Much of society views homeless people as a burden because they set up camps around social service facilities in order to receive free meals or care. Homeless people are harassed by the police, attacked by gangs of youths and sometimes even fired upon randomly by trucks or cars entering the ramps leading to the highway.
Some of the homeless population forgo the free meals and avoid the accompanying stigmatization and harassment, choosing instead to band together in small groups. They live in parks or under bridges and travel with all their belongings, but they form communities. These are strong relationships that last lifetimes.
When they leave the streets, they routinely return to see their old friends. Some choose not to leave the streets even when their health demands it. These people stay with their homeless comrades rather than check into a hospital. In some cases, they will choose to die with their homeless family.
Paul Ordono (“Paulie”) was one of these homeless individuals. He had a family and he loved his mother but he drank. He stopped for eight years, but he couldn’t stay stopped; he needed it to sleep. When he returned to the streets, he stayed away from the encampments. Paulie took handouts but preferred to work and pay his own way. He was open to forming alliances with other independent, like-minded people. That was how Paulie met his friends Al and Eric. Paulie would say, “I’ll buy the meat if you grill it.”
“He loved pork and chuck steaks,” Al said.
These three men formed strong friendships. No matter where they went during the day, they always came back together and helped each other by sharing food or beer. One would watch the others’ belongings when they left, and they would watch each other’s backs as they slept. With a lifestyle that put them face to face with the elements 24/7, they drank but they always worked.
They found ways to make money by collecting cans and doing any work they could or begging. Collecting cans was their staple income. They would get up before sunrise and go out in search of cans. “He always worked. He always got up and went to get his cans,” Eric said, then added, “He always shared. He wouldn’t give you his last dollar. He always saved that for a beer but he would always give you his second-to-last dollar.”
Paulie taught Eric and others important lessons about sympathy and offered guidance to the other homeless people. “He was the only person who could call me to the side and make me think twice. He was an important factor in my life,” Al said. “I listened to him. He was the only person who could get me to apologize to someone.”
For Eric, who was almost 20 years younger, Paulie helped him broaden his perspective. Eric said, “He was a good example for not sweating the little stuff. He let people be who they were. He taught me not to overreact and jump to conclusions. I always go on ‘protect’ mode. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to treat people the way you want to be treated. He didn’t do like so many in this park and complain and blame his problem on others.”
“Sounds like county jail,” Coyote, another homeless man who recently joined the group added.
The friends had their troubles. “I put him through hell. We fought every day,” Eric said. “We argued over everything: how to climb a fence, how to cook food, how to crush cans or put them in the bag.”
“They were like the odd couple,” Al said, but at the end of the day, they always came back together. That final Saturday night was like so many others; Eric lay on his back, talking to Paulie for an hour before they fell asleep. At about 3:30 a.m. Al woke to the sound of Paulie hacking. Paulie was coughing up pieces of his lungs. They called the ambulance and as they waited, Paulie fell unconscious. Al, a Vietnam veteran, tried to resuscitate him but couldn’t. Paulie died.
Al and Eric weren’t sure they would be allowed to go to the memorial service. Sometimes the family of a homeless person prefers to clean up the person and pretend the homeless stage never happened. Usually, they don’t allow the deceased’s homeless friends to attend but Paulie’s wife had been preparing. She saved and was ready for the funeral. She invited Eric and Al.
The family wanted to know about Paulie, but they were upset Paulie never got sober or returned home. He chose another family and now this was the end. The family members were mad and called Paulie violent. Eric and Al were respectful and quiet. Afterward, they said they never saw Paulie get violent. “He taught me ‘love was love.’ There was nothing else,” Eric said. Al agreed and added, “He used to make me apologize to others and I did. I would have never done that if it wasn’t for him.”
Being homeless calls for a stoic approach to life. Emotions don’t come easily. When Eric and Al saw Paulie dressed in a suit and lying in a coffin, they were overcome with emotion. Eric covered his eyes and cried. “He always said he was the best looking guy in the park. Well, you look good now, buddy,” he said and patted his hand. Al painfully struggled with his emotions. “I tried to save you, but I couldn’t,” he apologized.
“He was terminal. The doctor diagnosed him two years ago,” his daughter said. “He never mentioned that,” Eric said. “If he was that sick, he should have said something. He never said he was hurting.”
Eric would have demanded that Paulie go back to the hospital. Paulie had been to the hospital five or six times over the past year, but this time Paulie never said anything. He just stopped eating and was very feeble. This wasn’t new—Paulie had been growing weaker for the last year. He would carry a milk crate to climb on so he could reach the bottles in dumpsters.
Al understood why he wouldn’t go to the hospital. Al’s wife, when she was homeless, checked into a hospital and received poor care before she was turned back out on the streets. She died shortly thereafter. Al attributes the death to the lack of quality care in the hospital. Paulie knew his fate. He had lived his life the way he wanted to, and now he wanted to spend his last days with those he cared for most.