Life On The Streets

Western People Magazine

5 April 1990

By Terry Garchinski

Terry Garchinski left his family in Naicam, Saskatchewan to live among the homeless. His personal odyssey has given him answers to questions he never would have asked.

Terry Garchinski has been living on the street in the United States to develop an understanding of the reasons for homelessness. Western people interviewed him August 24, 1989, and asked him to send an update on his travels and experiences.

The following is an account of his time among the homeless of New York City and Washington, D.C.
“Why do you eat food from garbage cans?” I asked the woman who was told to leave Washington’s train station.  Kitty, the homeless mother of five adult children replied, “I’m hungry.  I hate to see food go to waste.  Eating food from garbage is no different than when I ate the unwanted food from my children’s plates.”

Across the street, the man’s hand was out.   “Why don’t you work for your money instead of begging?” I asked him.  Ted, the homeless mentally ill man replied, “I’m  royalty;  kings and queens and members of royal families aren’t allowed to work.”

One block further down and a few minutes walk from the Capitol building, a skinny woman was soliciting. “Why are you selling yourself?” I asked Janet, the homeless Crack addict, who was offering me “nice sex” for $4, did not reply.

Since hitchhiking from my home in Naicam, Saskatchewan, on July 14,1989, I have been in the United States surviving as a homeless street musician. My instrument is an  Andean flute called a quena. The first three months were spent in Washington, where I slept in a decaying conveyor machine behind the Union Station train terminal, a bush beside Capitol Hill Hospital and a hidden grate in a park.  From there, I traveled to New York City where I slept on a rooftop in Greenwich Village, a bush in Central Park, a platform of an outdoor  church nativity scene and a cardboard box near Fordham University.  After a heavy snowfall broke my box and gave me numb feet and sore joints, I moved underground.  I slept in subway entrances and trains until the police told me to go to a shelter.

While in the 1000-man Atlantic Avenue city-run shelter, sleeping men in the neighboring beds had their pockets cut and wallets, shoes and false teeth stolen. Fortunately,  I slept with my boots on and had nothing taken during my nine-night stay. On the tenth day, I was transferred to a small 12 man church-run shelter.  I left the smaller shelter on Christmas Eve and my new “home” became a four-by-seven foot room in a flop house on Bowery Street – a street infamous for its drunks and junkies.

My street life would be much more severe if I didn’t have the advantage of music. The money earned from performing enables me to wash my clothes at laundromats and buy food. I wash in restrooms of fast-food restaurants and shower at church-run missions or at city-run bath facilities.  I see my voluntary homelessness as a personal religious calling by which I am better able to understand through experiencing poverty.  I have come to know the homeless on a first name basis and have experienced the de-stabilizing effect society has on “the homeless” and vice versa.  To a certain degree, Kitty, Ted and Janet are each personally responsible for their own homeless condition.  But society is also responsible by maintaining social and economic structures which supply or deny individuals opportunities and resources to grow and become productive.

Ted was friendly and after becoming more acquainted with this large black man, I asked why he ran from the psychiatric hospital.  “I didn’t like it,” said the 32-year-old.  There were a lot of crazy people there.”   Ted is a good example why mentally ill people makeup as much as 50 percent of the Washington homeless population.  Ted is too  well to be institutionalized but not well enough to cope on his own.  Unfortunately, adequate mental health services such as group homes, supervised employment  opportunities and specialized recreational programs are severely out of reach for many mentally ill people.   “The reasons why such resources are not available in the United States are painfully clear.  Medical care is costly and the medical insurance industry is primarily for profit, with human care second.  Its structure is controlled by a “more-money-mentality.”

Another acquaintance, Keith, is not homeless. His part-time job as a telephone sales representative enables him to rent a one-bedroom apartment but not to buy medical insurance.   When we  introduced ourselves, he stuck out his left hand. “Two years ago, I fell and broke a bone in my right hand,” explained Ted. “I had to decide either to get it fixed and become homeless or to pay the rent.  I paid the rent.  It still hurts when I shake with my broken hand so I use my left.”

Before I left Washington, I joined in the massive Housing Now March which focused on the extreme shortage of affordable housing. The speakers identified the devastation Reagonomics brought to America’s poor;  the cuts to social programs, the lack of incentive programs to construct housing for people of moderate to low income and the astronomical military spending which put the nation into severe debt.  The inner city experiences housing and school deterioration and high crime. It contains a severely disadvantaged population known as the underclass which is disproportionately young, uneducated, unskilled and poor.  They lack of resources to be able to contribute to society.

It is a short step from the inner city to homelessness.  The homeless life lacks good food, sleep and cleanliness. The lack of security is stressful and exposure to the elements erodes a person from inside and out.  The stigma of being an untouchable detaches and disaffiliates the person from the rest of society.  Loneliness is won and love lost. Addicts, especially alcoholic winos and drug dependent junkies, are the best known group of all homeless people. The desire to consume has command of their will and controls their life.

Janet didn’t have to explain why she prostituted herself. I looked at her shriveled body.  She was starving.   When it’s a choice between food or Crack, the addict will choose not to eat.  I wouldn’t give Janet money, but I did give her food, which she eventually ate.  In order to feed their unquenchable desire, some chronic substance abusers beg, some prostitute themselves, others sell drugs and still others turn to violent crime.

A three-year-old girl sang and danced along as I played Jingle Bells on a New York subway platform.  I noticed a man to my left looking at the girl, then at me, then at the girl again.  I said to him,  “Now you believe the story about the Pied Piper and the magic of children and the flute?” His response surprised me. “I was going to push you down and steal the money from your tip jar but I couldn’t do it when I saw how happy you were making that little kid,” he said.   I thanked him for not doing it and told him the kid was making me happy too. Then I asked him why he would want to steal my money in the first place.  For the next half hour Steve told me his problems. He had a severe dependance on alcohol, a marriage failure, homelessness and had lost his job as a substance abuse counsellor. He showed his old work identification cards. He also showed me a butcher knife in his pocket but assured me that he would never have used it on me. He was afraid of all the people who do Crack.  I gave him some money for a hamburger.

Some of my other homeless acquaintances are Roxy, who ran away. from her sexually abusive father;  Steve, who was evicted after real estate developers bought the  apartment building; Lou, whose life was a merry-go-round from the street to prison to the street again; Bob, who gave up hope after his wife asked for a divorce; Louis, whose sense of self purpose was destroyed by the Vietnam war; John who was laid off work without savings in the bank; Juan, who was an illegal immigrant from Central America,  Tom, Elizabeth and baby-to-be who eloped into homelessness and Kitty, who ran away from the confinement and loneliness of an old folks home.  It is sad but the list goes on.

When a friend came from Saskatchewan to visit during my last days in New York City, the dangers of street life were magnified.  Although a hotel room was rented during her visit, much of the time was spent on the street. I showed her the different places I slept, ate and busked. I introduced her to some of my homeless friends. We also worked together as volunteers at St. Francis Xavier food service which provides a meal to over 1,200 people each Sunday.  Her presence made me acutely aware of the worry my lifestyle is causing her, my Mom and Dad, and my family and friends. The people who love me don’t want me to be homeless and I don’t want anyone to be homeless either.

On January 22, 1990, I crossed the border and as I played O Canada on my quena, it felt as if a great burden was lifted from my shoulders.  Although I am now in my homeland, I’m still far from home. I made a commitment to live the homeless life in Canada. Even though I believe Canadian systems and structures are more caring and recognize the inherent dignity of each human being, we still have homeless people here. I want to know why.  Until July 13, 1990, when I plan to return for Naicam’s Homecoming celebration, I will be living without a home in Toronto and Quebec City.