Bum rap

A few months ago when the economy was still warm and winter had a chill, I wondered about a man camped next to a steam vent.

He had his crumpled clothes and flattened box, and little else. I would see him lying on the sidewalk when I left the gym downtown and always wondered if he chose this existence or it had chosen him. I had some vague thought about asking him why he didn’t have a job in the boom times.

After covering the homeless issue for years, I thought I knew what was to come: the sad story, the railing against an uncaring society, and hey buddy, can you spare a dollar because no one will hire me. These stories were delivered to reporters like lines in a play—it was what was expected when the lights came up.

But instead this guy went on the attack. He didn’t want to talk to a reporter, he didn’t read any damn newspapers, and no, he didn’t want a job. The economy was apparently off his radar. Why wasn’t he in a shelter? It was none of my damn business! I still thought it might be a story, but he clammed up and waved me off.

It’s best not to assume too much about the homeless. But despite what the man said, there usually is a story behind the person sleeping outside (see "Just another homeless death," page 20). It’s not always a tragedy, but often it is.