Puss oozes from the dark red sore in the corner of the man’s sun scorched lips. I observe in silent shock as he bites the filter off his cigarette and spits it onto the sand. He mumbles something about his wife as he wanders away, perhaps having visions from his former life before he wandered the beach, jobless and homeless.
Jacksonville’s laws regarding the homeless are harsh, so our small church group is not even allowed to set up a table from which to serve food. Instead we wander down the boardwalk holding plastic bags stuffed with hamburgers, apples, water bottles and cookies to give away.
Homeless aren’t hard to come by on Jax Beach, in fact they are often hard to avoid when walking near the pier. I only worry I will offend one of the sun burned old local surfers by mistakenly offering him one of our bags. I stay toward the back of the group, letting our leader, Jared, make conversation while I mutely listen in. As Jared talks to a man called Hawaiian Mike people zoom by on large handled beach bikes yelling “Hey Mike!” Mike responds with a wave and a gap toothed grin, happy to be the king of the beach.
We stop to talk to two men sitting by the side of the boardwalk. One sits in a lawn chair with his long white hair blowing in the breeze. His bike, the handlebars laden with grocery bags, leans against a nearby light pole. The man sitting next to him wears designer jeans and a button down shirt. His clean shaven face and short cropped hair hide the fact that he has been living on the street for the past two weeks. He points to the cast on his leg as he explains how paying his medical bills made him unable to afford his rent. He has held on to his job, but has to hide from his manager that he sleeps on a bench down the street. I want to stay and ask him more questions, but our group moves on.
Next we talk to Ed and DJ, who ask us to bring them blankets and jackets since it is getting colder. The group moves on, but a few of us hang back to continue the conversation. I’m not sure if it’s rude to ask how they became homeless, but they are surprisingly open to talking to us. DJ tells us how he worked as a car salesman for 23 years before getting a blood clot in his leg. After several surgeries and procedures, doctors ended up having to amputate his left leg above the knee, leaving him in a wheelchair. Medicaid provided him with a prosthetic leg, but he couldn’t stand up all day to work at the car lot. Now he lives on Social Security and food stamps, moving in and out of apartments as he gets kicked out after racking up expenses.
Ed is more vague about his past, mentioning living in Colorado and working for his brother. He is younger, and could pass for just another local on the beach if it weren’t for his stuffed backpack and leathery companion. As we stand conversing with the two of them I’m surprised by how normal they are. I want to come back and talk to these men more. I want to be their friend. I don’t know what I expected when I agreed last minute to go hand out food, but I certainly didn’t expect to want to spend the rest of my Sunday afternoons hanging out with homeless men by the beach.
Pretty soon we have to leave, but Jared tells the guys that he’ll be back next week to bring them blankets. As it turns out I never get to go back and talk more with Ed and DJ, Sunday afternoons are just too busy, but this story isn’t about my thriving friendships with Jacksonville’s homeless. I have to admit before my brief adventure with the homeless, I was rather scared of homeless guys. Some of them are pretty intimidating, but they’re people, with life histories, feelings and opinions. Of course I knew that before in theory, but after actually meeting some of them, it became a reality.
This not to say that I’m going to stop and chat with every bum I see on the side of the street, but I do hope I get to befriend more.