Wineka: Homeless man shares a bit of his story

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 13, 2011

SALISBURY ó Michael describes himself as a man of candor.
Thatís the first thing I typed into my computer when he paid a visit to the newsroom the other morning.
The second thing I noted was that he had been in Salisbury since 1995.
ěItís a weird journey Iíve had,î was the next thing he said.
Michael became homeless in late 2008. Heís a tall man ó 6-5 to 6-6, he told me ó but living these last few years on the streets has bent his frame. His skin has a dull, lifeless color that the homeless seem to acquire after awhile.
ěIím wearing away, winter by winter,î he said. ěI donít have the leg power I used to.î
Michael is 53, a year younger than I am, and his thin face showed the early sprigs of a white beard. He wore a light jacket, even though the temperature was climbing that day into the 90s. He had long pants and sneakers that he said he found for $12 at Walmart.
I think he was carrying most of his belongings in a plastic bag. From his wallet, he fished out the business card of a man he was meeting at Richardís Barbecue for lunch. The wallet seemed to be crammed full of cards, papers and photographs of relatives.
Michael explained that he lives ěbasically on gifts from people who know who I am.î But itís a hand-to-mouth existence.
I learned that he doesnít like shelters. He said he ěfought my way outî of the Lexington shelter, which he called a prison. His light sleeping habits also were not conducive to the tight accommodations at the Salisbury shelter, he added.
ěI find spots to sleep,î Michael said. When I pressed him and asked where he had slept the night before, Michael said he canít reveal his sleeping location, knowing he would be driven out of there once it was discovered.
He needs, or manages, about four hours of sleep, stolen in two-hour intervals, Michael said.
ěIím as honest as the day is long ó and theyíre 20 hours long,î he said, giving a short laugh.
Michael, the man of candor, also considers himself a creative writer.
He said he writes letters all the time, to people such as Police Chief Rory Collins, and he estimated that he knew at least two dozen officers.
Michael also writes to the newspaper and politicians, including President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.
Sometimes he might send the politicians a gift, like a bookmark or an Easter card, and he said he tries to ěencourageî the government officials.
For several weeks, Michael also had been writing me letters, encouraging me to pay him a visit where he hung out during the day ó the Salisbury Mall.
From what I could tell, Michael spent his nights at a convenience store, where a generous clerk allowed him to find refuge.
But he told me during his newsroom visit that he had been forced to leave the mall and has relocated to the downtown, a reason he had stopped in to see me.
On receiving his letters, I debated with myself whether to seek out Michael. Part of me didnít want to write about him and risk hurting family members who still live here.
Itís a reason Iím not using his last name. And I could never adequately know all the events leading up to Michaelís becoming homeless.
Was there mental illness? Michael said heís clear-headed now. Were there many scrapes with the law? He mentioned trespassing. Were there serious family fractures? His letters suggested yes, but he told me he didnít want to talk about it now.
As I started taking notes, I confessed to Michael that Iíd be using him. I simply wanted to know ó and write about ó what his life on the street was like. He seemed OK with that.
Nonetheless, I learned a little bit about his past. He grew up in New Jersey. He said he has a bachelorís degree in pastoral ministries from ěa Chicago schoolî and was well versed in world civilization, world affairs, the Protestant work ethic and capitalism.
In Salisbury, he had worked as a school maintenance man and at Walmart, where management liked his work but ěthey didnít like me.î
Our morning visit was interrupted by an automatic alarm that forced the evacuation of our entire building. Michael and I walked down the stairs together and mingled with Post employees in the courtyard, waiting for an all-clear sign to return inside.
Michael left before that. I gave him $10 and suggested that we meet again the next morning, but he didnít come back.
I canít blame this man of candor. In a life piled on with indignities ó losing a home, a job, even places to hang out and sleep ó I was just one more.
I wouldnít even use his full name.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or