at that time, that we all could turn away from this and what not. You know, we use to try to uplift each other in that regard but we all were still dealing with our addiction and alcoholism and what not so it was kind of hard.
We had a saying – that we weren’t better than anybody else, but we were better than where we were living. And that was kind of our little motto with some of the guys I was hanging around with.
C: When we talk about homelessness, we often talk about it as a public safety concern, but rarely do we realize that homeless people are more often than not the victims of violence, hate crimes and harsh public policies. Sometimes the very act of having no place to sleep could get you into jail.
M: Well the craziest thing I can remember is, it was a time when we would be in a park and packs of kids would come throwing rocks and sticks and bottles and what not and we wouldn’t understand why. These kids were just being kids and what not but that was some of the wildness. I mean, I’ve seen people getting hurt real bad and what not. A couple of times we would sleep at the park and the police would come during the night and said we have already warned you guys about sleeping in the park, and they would give us citations and if you were ever had a warning then they would take you to jail. It was just part of the nightmare of being homeless, it was just part of the nightmare of actually just being involved with drugs.
C: I’m not quite sure what forces came into play when Mac and I met 5 years ago. All I know is that I followed my gut feeling one day, and started a conversation with a perfect stranger.
I saw a lady panhandling on the side of the road holding a sign that said “ Anything helps, God Bless You”. For some reason, I felt disturbed by the “God Bless You” part. Where was God in this situation? And how could someone living in such conditions believe in a God? So I approached her to ask her this. And although I never really got an answer to my question, Trina and I chatted away.
A few days later, I decided to bring Trina some food. I remember crossing the bridge in downtown Tampa, walking towards the park where she was staying. As I’m walking by myself on the bridge, a man comes walking right in my direction, looking at me straight in the eyes. Very determined. I looked around, not quite sure what to do. Should I quickly turn around? Was this a bad idea? “You looking for Trina?” he asked. “She told me you would be coming, let me take you to her”. And that was my first introduction to Mac.
Do you remember how we first met?
M: Yes Clarine I met you – the first time I met you I was walking with Trina and Trina saw you in front of the – the students you were all staying in a hotel. All the dorms were full and you were all staying in a hotel. and Trina saw you sitting outside. That was the first time I met you. You just had a spirit about you and your friend – your roommate – the first roommate that you had. You all had just a good spirit about you all and you had compassion for people in my situation and then you guys started feeding on Tuesday night. You all would bring food to the park and you got a bunch of your classmates involved. And then we just took a liking. I helped you write a paper or something, you weren’t a good student and you wouldn’t listen, but you still got an A on the paper. Which meant a lot to me because as I said, a big thing for me during that time was to keep my sanity.
We have an evolving relationship. I think you started out as feeling sorry for me, I would imagine. But then after we had a few conversations and what not, you saw that I wasn’t what you thought a homeless person would be and now we’re best of friends. You know, you ask me about certain things that are going on in your life. I met your mom. We had lunch with your mom. By the way how is she?
C: She’s great! And I came to your house.
M: That’s right, you came to my house in New Orleans. You met my mom, you met my daughters. Yes so, you know, you’re family, you’re part of my family. You’re my fourth daughter.
[“Mr Wendal” – Arrested Development]
C: But it wasn’t all flowers and roses. I questioned things a lot – maybe a product of my youth, but I couldn’t wrap my head around why homelessness was allowed to exist. We live in one of the most affluent countries in the world yet it has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the world.
And it’s not just that homelessness happens here, but even worse, cities are actively trying to eradicate homelessness not through jobs and services, but through putting people in jail and policing them. Major cities across the US are passing measures that criminalize being homeless. Simple things can get you a ticket, or into jail. It can be anything from asking a passerby for change to sleeping, sitting or even eating in public areas. In July 2013, Tampa passed an ordinance that allows police officers to arrest someone sleeping or storing personal property in public.
I was frustrated by the constant police harassment, the trespassing ordinances, the looks they would get from passer byes and the indifference. And sometimes me trying to be helpful would get us into more trouble than if Mac had been on his own.
C: Mac do you remember that one time when we got trespassed out of Five Guys?
M: Oh, with Trina? Ya. Well Trina had been trespassed from there already so we kind of all got ran off. I guess that’s where she used to panhandle out of. And because we were sitting there – they were under the impression that Trina was trying to harass you and what not so he just trespassed all of us.
C: Even though I told him, I had the receipt. Right right.
M: It was just a product of you being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.
C: You think?
M: Yeah Trina was like known in that area, ‘cause you were with her, and you tried to stand and up for her, so that’s what made it bad.
C: And then you told me to keep quiet.
M: Ya, I told you to keep quiet, ya, you was making it worse, you wasn’t making it better. You know, let Trina get her ticket and then we walk on.
C: I remember one particular instance where I asked Mac to come present in one of my classes at the University. It was for a sociology class on Marriage and Family. The day before, Mac and I spent a lot of time preparing and talking over some of the points he could bring up. He was even going to get a clean outfit from the Church in the morning. But that afternoon, I got a call from my professor who told me that the university didn’t think it would be a good idea for him to come present. For security reasons, she said. My heart dropped, and a mix of anger, frustration and disappointment took over. I felt like I had let Mac down and now I would have to explain to him that the University saw him as a threat to the security of its students. I was really embarrassed.
But Mac was used to those reactions. He reassured me and said it was ok. He said he was surprised that the class would have let him come in the first place.
Eventually, as time passed by, Mac fell more into depression and hopelessness – he started to feel stuck in place. But he also wasn’t ready to leave.
M: The main thing is that life goes on, life is going on without me, you know what I m saying, even though I’m still alive, but I’m not alive because I’m living in the park and the rest of the world is going on without me. Back then as long as we were together, you know, it was like, we used to talk about helping each other get out of that lifestyle but as long as we were all together it was like we fed each other. So much negativity, so much negative energy that we really couldn’t help each other.
C: In your opinion there were like services and people to help and, there were ways out?
M: Uh, it was ways out – somewhat. But the biggest way out was just when you had made up in your mind and heart that you was ready to go. No matter what. I mean it could have been a building right next door or something, if you weren’t ready to let go of that lifestyle you wouldn’t.
C: Every Sunday morning, Mac would go to a breakfast feed held by a Church in downtown Tampa. There he met Dave, a 60-year old elder white man with a friendly and genuine attitude. His wife had passed away years before and he always talked about how much he loved her. Dave saw something special in Mac and reached out to him. He never pressured Mac into accepting his help – he simply told him he would be there whenever he was ready.
M: So one particular day I called him and said I was ready and he said I’ve been waiting for this phone call. And then the rest is history as far as I’m concerned. When I met him and I saw how sincere he was, because a lot of times, people on the street, people think that these people are just looking for a hand out and what not but a lot of times people are looking for a hand up and you know he gave me a hand up and I was ready for it. Which was the biggest key, that I was ready for it and we took it and ran with it and, he showed me where his heart was at because he didn’t just use his mouth he used his heart and he put in the actions and when I was ready to commit to that – it can be done.
C: And so began his journey into recovery.
M: The first thing he did was he took me to detox. He said let’s do a detox first. He stayed with me through the process. I was funny because the first weekend in detox he brought the babies to see me, he arranged for my daughter to come see me. With the twins. So that was kind of like, you ever seen a grown man crying and what not, that was my crying moment. Then you and him came the next day. That was like my “there’s no way I can turn back moment.” And we went from detox to another program and I did that program for a year. And he stayed with me, visited me you know, we talked, and then I just moved on to a transitional program, a transitional housing program, and got my own place and now I’m on to the next step. You know a job, working, and I reconnected with my family and so it’s just, it’s a journey.
C: But putting his experience on the streets behind him and moving forward was tough — especially in a society where you need to pay bills and meet social expectations. What do you say when a potential employer asks you what you’ve been up to for the past 7 years? What do you tell a landlord who wants your latest housing reference?
M: For me it’s just about being honest, people are going to think what they think about you, as long as you’re honest, you’re gonna run across that door that’s open. You may get more slammed than open but I think its better to be honest. But it’s not easy. It is harder.
But then its so awesome to be back in society. Right now it’s just like whatever comes my way just comes my way, you know what I’m saying, I m gonna knock it down. So I’m just mainly just glad to be saying that I’m living again.
C: When looking for work, Mac chose to look for jobs where he could work with his hands and see firsthand the fruits of his labor.
M: I just decided that I would much rather work outside in a stress free environment for the time being, until I allow myself to rebuild myself and get stronger. Now it’s like, two years later but I just like being outside now. I just like being outside, I like to just enjoy nature. Coming from where I came from, it’s like a joy now to be outside, it was darkness in my past, and now it’s light. So being outside, just magnifies the light.
C: With rising homelessness in many cities around the country, we hear about 5, 10, or 15 year plans to end homelessness. In them, we read about increasing access to affordable housing, transitional housing programs or permanent supportive housing – all much needed. But when I asked Mac what he thought were some of the “solutions” to ending homelessness, he talked about love and support.
M: A big misconception is that all homeless people are no good or rotten criminals. Some people are just. uh, they’re really sick. They’re really sick as far as their addictions, or they’re really sick mentally and they’re not all bad. I know it’s easy to lump everybody in the same category and what not, but it is some good people who end up homeless.
The biggest thing I guess is, a lot of people just need to know that it is love and kindness, a lot of people just need to know that people will stand by them and help them turn their lives around. It s not about giving, and what can they get and what can give them and what not. They don’t need money, don’t need food, don’t need clothes, they need you as a human being to help them get up.
Just the support that if I take you to a rehab center, I’m going to stay In contact with you, I’m going to be there for you, anytime you need to talk. I think that means more than giving money or stuff like that. If anybody that’s homeless or in a bad situation – it’s just like, don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. There’s always hope. For the rest of the world just try not to judge people, there’s good in everybody and some people just caught up in bad situations that can be helped.
C: Mac and I have been friends for over five years. He offered me love and support when I needed it the most and became my family here in the U.S. When I graduated, he was right there, alongside my mother. And to this day, he often calls me to see how I’m doing.
Mac, you know I, I’m sure I’ve told you before, but I just wanna tell you, I really feel like you changed my life too and I wanted you to know that.
M: Alright, thank you.
C: But no really.
M: No, no tears, there ain’t gonna be any crying or whatnot.
C: But you know when I went to Tampa I really felt lost and I didn’t have any family. And I wasn’t really great at school, I had almost failed my first year. And then, I don’t know. I meet you somehow. And you gave me purpose.
M: It’s all God. God made a way in. Being on the street you talk to God a lot. You may not call it praying but you know, you talk a lot. I mean you showed up in my life and it’s a big part of where I am today. You, and Dave, the pastor, Bill, that’s a big part of who I am today. You gave me hope. You pushed me everyday about, Mac what are you gonna do, Mac what are you gonna do. So you were a big part of my life.
C: Well I just wanted you to know it goes both ways.
M: Okay, now change the subject.
C: Mac is a mentor and a source of humility in my life. I owe much to him today and feel that he is part of the reason that I see the world the way that I do.
[“Jolie Coquine” – Caravan Palace]
SR: This show covered Mervin “Mac” McClaine. Thanks to Mac for sharing his story.
You’re listening to ReWork a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This weeks show was produced by Clarine Ovando Lacroux, Stefanie Ritoper, and Saba Waheed. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava. Special thanks to Henry Walton.
Saba: Tell us what you think! Visit our website at reworkradio.org or visit us on Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @rework_radio or send us an email at rework@IRLE.ucla.edu
Until next time, rethink, rework.