As one can probably imagine, living on the streets affords one a greater opportunity for contact with the police than the usual citizen has. Over the last several years, my life has been in one of three stages: in active addiction but not homeless, in active addiction and homeless, and, currently, homeless and a number of years clean. In each stage, the attitudes and actions of individual police officers have sometimes been exactly as you may have expected and at some times totally unexpected.
Back when I was shooting dope and coke like it was going out of style, but still working and with a place to live, the No. 1 goal was to avoid any and all contact with the police. On occasions when it was unavoidable, it was usually in neighborhoods where it was beyond obvious what I, as a white guy, was doing there-either just before scooping, waiting to scoop, or having just scooped-and the contact was usually adversarial. Often ill and always paranoid, my objective was: get what I needed, get away, and convince any cop who stopped me that I was just passing through and to let me be. Or if that didn't seem likely, to eat, hide, or dump whatever I just scored and hope no one saw it and I would be free to slip back and find my stash later and that it wasn't ruined.
In those days, it was a cat-and-mouse game, but I was still a citizen, if not a civilian, assumed to be either a criminal or a player. Every once in a while there would either be a real hardnose or a social-worker type, respectively wanting to either beat you down into or help you up out of the gutter.
For a short time in 1998, I was truly homeless, deep into my final approach to the crash-and-burn bottoming out of my love/hate relationship with heroin, cocaine, and the needle, I was wandering in and out of the various open-air drug markets, dope holes, and shooting galleries of East Baltimore. Being in certain neighborhoods at varying hours of the day and night on a regular basis seemed to afford me a kind of local status, and having kept the lowest possible profile regarding the police and being unfailingly polite and respectful, nonconfrontational and nonaggressive in all contact with them, I became another part of the landscape. Seen, noted, overlooked. I went from citizen to cipher just by being homeless.
On my current leg of the journey into and through homelessness, living on the street, clean, but with absolutely nothing but what I can carry with me, I'm looked upon as less than a nonentity, a negative of a human being, not worthy of attention unless it's to be moved on, hassled, arrested, figuratively kicked aside like a pile of dogshit by many if not most of the cops I run into.
One of the first and most disturbing situations I ran into was in the Baltimore City Code Blue Shelter, on a single-digit night with a below-zero wind chill. There were on- and off-duty uniformed Baltimore City police officers acting as security and hanging out inside the lobby in the old school building on Guilford Avenue. As I came inside and offered my bag to be searched and underwent a metal detector wand search and pat-down by the workers at the registration tables (forced to discard all the food I had, unsealed and sealed, all pens, pencils, and markers, scissors, and tools), four cops began laughing and pointing at me. I was carrying a large yellow duffel bag with all my possessions inside it. It was one of the popular B.U.M. Equipment Co. products that were everywhere in the late '80s to mid-'90s. They began shouting things like, "Hey, I see you have your name on your bag," and "Do they give those to you when you're homeless so everyone knows who you are?" When I looked up with what must have been a mix of hurt and anger in my eyes, one of them placed his hand on his gun and said, "You got a problem, bud-I mean bum?" This is all bad enough, coming in off the street in the bitter cold to the shelter of last retreat, but these individuals were also leaning against the wall under a large banner which said, as I recall, in bold, black letters "You deserve to be treated with respect, dignity is a right not a privilege."
One morning about five years ago, the owner of a 7-Eleven on Reisterstown Road allowed me to sit in front of his store after I had swept his lot, and I put out my sign ("Homeless Please Help/Clean And Sober/Thank You/God Bless") and a cup for donations. A city cop came up, ripped my sign, kicked over my cup, and told me to "Go down to the 7-Eleven on Belvedere in the ghetto with the other niggers, where you belong." When I tried to explain that the owner had given me permission, he pulled out a collapsible baton and slammed it against a metal sign on the wall for effect, then jabbed me in the chest, all the while frothing at the mouth and shouting about how all homeless are shit, and if I didn't leave in five seconds he was going to "lock my ass up." I left, even as the 7-Eleven owner came out and began to ream out the cop, and I avoided his patrol area for a good eight months after that.
But there are also some law enforcement personnel out there who go over and above their duty to help someone out. One cold winter morning, I stood on the exit ramp of I-83 where it hits North Avenue at Mount Royal Avenue, holding my sign, trying to raise enough money for a couple hot meals, and a big black SUV with blacked-out windows stopped at the light on the exit ramp, the driver's window opened a few inches, and I saw a face and part of a uniform collar and a turtleneck sweater, and a voice asked if I was OK. I said I would be when I got enough to get some hot coffee, I heard an "all right," and the light changed and he pulled off. Fifteen minutes later, the SUV pulled up and honked. As I got there, I saw that there was an officer and a commander of the BPD QRT (Quick Response Team). He handed me a bag of Dunkin' Donuts breakfast sandwiches and a couple cups of coffee, wished me well, and pulled off.
So sometimes you run into a cop who treats you as a disease to be eradicated; other times you find one who sees you as a fellow human being who could use a hand. You never know.
Dave blogs about life on the street at homlesscide.blogspot.com