After I arrived at the Walter Rand Transportation center in Camden, New Jersey I stood outside of the building and tried to get a grasp on my surroundings, feeling more than a little bit out of my element. After stepping off of the train I was met by commotion in every direction.
People littered the streets. They were hanging out, trying to sell items out of plastic bags, begging for money for a train ticket that may never be accounted for, waiting to score their next fix or already riding the H-train. Very few were actually there for transportation purposes.
I stood idly in front entrance of the building with more than a dozen other people. We had not been there for more than ten minutes before someone starts choking.
The man began coughing and dramatically fell onto all fours, his eyeballs bulged with each gasp for air. The few friends he was with surrounded him and began harshly patting his back in a panic with no real strategy, eyes wild and searching for signs of improvement. Barely anyone else flinched. After the man had caught his breath he leaned against the side of the building, nearly laying on the filthy sidewalk, panting with his eyes closed and drool dripping down his chin.
“You’re beautiful,” interrupted a deep voice, startling me. I peeled my eyes away from the man on the ground, who I still wasn’t sure was okay or not, to meet the bloodshot eyes of someone who was easily eight to ten years older than I. “Can I have your number?” He asked relentlessly, sidling up next to me even after I told him that I have a boyfriend and I wasn’t interested. After uttering the magic words, “I’m a minor,” he jerked back and slinked off down the street. I released the breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
I glanced across the street at the bus stops filled with people. They were in no rush to move.
A few benches down a couple was standing together, if you can call it that. Their bodies were slouched over and their dirty finger tips nearly brushed their toes as they swayed, struggling to remain upright. They were feeling the full effects of whatever drug they had just taken.
Someone else walking by further down the block halted and heaved, vomiting onto the middle of the sidewalk before staggering on.
I eventually turned my attention back to the transportation center and cautiously walked through the entrance of the building. As the doors slid open the air filling the small space smelled stale and lacked movement. There were people sitting idly on every bench. Only a few actually stood in line at the box office
“Are you sure you’re in the right station?” A male employee asked, blocking my route to the restrooms as he looked me up and down. “Only crackheads and the homeless come here.” I assured him that I was in the right place and he nodded and stepped out of my way. I didn’t tell him that that’s the very thing I came here for. To speak to the homeless and struggling, to collect their stories and offer them a voice.
Upon exiting the restroom and returning to the lobby I watched as an older woman who was hunched over in a bright pink winter jacket entered from the opposite side of the building. She slid down against the wall of a nearly empty corridor and curled into herself as if she wanted to disappear.
As we approached her she regarded us with cautious blue eyes that were enfolded in wrinkles. When we first asked if she would share her story with us she declined for fear of giving away any identifying information. After learning that she could remain anonymous she settled on the alias Ruby Johnson and she began unraveling her life for us. “I hope I can help,” she sincerely told me.
Johnson had never thought that she would ever end up homeless. But yet here she sits in front of us, six months homeless, in an area on Camden, NJ that is widely known for its homeless population and drug presence. If you had mentioned to her ten years ago that at age 59 she would be sleeping in abandoned homes every night with her diseased and recovering heroin addict younger sister she would have scoffed at the idea.
“I was married for 32 years.” Johnson had been living in a dream like haze, where homelessness and addiction did not live just outside her front door. She and her husband were homeowners. Mr. Bill Johnson was a retired veteran and Johnson was continuing to run her own business. They were expecting to spend the rest of their lives together.
Her reality was ripped out of her chest six years ago in 2012 when Johnson was walking back to her home alongside a wooded area. She was viciously attacked by a man she did not know who dragged her into the woods and raped her.
“He hit me, knocked teeth out of my mouth, and broke my neck,” she states with a fierce glimmer in her eye. She explained that due to her neck injury muscles in her face began to deteriorate, aging her far beyond her years. “But, you know what, I’m walking so I’ll take the wrinkles,” she told us and began to laugh. After the attack Johnson was a quadriplegic for many years, both of her arms and legs were paralyzed. She only began walking again two years ago.
She was unable to return to work because of the severity of her injuries, stating that she is not strong enough. After the incident Johnson developed something rare, Addison’s disease. “That guy scared me so bad that he shut my adrenals down,” she says. If she becomes too worried or scared she risks going into an adrenal attack, which can be extremely painful. “He did all that to rape me….” she trailed off.
“I had a good company and he ruined it for me,” Johnson’s voice quivered as she said this. Before the attack she owned her own notary business. She would travel to fulfill notaries for travel, marriage, wills, etc.
Her husband diligently took care of her after the attack for four years before he unfortunately passed away. “We had a very good marriage, I was very happy,” she says now. Her husband had _____ from when he fought in Vietnam which eventually caused him to have the major stroke that took his life.
With the couple’s combined medical conditions they were forced to sell their home in order to keep up with the expenses. They had moved into a small apartment but after her husband died Johnson couldn’t keep up with the bills on her own and she soon lost the apartment. She turned to the streets.
The couple had two children together. She has since written both of them, explaining her situation. She has yet to hear back from them.
Not wanting to be a burden to her children, Johnson was originally not planning on contacting them until she was back on her feet. “I’m hoping to hear from them soon,” she says now.
She doesn’t have much family that she can rely on. She has a younger sister but she is homeless as well and depends on Johnson. “She’s very, very sick,” Johnson told us. Her sister has a blood infection and is currently waiting on test results. She is too ill to work. They believe that she obtained this while using a dirty needle to inject heroin. Her sister has since completed rehab and had been working on her recovery when she began to feel ill.
“I go around to friends and ask if I can stay in their house, or even a night here and there,” Johnson says, although she has not had much luck with this strategy. “I sleep in abandoneds instead,” she told us. She feels safer sleeping in abandoned houses than she does on the streets and says that she is lucky to know where a few of them are.
“If I see someone out in that cold I’ll usually take them in with us,” Johnson says. Although, she has to be careful of who she trusts because some people on the streets can be dangerous, or people in general as her attacker proved. “It’s scary, but I can’t let anybody freeze to death either,” she told us selflessly. “It’s scary out there,” she repeats, reflecting on the couple of times that she did sleep outdoors.
She has signed up for a shelter but is still waiting to hear back from them. “They’re all full, you’re lucky if you get in one,” she says.
Johnson is eligible for benefits through the Veterans Agency (VA) but there is a mandatory background check that consumers must pass before they have access to their benefits.
Johnson has also applied for Welfare but must receive a statement from the VA that displays the balance of what she is entitled to before she is granted any funding. She is waiting to hear back from social security as well, whose acceptance process can also take up to a year.
“You know, when my benefits come through I’m going to be living nice,” she told us firmly. Johnson frequently visits the VA to inquire about her benefits and becomes frustrated when they continuously feed her the same, tired response: “We’re processing it as fast as we can, ma’am.”
“I have to tell you, from the time that my husband died and the time that I’ve spent out here– I have learned so much,” she says. Prior to this experience Johnson said that she lived a very sheltered life and never knew that anything like this was happening on the streets of Camden, NJ, nor Palmyra, NJ.
“People do things that they wouldn’t normally do, but they’re desperate,” she commented about the homeless. She says that a lot of crimes are committed because these people on the streets are starving and cold. “They could be good people, but they’re forced to do things that they wouldn’t normally do and that breaks my heart. If they weren’t in this situation, that wouldn’t happen.”
Despite seeing the dangers that the streets offer Johnson says, “I feel lucky out here, they all act very friendly.” Thankfully, she has had no bad encounters other than being the subject of robbery to which she sustained no injuries..
“But you can not tell anybody if you ever have any money,” she says and laughs, “Do not tell them, because you will get robbed.” She is issued about $200 dollars a month from the state and receives health insurance through Medicaid, however the funds don’t last long and a portion of it goes towards her medication. Once, Johnson was taking out money to get herself and her sister something to eat and someone stole $140 dollars from her, leaving her with $60 for the rest of the month.
“I pray that the cops don’t yell at me,” she confides in a hushed tone about the times she has had to panhandle for money. Johnson says that the people in Palmyra, where the abandoned houses are that she stays in, are typically very generous.
However, the people in this area of Camden are not because they are usually homeless themselves. “A lot of the people out here are here because of drugs and that really bothers me. Just give up the drugs,” she says.
Johnson began telling us about the situation of the homeless woman who was laying down across the room from us. She says that she will wait there in the same spot day after day and tell Johnson, “My people are coming, my people are coming.” Johnson says that she’s watched the same scene unfold in front of her everyday that she’s been in Camden for the past four months.
Another homeless man came through the entrance and Johnson greeted him with a warm, “Hi, honey.” He then asked her about her sister. An example of just one of the friendly connections that Johnson has made in the time that she has been on the streets.
“When I get my money and when I get back up on my feet I want to help the homeless people,” Johnson stated. She plans to volunteer at a catholic church in Delanco, NJ that helps the homeless.
“It’s so nice. It’s nice that people still care,” she commented about our project. She began rummaging through the care package that we brought along for her which was put together with donations submitted by our community. She took out the oversized jacket immediately, saying, “Thank God, I hate this bright pink one. I feel like everyone can see me.”
“This is so nice,” she repeated, “When I get back on my feet I’d like to have a number so that I can call you,” she told us. Johnson plans on making a donation to our Naming the Homeless campaign when she gets back on her feet.
“Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt, but do any of you by chance have a quarter?” A woman who had approached us asked. I dug around in my pocket until I found a dollar and refused to accept the change.
We asked the woman, Jennifer, if she’d like a sandwich as well, we had about thirty sandwiches with us that someone in our community had donated for our interview. “Are you with the church?” she asked. I explained our service project to her and she responds, “I was homeless for five years and let me tell you that what you just did for me– that hardly ever happens.”
“Over by the Riverline that food is going to go like crazy, those guys are starving,” Johnson told us. She then thanked us repeatedly before departing to go search for her sister.
Jennifer told us that she is on her way to her parents house because they have agreed to take her back in. “I’m doing better but, you know, no parent wants to say that their drug addict child is coming home.” She continues, “I’m very blessed to have parents that will help me through some of the things that I’ve done in my past. That’s not who I am anymore.”
“It’s hard when you get sucked into this kind of life,” Jennifer says. “And my parents, they don’t understand what it’s like to have depression.”
We departed with Jennifer to begin passing out sandwiches across the street by the Riverline. Johnson was right, within 20 minutes we had passed out all of our sandwiches, fruit cups, and granola bars.
The recipients were not only thinking of themselves. A few people asked if they could take more than one sandwich so that they could provide for a friend, child, or family member. If we approached someone who felt like they didn’t need anything to eat they would point us in the direction of someone who does saying, “Please help them.”
“Do y’all want to pray?” One woman named Mary asked us after accepting a peanut butter and honey sandwich. The three of us joined hands and bowed our heads as she led us in prayer, “Dear God, we come before you today to….” Afterwards, she told us that when she gets enough things together she would very much like to give back to her struggling community herself.
We spoke to a homeless man named Marcus in the front entrance of the Walter Rand Transportation center. He told us that he is 39 years old and has been on the streets for two years now. He was not able to support himself financially and his family had turned their backs on him.
“I was born and raised here,” he says, although he is only passing through at this time because he learned that a family member in the area is sick. Marcus had been living in New York at the time that he became homeless and just recently returned back to Camden.
“It’s faster there,” Marcus says about homelessness in New York. “They get you right in and they get you placement. It’s way different here.”
“I love that person, I gave my life up in New York to come here. You only get one family member like that.” Since returning back to Camden, Marcus has reconnected with some of his other family members. A few have offered him a place to stay but he told us, “I refuse. I want to do this on my own,” while stubbornly shaking his head back and forth.
Every now and then he will come across a center or shelter that will provide for him although the sleeping arrangements are “in and out.” Marcus says that he is actively trying to find placement, “I’m working on it, there’s a wait list.” He is also being processed by Social Security.
“I’ve learned a lot about patience,” Marcus reflects about his time spent on the streets. “I’ve learned to accept not having.”
Marcus’s homelessness has also brought him closer to God. “I’ve learned to put my faith in God and know that everything will be alright.” He attends church every Sunday and Wednesday. He later said, “I don’t know what God’s up to so I’m living my life and I’m loving me right now.”
“You’ll never know if I’m down or not because I have God in my life, so I’m always smiling.” Marcus has maintained a remarkably positive attitude throughout his experience with homelessness. “I’m strong,” he firmly told us and added, “I’ve never done drugs in my life. I’ve seen it a lot but never touched them.”
Marcus has a very playful personality. Before learning that I have a stepfather he gently nudged my mom’s arm and giggled like a school boy, telling her that she’s cute.
“I have no friends– by choice,” he says. Marcus is happy to be on his own, he says that it helps to keep him out of trouble. He does not mind if passersby indulge in the stigma and ignore him, “I don’t care, I ignore them.” Rather than focus and depend on other people Marcus would rather practice self-love.
While we were speaking another homeless individual, who seemed to be out of sorts, wandered over to Marcus, explaining a problem that he was having. Marcus began sprouting out inspirational advice, “You need to be safe and stay strong. Don’t give up, you know I love you, don’t give up.” The man appeared comforted and turned and said to me, “I’m strong.” I believe him.
“You made my day, thank you!” Marcus said to me and flashed a huge, bright smile and wrapped up our interview and engulfing me in a hug before departing back to his usual spot.
We returned back to the Riverline station as dusk was falling and bursts of cold winter air whipped our hair into our faces. We each took a seat on opposite sides of one cold, unforgiving bench. There is a metal arm rest that runs through the middle of each bench to discourage the homeless from sleeping on them.
Across the tracks there was a homeless man laying across one of the agricultural structures at the other station. A transit police officer marched over to him and told him he had to leave. The man looked around as if he was unsure of where he should go.
As the horn sounded, signaling that our train was approaching, I saw the man reach nearly a quarter of his body into a trash can. He pulled out a stranger’s mostly finished Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and started drinking out of the straw, still hunched over the filth covered trash can.
“You feel like nobody cares,” Johnson’s words echoed in my head as we boarded our train. “It breaks your heart because you think, ‘I shouldn’t be out here.’”