Joseph has been sitting here, alone under a tree by the Starbuck’s sign, surrounded by piles of plastic grocery bags, for months. He has been sitting here, night and day, while an endless stream of cars inch up to the drive-through window. He is sitting here, a Black man in his 20s, a dream deferred.
Today, Joseph is wearing heavy grey sweatpants, a thick sweatshirt, and a black face mask as the heat climbs toward 100 degrees. He has not bathed. How could he? Flies buzz around him.
“I worry about you being out here,” I tell him when I stop by to check on him.
He doesn’t say anything.
People have tried to help. Someone has left him a large plastic cup of ice water on the ground. He hasn’t touched it. The ice is melting.
“You must be hot.”
“The tree helps,” he says, pointing to the shade above.
“Is there anyone I can call, anyone who could help?”
He shakes his head.
“Are you interested in going to a shelter?”
He shakes his head. I can’t blame him for not wanting to go to a crowded shelter, especially during a pandemic. But he could die out here.
“Do you have any family?”
He shakes his head.
Cars roar past the generic suburban strip mall as we talk.
“How long have you been out here?”
“For a little while.”
“Would you be interested in housing, if there was any available?”
He pauses, then looks at me.
“That’s something to think about.”
Maybe he can get into a program for people experiencing chronic homelessness. I tell him I will see. Later, I connect with a nonprofit that promises to send someone to try to help him. But will there be any housing available?
For now, at least there is one thing I can do.
“Are you hungry?”
His voice is soft, and with the street noise and social distancing, I can barely hear.
“Yeah, you could bring me a venti Dragon Drink and a bacon gouda and egg sandwich.”
I walk into the Starbucks to order. Since it’s not busy, I say it’s for the homeless gentleman outside and ask if they know how long he has been there.
“He’s been there about a year,” one of the baristas says.
Joseph has been sitting here, a fixture, through oppressive heat, heavy rain, and winter freezes, through a global pandemic, lockdowns, through an outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter, and through billions in relief for everyone else. He has been sitting here, still, almost a statue, a monument to our ability to look the other way.
I bring Joseph the food and drink, then I say I will check on him again: “I know it’s got to be hard out here. I’m so sorry.”
Joseph responds as if I’m the one who needs comforting.
Kim Horner previously covered homelessness as a newspaper reporter. Her first book, Probably Someday Cancer: Genetic Risk and Preventative Mastectomy, was published by The University of North Texas Press in 2019. Her work has appeared in Seventeen, Echo: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction and Ten Spurs. Kim is pursuing her MFA from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Find out more about Kim on her website.