Project 21 New Visions


A Whiff of Truth

by Kimberley Jane Wilson

A hard truth about homelessness in America smacked me in the nose.  Literally.

The day had started out great.  As soon as I stepped aboard my bus, however, the good feelings evaporated like dew in the morning sun.  The bus driver, normally a jovial, smiling man who greeted everyone, looked grim.  The passenger sitting behind him had a pained expression, and her trembling hand covered her mouth.  Had I just walked onto a hijacked bus?

In a way, I had.  A homeless man was sitting in the first row.

The stench of his unwashed body was overwhelming.  He reeked of bodily waste, alcohol and old vomit.  His expression was hostile, and his hands were balled into fists as if ready to attack.  I pretended he wasn't there, but my stomach and stinging eyes wouldn't go along with the ruse.  After a few minutes, I opened the window and leaned toward the fresh air.  At the next stop, the passengers seemed to leap up as one and rush from the bus.

Later, I walked past a church and noticed a man and woman I'll call "Bob" and "Cindy."  They're your garden variety fallen-into-the-gutter-and-won't-get-up type of drunks.  Both are cunning as they manage to show up at the same church every day just as people are entering or leaving service.  Cindy frequently quotes the Bible or loudly calls anyone who won't give her a dollar a Pharisee.  On days she's gone too long without a drink, she can be aggressive.  Bob specializes in rushing up to little old ladies and holding out his hat while looking as sad as possible.

Across the street from the church is one of those tiny parks meant to be a miniature oasis in the city.  It's now an eyesore where ruined people, pigeons and rats reign supreme.  The Bull Woman used to live there.  I called her that because, on most days, she sat in the park with a blank, bovine expression.  She never begged, and I'm not certain she even realized that the shapes moving past her every day were human beings.

Sometimes I'd walk by and see Bull Woman's exposed breasts or feet.  Occasionally, she'd talk to someone visible only to herself.  Those were her good days.  On a bad day, the Bull Woman frightened people, and I could never figure out what had set her off.  Someone would walk by and suddenly the Bull Woman became alert as if a bright light had been turned on.  Focused on some unlucky person, she'd stand up, curse and rush toward them.  I wondered how long it would be before she actually hurt someone or herself.  One day, Bull Woman wasn't in the park anymore.  I never saw her again.

Although I've described these people as homeless, that's not quite accurate.  The man on the bus, Bull Woman, and Bob and Cindy all have problems that go beyond mere housing.  These poor people aren't on the street because of mean old conservatives, the economy or stingy taxpayers.  You could hand them a rent-free apartment and a simple job requiring no more than a few hours of their time per week and it wouldn't do any good.  The apartment would be trashed or abandoned within days, if not hours.  The job would be more than their shattered brains could handle.

Sick people are wandering our streets, whether the reasons are mental illness or addiction.  If society can be judged by how it treats its most pitiful members, ours certainly has failed.  We who live or work in the city have become adept at not seeing the human wrecks urinating on street corners, sleeping on sidewalks or screaming in the park.  We rush past them, holding our breath.  We ignore the whiff of truth.

Except for the truly hard-hearted, none of us would leave a shooting victim in the street.  If someone was struck by a car, we'd at least call 911.  Why, then, do we abandon the mentally ill to helpless suffering on our streets?


Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and a freelance writer in Northern Virginia.  Comments may be sent to

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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