“Hey: Robert hasn’t moved since last night!”
I was on my mattress on the floor of the homeless shelter reading the New York Times on my cellphone when I heard that. It was about 6AM, and people had already started to get up and grab some breakfast. More people chimed in: “Yeah! Robert’s not moving!”
I looked over towards the end of the room where the commotion was. Several people were standing around a mattress pad on the floor at the other end of the room, looking down at their friend who was definitely neither moving nor responding to their attempts to awaken him.
Knowing some first aid , I got up and headed down to the scene of the crisis, expecting to find exactly what I found. Robert was lying face down on his mattress pad in a position that indicated that he collapsed just as he was about to lie down, and had landed face first on the pad with his hands under his upper torso, giving the appearance that he was clutching his chest as he fell forward. His face was buried in the pad in such a way that it was clear that he didn’t just lie down there. His bare arms were blotchy.
I looked closely at his back to see if it was moving. It was not. I put my hand on his back to see if I could feel him breathing; his body was cool to the touch. I touched his right arm to see if I could shake him but it was rigid. Another woman came over with tears in her eyes and said: “let’s turn him over and see if we can do some CPR or something”. I told her it would not be of any use. “He’s stiff as a board” I said, sadly. Robert was clearly dead.
Everyone in the room was in shock. The volunteers from the shelter called 911 and started clearing a path for the paramedics. The 40 or so homeless adult men and women, and shelter staff, stood in shock at the amazing scene: he, like all of us, had come to the shelter the night before and had enjoyed the marvelous hospitality of the shelter ‘s crew and a huge and delicious meal they’d prepared for us and had settled down to sleep on our thick mattress pads (complete with fitted sheets and pillows and clean linen). And it was here in the one place in Des Plaines, IL where Robert consistently was treated like a human being that he spent his final hours. Surrounded by his friends and a shelter staff that knew him and cared for him for years, he died, having spent at least the past 6 years living on the streets of the prosperous, “leafy Chicago suburb”.
I had never actually met Robert; but I had seen him at dinner last night. I heard a sort of choking cough coming from the dining area and it drew my attention to him. He was sitting up but clearly in distress; his face was darkening and he seemed unable to breathe, as if he had choked on some food. I watched him closely to see if he was going to be O.K., thinking this might be my first attempt at using the “Heimlich maneuver” on someone and trying to remember the steps for it; after about thirty seconds he reached for something to drink and drank it and then he seemed to recover, slowly. I then turned my attention back to eating my dinner and filling out the shelter intake forms. Once the forms were completed I finished my delicious dinner and went to bed (I was wiped out from the previous day when I had expected to have a place to sleep but it was not available and then got stuck staying out all night at a Dunkin’ Donuts, trying to work through the exhaustion). I don’t remember seeing Robert after that choking episode, though I did pass by his mattress pad on the way to my own and may have even seen him – momentarily, as I passed by – lying in the exact same state that he was found in 8 hours later. I passed by him and the rest of the men getting ready for bed and I took up my place on the floor. I tried to check the latest news on my cell phone but I was so tired I just couldn’t read, so put it away and immediately fell asleep.
After I had tried to shake Robert awake and realized that he was long gone, I was in a mental daze for a few minutes. So many political thoughts swirled through my mind as I tried to make sense of this tragedy. About the callousness of the capitalist system that allows this to happen every day – in one of the the richest countries in the world! About the irony that Robert had died not on a sidewalk in front of the library or in the Crooked Crook County Forest Preserve or huddled in a doorway but inside one of the nicest homeless shelters in the county, in a nice warm room, where he was treated by the staff with dignity and respect and he was always treated that way and could always count on a generous and nutritious meal…
I realized that I had an opportunity to show to the people of Des Plaines and the world how homelessness kills people, that even under the best conditions a person can die too young – Robert, for example, was only in his early 50s – from the relentless stress and hostility experienced from the police and citizenry, and the enforced exposure to the elements every homeless person faces.
The paramedics came in and started to work on Robert. They, too, decided immediately that it was pointless to try to turn him over. They left him as he was and attached electrodes to his back (I think) and to maybe his hand and tried to see if there was any electrical signal being produced by his body indicating nerve activity. They never tried to resuscitate him. A group of police officers came in and watched the paramedics work while other cops interviewed the shelter staffers and a couple of Robert’s friends.
Once they had covered Robert’s body with a sheet I tried to take a photo of him lying on the floor of the shelter as a graphic illustration that homelessness kills people. It was just a sudden realization that here I was with a very rare opportunity to document a tragedy caused by the capitalist system, and a type of tragedy that is being largely swept under the rug by the government, the bourgeois press and the citizens of the USA.
As I raised my cell phone camera to take the shot, one of the cops shouted angrily for me to leave the room. “What are you doing? Taking a photograph? Have some respect! Get out of here!” one cop said. “You want to cover this up! No one is supposed to know this is happening!” I responded. “Look: the cover-up has already started!” I still wanted to take a photo but clearly the sentiment in the room – even among some of my fellow homeless people – was not in favor of the idea. I think everyone probably assumed initially that “the new guy” wanted to send the photo to the “Enquirer” or something or to make money off it.
When the head of the shelter appealed to me not to take any photos I put the phone away. I still wish I had just taken the shot. It is amazing that people are so sensitive about showing “respect” to a dead homeless man who this society so completely DISRESPECTED by allowing him to remain homeless for at least 6 years when he was alive! Never in my life have I seen a cop “demanding” respect for the homeless before – they usually harass and arrest them every chance they get! Homeless people, apparently, can only get the police to DEMAND respect for them… when they’re dead!
I explained to the shelter director why I was attempting to take the photo: that it was for my political party’s blog and to show people very graphically that homelessness kills people. Understandably, he was pleased that I had not taken any photos of the deceased in his shelter. It’s hard enough to get permission from the cities and towns and their shitty, money-grubbing citizens to run a homeless shelter to begin with. Any kind of bad publicity could be used as a weapon in the hands of those heartless scum who don’t want shelters in “their” neighborhoods because “the homeless lower property values”.
The shocked and saddened people at the shelter began to file out onto the street an hour early. They gathered in small groups at the entrance to the shelter and talked about the passing of their friend. Everyone I spoke to knew Robert; some knew him well.
“Robert was a good friend. I’d known him for… God, at least 6 years. We had a lot of good times together. A lot of good times” one of the guys told me. He’d spent a lot of time drinking with him. “He was a drinker, no doubt; that’s probably what killed him”. I’d heard the same thing from several people already. “It was 6 years of living on the streets that killed him” I replied. “If he had access to a doctor on a regular basis he’d have gone to a hospital last night when he felt sick – and he might still be alive today” I said. Robert’s friend thought for a minute: “Hmm… maybe. I don’t know”.
As the crowd dissipated slowly I remained outside the shelter. I couldn’t take a photo of Robert lying where he dropped dead but I could certainly document them removing him from the shelter to the coroner’s van if I stood on the public sidewalk and photographed from there. But there was resistance to that idea as well. A man arrived and spoke to one of the organizers of the shelter and went inside the building. A few minutes later he came out to me and introduced himself: he was Jon Rapp of “Journeys: The Road Home”/PADS, the organization that has cobbled together the network of churches that take turns sheltering the homeless in Chicago’s near-northern and northwestern suburbs. This organization has done yeoman’s work in Chicago’s suburbs where for decades there simply was no safety net for the homeless at all. They used to be all sent to Chicago; many still are.
“I urge you not to take a photograph of Robert’s body out of respect for him and for his family” Mr. Rapp implored me. “If his family had so much respect for him they wouldn’t have allowed him to become homeless!” I replied. Jon brought me up short: “You have no idea what these families go through when they have to deal with mental health issues, drug issues, alcohol, you name it. I have counseled Robert for many years and his family was not as callous as you may think. I ask you again to not take any photographs of him in a body bag.” I explained that I was doing this not as an act of malevolent voyeurism but to show the reality of death facing homeless people, which I feel this society prefers not to know about.
“Out of all respect I would ask that you not take a photo. Publishing photographs of dead people is disrespectful to the person and to their family. It serves no educational purpose. People who don’t care about homeless people are not going to be swayed by a photograph” Jon asserted. “I knew Robert and I know he would not have wanted his photograph to be taken. You can take all the photographs of homeless people on the street that you want but please do not take any pictures of this man’s body in a bag.” I replied that neither of us can say with certainty what Robert would have wanted and that I was surprised that Mr. Rapp thought it was respectful to photograph homeless people without their permission on the street but not to photograph them when they are dead. He kind of walked that back a bit: “Well maybe you’re right, it’s not a good idea to just walk up to people and photograph them on the street.”
I compared the idea that I should not photograph a dead homeless man to the idea that no one had been allowed to photograph the arrival of dozens of coffins containing the bodies of US soldiers that were being shipped back to the US during the Iraq War. “The sole reason the military didn’t want those photographs taken was because they did not want the citizens of the USA to know how many of their kids were being killed as it might adversely affect the popularity of the war. Telling me not to take these photographs amounts to the same thing: it is an attempt to cover up the reality that homelessness kills people.”
“I think that the military did do it out of respect for the dead” Mr. Rapp replied.
“Well there are many people who would disagree with that assertion and who did disagree with it and called it censorship.”
“Still I ask you again not to take any photographs of Robert’s body out of respect for Robert and for his family.”
I told Mr. Rapp that I was going to take the photos and then think about it, taking his advice under consideration. And that’s what I did. And I completely understand that for any person in his position there are many reasons why they would not want any photos taken of a person who had died at their shelter. But having given it a lot of thought, I have decided that it is impossible to place Mr. Rapp and his organization’s narrow personal and corporate interests and the interests of Robert’s family on one side of the scale, and the interests of the rest of the entire world in the issue of homelessness on the other side and have the scale tip to the side of “respect” for the interests of a handful of people, no matter how close to the deceased they are. In order for this society to fully appreciate the enormity of the crime against humanity called “homelessness” we must face it squarely, even in death. This society has to be made to understand that their callous indifference to the homeless crisis is killing people every day – and that every citizen of the United States has the blood of the homeless on their hands because they do NOTHING to stop these preventable deaths. We are killing the homeless slowly and by degrees – that’s what happened to Robert – as well as killing them swiftly and suddenly, like when homeless people freeze to death on the streets as they do every winter across the United States. Robert didn’t “die”; he was murdered by the US capitalist class and by their partners in murder – the citizens of the United States. It is out of respect for Robert and out of respect for the hundreds of thousands of homeless people suffering on the streets of the USA that we publish the photographs. Socialists do not want to make homelessness “tolerable”; we want to put and end to homelessness once and for all time, here in the USA and around the world. And that’s why we fight not for mere reforms of the capitalist system – which perpetuate the homelessness crisis – but to overthrow the capitalist system that causes homelessness; and to replace greed-based capitalism with an egalitarian socialist workers republic in which housing will be a right, not a privilege.
I waited for a long time for the coroner’s vehicle to arrive. The Des Plaines police officer who had angrily ordered me out of the shelter when I tried to take the photo came out and I apologized to him for making a fuss but I wanted him to know I wasn’t trying to take a photograph for some sick reason but to show what homelessness does to people. He said I was well within my rights to take as many photos as I wanted to from the sidewalk but that it was a different story inside the church. I told him that I was well aware of that and that’s why I didn’t take the photos after the man running the shelter requested that I not do it. He was very calm and polite and he left and I waited. And waited.
Maybe twenty minutes later – not an ambulance, not a coroner’s van, but a hearse from a funeral home! – came and picked up Robert’s body. Could it be that the knowledge that someone was going to take a photo of the body being removed led to an upgrade to a funeral home’s shiny black hearse and two well-dressed attendants handling Robert’s body? Or was Robert’s family already notified of his death and in charge already… and was now willing to spend the thousands of dollars that they would not “waste” on him when he was alive?
Suddenly I heard the distinctive sound of a flock of Canadian geese coming from overhead – and I looked up to see an enormous flock flying north-northeast over the church. A fly-over in tribute to Robert? It sure felt that way!
The attendants from the funeral home went in and fetched Robert and brought him out of the shelter. I took several shots from about 20 feet up the sidewalk from the hearse. A cop accompanied the attendants as they came out of the shelter but no one spoke. The cop went to his car and left, and the funeral home attendants placed Robert in the back of the hearse and they left. I stood there for a minute, alone. And then I left.
I rode my bike over to the library to type up this report. It was a beautiful faux-spring day, just like yesterday – Robert’s last day alive. Yesterday it was sunny and beautiful and 65F – in the middle of February in Chicago! And today will be the same. A group of people from the shelter were standing out in front of the library waiting for a bus that would shuttle them to the next church in the rotation of homeless shelters out here in suburbia. [The homeless are given shelter at a different church every night so as to “spread around” the shame of the communities that homelessness exists in their towns. It helps the suburbanites feel better about themselves if the homelessness crisis in their towns is made to appear to be non-existent].
Some of Robert’s mourning friends were glad to talk about him.
“Robert was a fast walker. I mean fast! He walked like this:” “Apache” said. And he pantomimed Robert walking head down, body leaning forward, taking short strides and hustling along. “He could walk from Des Plaines to Palatine in 15 minutes!” he proudly boasted for his fallen friend. “Round-trip, Des Plaines-to-Palatine and back, hour and a half” another man laughed.
“I was in combat. And I couldn’t keep up with Robert. He was that fast.”