At home with the homeless

Jim Peth

Photo By Jill Wagner

Jim Peth spends his days with the other men waiting for a free lunch from Loaves & Fishes. Unlike them, Peth, who’s the co-director of Friendship Park, gets to go home every night for a shower, a meal and a warm place to sleep.

Tell me what your job is.

I oversee the operation of Friendship Park. There will be anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people here a day who access a variety of survival services.

Who ends up here?

We have people who are mentally disabled and physically disabled. A number of our guests live in single-room occupancy hotels downtown, and their rent absorbs all their income, so they can’t afford to feed themselves. We have a number of people who are drug- and alcohol-addicted. We have people whose languages we don’t quite understand because they speak in Eastern-European dialects or sometimes Asian dialects. They may have a speech impediment as well, and they could be mentally disabled.

Favorite stories of things you’ve seen out here?

My favorites have to do with the generosity of poor people and also their nobility of character. We had a guest who was obsessive-compulsive. He’s passed away since, but this guy was amazing. He had a lot of trouble communicating, but he came over to me one time in a real agitated state and was trying to give me a message. It turns out there was a woman in a wheelchair stranded along the levy. The conversation took probably an hour. He told me where I could find her and gave me all the landmarks, and his directions were perfect. I found her and got her into my car just as the clouds opened up and another thunderstorm started. She had been rolling in and out of her wheelchair, sleeping on a wet mat, for three or four days. We got her to Merry House, our day shelter for women, and they fawned all over her. … Within an hour, she had a shower, fresh clothes—because she had no place to go to the bathroom, except in her clothes—and they fixed her up completely. But Ken, who actually died of a homicide because he was sleeping outside, was the person who facilitated all this. We would not have even known she was there. What I agonize over is that once you’re cold and wet, I’m sorry, you’re cold and wet. Until the sun comes out and can dry your stuff out, you’ll never get warm. It’s been a rough winter, but two of our staff members spent days sorting out donations that have come in lately.

What are the most rewarding elements of your job?

I’ve been here for almost five years, and I’ve never asked someone to do something when they haven’t said yes. And that means maybe taking care of someone who’s soiled themselves. That means after-hours. So, we derive great energy from each other but also from our guests. There’s this guy named Arthur in our population, and Arthur’s as far out as anybody. And I was working at my desk, doing whatever I was doing, and Arthur opens the door. He says, “Jim!” very pompously and proudly, “I want you to know I accept full and total responsibility,” and closes the door. It’s crazy, but it’s fun crazy.

Knowing that you’re on their side …

Oh, they respect that. The maddest I ever get here is when, occasionally, we have a bounty hunter come in here. And if that’s your business, that’s fine, but don’t do it on my watch. We don’t allow people to proselytize or preach because, in my personal opinion, that’s another form of victimization. There are religious organizations that will recruit them to solicit donations. We’ve asked people sometimes who employ our guests not to come back because they don’t treat them fairly. Our guests know we’ll do what we can to protect them from people who might otherwise victimize them.

If you had a wish list for 2003, what would be on it?

This is my examination of conscience. We had a basketball court that we took out several years ago. I was working with our guys, and they’re hard workers. And it was hot. We jackhammered through a 4-inch concrete slab and two 3-inch asphalt slabs, so we could plant a lawn. And I figured, ah man, when I get home, I’m going to soak these muscles and wash this crud off me. And that got me through the last two hours of work every day. The fourth day of doing this, one of the guys who’d been working side by side with me said, "Jim, do you think you could open the washhouse, so we could shower today?" I mean, I was crestfallen. I was humbled and humiliated at the same time. Why hadn’t I thought of that? And so, I wish people could benefit from the same experience that I have. Once people understand the circumstances our guests are living in, there’s an outpouring of understanding and compassion and generosity. It used to be that if I saw someone homeless on one side of the street, I might walk across to the other side. Now, if I’m on the other side, I’ll cross the street to see if it’s someone I know.