Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesDavid Pirtle can’t itemize the number of times he went into coffee shops when he was homeless and bought the cheapest thing he could, just so he could use the restroom. Instead, he was told to pick up his order and leave.
“I couldn’t sit down because they didn’t want someone who looked like me or smelled like me in their establishment,” Pirtle said.
Pirtle, who served two years on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless and is now on its speakers bureau, said the worst moment of his life was the time he was living on the street in New York City and was attacked by kids with a baseball bat when he was sleeping in a stairwell. Typically, young people think a homeless survivor of such an attack will not go to police, he said. Yet 1 in 3 such encounters are fatal to the homeless person.
Passage of Homeless Bills of Rights such as in Illinois, Rhode Island and Connecticut would have protected his right to sit in the public space, Pirtle said. But more important, he said it would “help change the zeitgeist, the way homeless people are thought of, lower the violence. Stigma comes from bias.”
“Absolutely,” he said, “everyone who is experiencing homelessness would be grateful” for the passage of Homeless Bills of Rights.
Still other parts of the legislation in Illinois pertain to the ability to hold onto employment while homeless. Pirtle said that although he had managed restaurants in Arizona, he knows that in 30 or 40 places where he applied for a job, he was discriminated against because he did not have an address or a phone number.
Pirtle suffered undiagnosed schizophrenia throughout his 20s. When he was 29, he said he had a psychotic break and lost his job, then his apartment. He didn’t have an insight into his illness and hitchhiked across the country.
After being chronically homeless for three years and mentally ill, he was lucky to be referred to a “housing first” program so that he would have a place to work on his issues. Now 39, he works as an advocate because he is thankful he was able to bypass years of waiting for Section 8 and months of waiting for Social Security benefits and wraparound psychiatric services.
By Suzanne Hanney