In a mid-sized town of nearly 200,000, everyone had seen his face, but few knew his name.
There are a lot of homeless veterans in the US, although the specifics vary depending on your source, and beyond their record of service, there is no cut and dry way to define their population or needs. I can’t speak for all homeless vets, or even many – but there was one I considered a friend.
I knew Richard Simpson for a few years in the early 2000s, though like many others, I’d seen him around long before that. His home was under an overpass at what was then the busiest intersection in town. Though many did their best not to see him, he had a distinctive look for a border town – he was an older Anglo man with a long hoary beard. He’d stitched most of his clothing together himself from odds and ends he’d found, including his skullcap, which seemed to be a patchwork assortment of leather strips held together by visible sutures.
The plan, originally, was to write a story about him for the newspaper. I’d previously written about shelters and assistance programs, but Mr. Simpson’s life touched me in a way I couldn’t quite grasp at the time. Another friend pointed out that if I wrote the story, and his name and face were on the front page of the paper, he probably wouldn’t like all the attention he got from random strangers. They were right, so I scrapped the story, but kept talking to Mr. Simpson as long as I could.
He didn’t begin many conversations with others – though he was known to chastise teenagers for littering or being disrespectful – but if you listened, there was a lot in what he didn’t say.
A Day in the Life
I followed him around a bit, to get his routines.
Simpson’s day began at the crack of dawn. He’d walk about a quarter mile from where he slept to what was then a Circle K. Then he’d sit next to the gas pumps and trash cans. At some point, a store employee would come out, take the full garbage bag out and put a new empty bag in. The full bag would be placed next to Simpson, neither man would make eye contact nor speak a word, and the employee would go back inside. Simpson then sifted through the bag.
He’d pull out a tossed 44 ounce mug and mutter to himself, “Yeah, I could use this.” And after a few other such acquisitions, he’d tie the bag up, lug it to the other end of the parking lot, and throw it in the bin.
Then he’d walk back to the Whataburger next to his overpass, and again, he’d sit and wait by the trash.
A Whataburger employee would then arrive carrying two full bags from inside: one with general trash, the other with burgers (some distinctly green). Both bags were placed next to Simpson, and again, not a word nor glance was shared.
This time, Simpson threw the general garbage bag away immediately, then dug through the burger bag. Holding a few up to the sunlight, as if inspecting for value, he chose a few, then tied the bag and tossed the rest away. That was breakfast.
The workers who left bags out for Simpson were confused when I asked them why they did it. “I dunno,” one said, “I guess we’ve always done it.” None knew his name, but they knew he was polite and courteous and would always pick up after himself.
I joined Simpson at the Whataburger on a semiregular basis. He gave me confused pleasantries the first few times, but I seemed to grow on him, and eventually we could have interesting partial conversations.
One of the first things Simpson showed me was an apparently government-issued card. I’ve never seen one like it before or since, but it assured anyone curious that Richard Simpson was able to serve as his own legal guardian. It seemed someone once tested him for mental competency, and he’d been found just sane enough to be allowed on his own recognizance. Essentially, it was an “I’m Not Crazy” card. I need one of those.
His favorite possession was a different card, however. He proudly displayed an old shredded library card, held together by scotch tape. Apparently librarians chose to look the other way when he showed someone else’s beat up card, because he used it fairly often to access the public computers. There was only one thing he searched for online, and he had a manila folder full of printouts to prove it: Miss America. In fact, he could recite from memory favorite pastimes, special talents, birthdays and other trivia about each and every winner. He referred to each as “my girlfriend.”
Paradoxically, he could not remember much about his own life. Or he didn’t want to.
He knew he wasn’t from the Rio Grande Valley, that was for sure. Somewhere up north, probably the Northwest. He knew he’d been in South Texas for at least 15 years at that point, but wasn’t sure what brought him there.
At one point, he even handed me his Social Security card so I could “look up” information on him. I didn’t have the ability to do that, so handed it back.
Old Soldiers Fade Away
I asked if he’d been in war – he was certainly old enough to have been in Vietnam.
He paused, staring off into the nothingness about four feet away from his shadow on the ground. “No,” he stammered, “no, I wouldn’t like that.”
Deciding not to press the issue, I changed topics. A few visits later however, he’d unfurled a blanket with most of his worldly goods displayed. I noticed an old Bible and asked him about it.
“My C.O. gave that to me. It saved my life.” He went on to describe something about helicopters and fire, but never gave any concrete details.
He also showed me a VA card once, and talked about receiving benefits each month. He didn’t say how much, but he didn’t seem to want for much, all things considered.
He Was Self-Sufficient
In fact, he refused all handouts.
Once I offered him a coupon for a free Taco Bell meal that had been sitting in my wallet for a while. I knew I was never going to use it, and Taco Bell was right next to his sleeping spot.
“No,” Simpson said, after some consideration. “I don’t think I’d like that.”
In my imagination, even he wouldn’t want Taco Bell, but the truth was, he just didn’t like being given stuff. He wanted to earn it, or make it himself, but he was happy with the life he was living, in his own way.
When the overpass was rebuilt to make way for more lanes and more traffic, city officials picked Simpson up and moved him out of town. He’d gripe and complain, then walk back to his intersection. The process was repeated a few times before he just never came back again.
I’ve called various authorities over the years to see if his name popped up or if those who knew his face had seen him, but he never so much as blipped on the radar, and now there are fewer who remember him.
There’s No Easy Solution to Homelessness
My point in this story is this: Homelessness is not always as simple as just providing a roof.
I can only speak from my experience, so this is by no means meant to be a blanket statement, but every panhandler I’ve talked to has had a home (albeit crappy), and every homeless person I’ve met has been loath to panhandle (though I’ve known some that would gladly try to sell things they’ve made).
There are too many possible reasons for homelessness to get into here, but suffice to say, it isn’t cut and dry.
I’ve been hearing a lot about the need to help homeless veterans in this country, including the rather misguided comparison to helping Syrian refugees. To put it bluntly, I could probably temporarily house a family displaced by war, but I don’t have the resources or training necessary to house Mr. Simpson, nor would he have accepted a free room from me.