Last Saturday my boyfriend Nevander and I traveled to Philly together with another care package and this time we ventured past City Hall. A few blocks away from Center City Philadelphia we approached Chaz and asked if he would be open to doing an interview. We sat down with him and began by asking him some questions about his past.
“I guess I grew up in a normal dysfunctional family, I don’t know. My parents were drug addicts. I was basically raised by my grandparents,” says Chaz. Despite coming from a “dysfunctional” family Chaz completed high school, although he never felt the need to continue his education.
Throughout his forty years Chaz has personally owned two businesses that he built from the ground up. The first was a car detailing company in which he mainly worked on boats. His second business specialized in directional drilling, he started this company in Oklahoma.
Chaz is originally from New Jersey. He ran his boat detailing business in Point Pleasant back in 2005 but his wife’s children live in Oklahoma so they sold their house and his business and moved out there to be closer to them. Once they settled in Oklahoma he started up his directional drilling company.
The first word that popped into Chaz’s head when he thought about what event pushed him into this lifestyle was, “Divorce.” After giving it some thought he decided that the depression that followed his divorce is what really pushed him over the edge. Chaz has been treated for his depression before and is currently taking medication. He has been homeless for almost a year now.
Chaz believes that mental illness is one of the leading causes of homelessness. The Salvation Army even states on their website www.salvationarmy.gov.au that “poor physical or mental health” is a leading factor when it comes to homelessness.
A general lack of available resources has been the hardest part of homelessness for Chaz. As far as he’s aware there are no job placement centers in the area, and although he has attempted to join shelters in the past he feels like they are not worth the wait. Last winter he tried to join one of the local shelters in Philly but they had something called “green bands” that they pass out and the regulars and the people who had the bands would be taken in first. “They only have so many bands and then they don’t give out anymore,” after the all the bands are collected they line prospectors up in the order of the elderly, women, and then men. Chaz has said that, “by the time that they get to the men, there are no more beds available.” He waited in line at the shelter about a dozen times and only made it into a shelter once, although this was during a “Code Blue” so they had to accept everyone. Once they ran out of beds they bused the remaining people out of the city to surrounding shelters during this state of emergency
Chaz has ran into a few altercations while living on the streets, but not many. He went into more detail and explained that these disputes were initiated by other homeless people and not by the public. The arguments were always more territorial than personal.
Thinking about his daily diet made Chaz laugh. He assured us that he eats and began listing off items that he has on a regular basis. Chocolate chip cookies he absolutely has everyday. He’ll usually have, pizza, a cheese steak, whatever people give him, “I eat whatever a normal person eats.”
Although Chaz has plenty to eat, when it comes to sleeping he considers five hours to be a lot. He says that it’s surprisingly quiet in the city during the early hours of the morning but that he still doesn’t sleep very well. He keeps his bedding near a store front that he sleeps in consistently and is confident that people will leave his things alone. He has a memory foam mattress topper that he acquired because someone was throwing it away. Chaz also shared that it you approach an ambulance or hospital asking for sheets and pillows, they have to give them to you (or they should).
Panhandling is Chaz’s main mode of income. He has been approached before by the police for panhandling because it is technically illegal in Center City although it is not illegal in where he is currently located or in the city of Philadelphia in general. He says that the cops are generally nice but if they see “aggressive panhandling” they can ask you to move.
The Police Department of Philadelphia has something called the “homeless patrol.” These members of the police force’s detail is to target homeless people and get to know them on a more personal level. Chaz feels like this is beneficial because, “If something were to happen to someone, or something like that, then they know who they are.”
Chaz describes the homeless community of Philadelphia as being it’s own little network. He speaks to other people regularly but only has one true friend out here, they became homeless around the same time and and met each other on the streets.
“A lot of people ignore me,” about 10% of the people that pass Chaz will actually acknowledge him during any given day. He has stated that he feels like he is treated like an outcast, even though he is, “just a normal human being who is going through a hard time.” This bothers Chaz because he could in the same spot sit and ask ten different people what the time is but all of them will walk right past him even through they have phones and watches on. He believes that people usually react this way because they think that there is something to follow up, that if he’s asking for the time and they stop then he will next ask them for money.
He would like people to know that he is, “no different than anybody else, everybody is one bad decision away from being where I’m at.” Some of the people that he sees while he’s out on the streets could be people that he once took out for lunch and that he thinks its crazy how people treat him sometimes, “they look at me like I’m nothing when over a year ago I could have been paying for their lunch.”
However, Chaz says that, “If you’re going hungry out here there’s a problem,” whether you’re spending your money elsewhere or you’re just sitting in the wrong spots. Despite being ignored often there are plenty of people that do help Chaz, although some days are better than others. Over time he has developed a schedule of what days and times are good for receiving help, he shared that Monday and Wednesday are especially bad for him. “You have days where you have a mountain of food around you, people are just giving you everything, and then you have days where you don’t get anything.” He has a strategy of where to sit throughout the day to get the most income, he typically hangs out around concerts and sports games because he knows that this is where people are spending money.
In the wintertime there were a lot of people who went out of their way to keep Chaz warm and comfortable and he would often receive care packages, “but then that came to a complete stop, no care packages what so ever, as soon as the weather broke,” says Chaz. He assumes that people believe that since the weather is nice the homeless are no longer in any immediate need of help, that if they’re not in jeopardy of dying then they’re okay.
Another girl has approached Chaz before and asked him if she could take a photo of his sign and it is now the image of her Go Fund Me page, unfortunately I have not been able to locate it yet but the title is “Homeless not Hopeless.”
Chaz feels that there should be more state wide programs like Housing First that focus on housing the individual first and then they will narrow in on all the other details. He says that he could go out and get a job but it still wouldn’t change the fact that he’s homeless and that he lacks a place to shower and sleep and get ready for work. These set backs would continue to hold him back so in his eyes programs like Housing First are incredibly important.
Something truly incredible about Chaz is that he often travels outside of the city limits and scouts out stay cats. He regularly picks cats up and brings them back to the city with him and nurses them back to health if he needs to and if they haven’t been neutered he’ll take them to the vet. Chaz says that he’s kind of well know for this around this area, he can often be seen carrying a cat in his arms or in his book bag as he travels throughout the city and people seem to think it’s cool. During this time Chaz is also looking for a good home for the cat and once the cat is housed he moves on to the next one. Chaz has rescued and housed 19 cats this year.
Unfortunately, someone stole Chaz’s current cat the day before we met him and he was pretty upset about it. Apparently someone he knew and spoke to pretty regularly had their boyfriend do the catnapping for them and denied all accusations. However, the suspect did try to offer him a decent amount of money and when Chaz asked why they replied, “I just want you to have it.” This type of behavior is disappointing and I hope that Chaz does not take this mistreatment personal.
We commemorate Chaz for taking the time to find homes for cats who are technically homeless even though he is in a similar situation himself. He truly is homeless but not hopeless and by speaking to him some of my hope was restored as well.
We hope to see Chaz again soon to bring him a print out of this story and to donate some cat food on our next visit to Philly, so be on the look out for an update within the next few weeks! Constance’s story will be posted this coming Saturday.