A Scene From the Fallsway

by Owen Silverman Andrews
September 25, 2016

It’s a Tuesday like any other on the Fallsway, distinguishable only by September’s final dismissal of Baltimore summer humidity, leaving the first hint of fall chill in the night air. When darkness falls, the Sheriff’s Department raids the encampment on the steps of Healthcare for the Homeless. An hour later, a man strewn on the same steps lurches up, projectile vomits, and slams his head down hard on the concrete. I witness it from across the street, not moving, not knowing what to do.

It’s a night like any other on the Fallsway, but tonight, one of those sleeping out is Margaret Flowers, a doctor — as well as a Green Party candidate for US Senate in Maryland — and she rushes across the street to call 911 and check the man’s vitals, now leaking from both sides of his head, until the wail and flash of the ambulance and the EMTs scoop him up off the pavement with just a touch more humanity than the prowling Sheriff’s deputies.

Tonight I’m participating in a “Speak Out, Sleep Out with the Homeless” organized by Green Party Vice-Presidential Candidate Ajamu Baraka, Dr. Flowers, and Green Party mayoral candidate Joshua Harris. My friend A.R. and I head downtown from Patterson Park, where we live, to check it out, arriving after the press conference. There are still a few cameras milling around, hoping for that shot to tell the story that they leave too early to catch. One night on the street cannot convey what people without permanent shelter experience daily, but no doubt if you leave before sun up you’re not even trying.

I try to settle in for a long night but everyone around me is buzzing in conversation. People from the various campaigns are talking strategy, about the grind that will climax on Election Day November 8. The candidates, including Harris, seem more interested in engaging the folks on the street. Harris and a man in a red t-shirt — 29 years old like me, like me in other ways, too, nothing like me in more ways than I’ll ever know — strike up a conversation. This man will share a lot with us over the next few hours: How it wasn’t just the Sheriff’s boys made the folks scatter, but the TV cameras following the campaigns. How a high school diploma isn’t enough if you’ve got a felony on your record. How there aren’t enough adult ed programs. How his blood brother, leaning against a No Standing street sign a few feet from us, is Black, but his brother from another mother — he gestures across the street to the steps, terracing for strange fruit — is white but as Black as him after years living outdoors. How politics is corrupt and they’ll never let someone real take the steering wheel of power.

Harris agrees with him on the national level, but counters that at the local level, one person can inspire ten people to volunteer, that those ten can turn out 3,000 to vote, and that if we can transform apathy borne of oppression into action born of necessity, we can turn this town on its head on November 8. After an hour or so he stands up and points his finger in Harris’s face, and tells him that politics is bullshit and he hasn’t voted in years, but that he will vote for him this year, on one condition: Get this felony off my record so I can work, he says to Harris.

I curl up in a tent between Margaret, Josh, and one of the band of grunts Cheri Honkala — a long-time homeless organizer and formerly homeless mother herself — has brought down to the Fallsway, pop a melatonin, fold my blanket under my boney hip, ignore the squeak of rats, and remember Cheri’s bedtime story to us that in taking turns watching over each other tonight, we are experiencing (and extending, however temporarily) the basic human need of safety, a prerequisite of real sleep, which is more than can be said for most folks sleeping on corners and under overpasses across Baltimore this night. We bring the privilege of safety with us, like the small swarm of cameras, like the hot dogs, KFC, and Kool-aid being distributed all night as part of the action.

I wake up two and a half hours later. I stuff a donut in my face and take a seat next to Kwame Rose talking to Baraka’s campaign manager, Sade Swift, about long nights at the Horseshoe Casino when sleep eludes him. We talk about everything, and nothing, until like clockwork just past 4 a.m., candidates and homeless folks alike start emerging from tents and other places.

Kwame grabs a football from a nearby SUV. The man in the red t and his brother reappear, and the three of them throw the pigskin in the middle of the Fallsway, forcing a smile across my tired face.

A few days later, at a Green Party rally at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center on Howard St, Dr. Jill Stein will comment on the contrast between her rivals, throwing $20,000 a plate fundraisers in the Hamptons, and her running mate, who spent a night on the street in Baltimore, speaking and sleeping out with the homeless. True, but this moment, with the three men playing in the street, and all around us Baltimore refusing to rouse itself, just yet, what we’re a part of can’t be squeezed into a stump speech, or a blog post for that matter.