PICs: Interview with an anonymous homeless man living on a bench in the Ped Mall

PICs (People of Iowa City) is an interview series dedicated to Iowa City locals whose pasts and presents make our town what it is. If you know someone whose story, presence, dreams or visions color our town, please contact me or have them contact me at russell (dot) jaffe (at) gmail (dot) com.

downtown - alan light
Photo by Alan Light

The homeless community in Iowa City, if it can truly be called a community, is one that isn’t new to cities or towns with larger populations. And yet for many of us in Iowa City, it seems like an issue no one really talks about, no one fully addresses. People stream by them every single day here in town; sometimes they are asking for change, sometimes they are selling handmade jewelry. But their unique stories seldom are told. I walked past a group of individuals, two of whom asked me if I could spare some money, and I said sure, and then I asked if they’d like to speak to me about homelessness in Iowa City, and one of them agreed.

Would you like to give me name or picture to use with the article?, I asked him.
Naw, I’m good.” Picture? “No.” You live here in town, in the Ped Mall? Yeah, all over (the Ped Mall) usually. How long have you been in Iowa City? “I lived in Iowa City for 20 years. Lived for a bit in Des Moines, not so bad there,” he explains. “The only thing I can really talk about is that I’ve seen a lot of homeless people get off the streets by getting on SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and it really shows we have a continuous social and economic problem that people are continuously coming on the streets because they’re poor. Personally, I know people right now on SSDI who are paid less than minimum wage, like $6,000 a year when a living wage is $14,000. It’s not even possible.”

Would you like to talk about what led to you being where you are now, living here? “No,” he tells me, staring straight ahead. He speaks slowly and sounds very tired.

Would you want people like the ones walking by here to get more involved? He nods to a woman with beaded hemp jewelry splayed out on a tapestry on the sidewalk. “You have to be able to trade your product. University of Iowa has a monopoly over this town; they even have their own fucking town named after them. I know people who were sort of disenfranchised with this college and wanted to drop out, anyway the state couldn’t provide for them living in the city. Apartments can be $500-$900 and on SSDI and other state services we can’t afford that. The social security system is a little ignorant, there are no testing procedures, they don’t follow up on records. A lot of people down here have mental disabilities or other illnesses or physical problems that would keep them from getting a decent income from the state, a living wage.”

While he said all this, another man closer to the fenced-off construction just at the mouth of the Ped Mall on Washington and Dubuque brought from his shopping cart a pair of shoes—they looked new, unmarked, and were bound with a plastic ring but no tags. The interviewee put them on his feet while he spoke, and when he finished, I asked, would you say you have a community set up here? Do you all look out for each other, perhaps especially the ones who live here? It looked like he just gave you some shoes.

“The city workers had taken my shoes, and I went to jail last night over disorderly conduct,” he explained. “I get angry and I yell, I was like, I want my fucking shoes back. I told the cops and I told them (city workers) that, and I ended up getting arrested and spent the night in jail. I fell asleep on a bench and I must have left them somewhere, and I came back to grab them and they know not to touch them. And they know not to touch my stuff because the city workers and I have gotten into some verbal disagreements that have probably landed me in jail.”

“Ever since being homeless I racked up about 20 charges, disorderlies, misdemeanors. Doing stuff that was everyday stuff for normal people, but happens to us all the time, you know, living in the real world; a lot of us need to have an escape.”

Should people walking by get more involved? Do you think Iowa City has good services/outreach for homeless individuals like yourself? “Not really, to be honest with you,” he says calmly. “It’s about average for a city of this size, maybe 150,000 people. That includes the whole area, maybe West Branch and North Liberty. In this city you can’t even get a food stamp card fast enough, you need to go to an emergency center, or the Salvation Army. A little money helps, but some of these problems, they’re really complicated. None of (state services) are really enough to have a standard living. There isn’t a good enough plan to get us food; not enough nutritional value or calorie value in the food, anyway. have to constantly get authorized to get money because I’m so far into medical debt that I can’t get (food) anyway.”

Is there anything you’d like to say to people in Iowa City reading this article? He looks at me with bloodshot eyes, straight-on steely eyes right into my own, and he says, “yeah, fuck Obama. Why do you say that? “Because Obama can’t even have a relationship with his wife, how can the hell can he even run this country?” He puts his face into his hands. He rubs his face in an exhausted way. He is quiet for the first time.

Is there anything else you’d like to say, or have me talk about when I put this together? “It’s one of the areas, Coralville has them too, but the bars aren’t as close. It’s not zoned the same as here. A lot of us here drink and a lot of us here have got problems.”