360 West February 2015 : Page 108

Community Service Jeff Guinn revisits the places where he found temporary refuge, hope, despair and everything else that comes with being homeless in Fort Worth. Writer Jeff Guinn’s firsthand look at what it’s like to live on the streets in 1997 shocked many. The ultimate result? The Fort Worth Day Resource Center for the homeless. We revisit parking lots, side streets and a men’s urinal as he reflects on his brief life on the streets. By Meda Kessler Photos by Ralph Lauer Man on the Street It has been almost 18 years since Jeff Guinn, then a newspaper reporter, began his weeklong odyssey as a homeless person. Or rather, as he’s quick to emphasize, his odyssey into what it’s like to feel homeless. It was a story he says he spent years pestering his editors at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to let him experience and write. “I didn’t think I understood the concept of what being homeless really meant and needed to experience it firsthand. And I knew I needed to be on the streets for more than one or two days,” says Jeff, who still lives in Fort Worth and is today a best-selling author. In full disclosure, I worked at the Star-Telegram with Jeff when he wrote the groundbreaking story, one that led to the creation of the Fort Worth Day Resource Center. As Jeff is this year’s featured speaker at the center’s annual Breakfast with the Mayor fundraiser, I contacted him in December and pestered him to take me on a brief tour and revisit some of his most memorable moments. Along with photographer Ralph Lauer, who coincidentally also worked on the Star-Telegram story, we head out in the comfortable warmth of Jeff’s sedan. 108 February 2015 360westmagazine.com

Community Service

Man on the Street

Writer Jeff Guinn’s firsthand look at what it’s like to live on the streets in 1997 shocked many. The ultimate result? The Fort Worth Day Resource Center for the homeless. We revisit parking lots, side streets and a men’s urinal as he reflects on his brief life on the streets.

It has been almost 18 years since Jeff Guinn, then a newspaper reporter, began his weeklong odyssey as a homeless person. Or rather, as he’s quick to emphasize, his odyssey into what it’s like to feel homeless.

It was a story he says he spent years pestering his editors at the Fort Worth Star- Telegram to let him experience and write. “I didn’t think I understood the concept of what being homeless really meant and needed to experience it firsthand. And I knew I needed to be on the streets for more than one or two days,” says Jeff, who still lives in Fort Worth and is today a best-selling author.

In full disclosure, I worked at the Star-Telegram with Jeff when he wrote the groundbreaking story, one that led to the creation of the Fort Worth Day Resource Center. As Jeff is this year’s featured speaker at the center’s annual Breakfast with the Mayor fundraiser, I contacted him in December and pestered him to take me on a brief tour and revisit some of his most memorable moments.

Along with photographer Ralph Lauer, who coincidentally also worked on the Star-Telegram story, we head out in the comfortable warmth of Jeff’s sedan.

“I had picked April, since I figured it would be warm. Of course, that first night set a record for cold temperatures,” Jeff says. He is wearing the same blue-jean jacket, which he says he’ll likely be buried in when that time comes. “I also had a small old-school backpack with some underwear, a few dollars, a cheap watch and a 20-ounce plastic bottle for water.” He didn’t take a phone, a notebook or any form of identification. He’d contact Ralph via a pay phone to give him a general idea of what area he would be in on a particular day. “I didn’t want anything that would give me away.”

Jeff began his journey at the bus station in downtown Fort Worth. “My wife, who was not happy with what I was doing, dropped me off that morning, and that was the last time I would speak with her for a week.”

The city proper was no place for a homeless person, says Jeff, who never panhandled but remembers being eyeballed by police and almost immediately ignored by everyone else.

From the bus station, he began the long walk to the Northside to find food and shelter, and motorists harassed him on the not-sopedestrian- friendly bridge leading out of downtown. He learned that there was not a “we’re in this together” attitude among the homeless.

“I’m not sure if it exists today, but there were racial divisions among the homeless. I was a white guy who had wandered into someplace that I didn’t belong.” But through the grapevine of people who find themselves living hand to mouth, he learned he could get a free bowl of soup from a little Mexican restaurant on North Main Street.

We drive slowly on side streets near LaGrave Field. Some spots have been developed and paved over; Jeff points out where he hopped a fence hoping to find shelter, only to be greeted by the growls of a guard dog.

“It was cold and rainy, and by 11 p.m., I saw a parked cargo van and had planned to sleep underneath it. But I tried one of the doors; it was unlocked, so I crawled inside and went to sleep.”

Jeff later met the van’s owner and learned he purposely left it unlocked to serve as a shelter for someone who might need it. That, along with the free soup, was among the small victories. The defeats were much more numerous.

Bathrooms: “One homeless guy told me that’s why he only wore dark pants; when he peed himself it didn’t show as much.” Jeff recalls the city library being one of the few places that allowed him some privacy, plus a place to wash up. If you nodded off, you would be asked to leave. “It’s the only time I identified myself.

I tried to show the security guard one of my books available there so they wouldn’t kick me out.” Dignity: “You lose it in so many ways; people don’t look at you, and they don’t speak to you.

I’d hear people talk about the ‘vodka’ that was in my water bottle.” We cruise by a now-closed club on the Northside, and Jeff looks at the forlorn building.
“The strippers always were friendly and polite.”

Privacy: “It’s almost nonexistent.” We pass slowly by the Union Gospel Mission and Presbyterian Night Shelter. People are lined up deep, waiting to enter. “The overnight shelters are loud, but sometimes you could get some night work, which meant you could pay for a room at this little motel on Lancaster and get a real night’s sleep.”

Food: Jeff learned that being hungry doesn’t always go hand in hand with being homeless. “You can always find something to eat. It might not be good, but it’s plentiful.”

The mean streets: We head south of Lancaster, and as we slow near a corner lot, Jeff talks about scuffling with a drug addict and having a heartpounding moment as he walked past some guys dealing drugs. “Women on the streets face this on a daily basis, and I admit I was afraid. The rules change out there.”

We end our short trip at Will Rogers Memorial Center in the Cultural District, far away from Fort Worth’s more visible homeless. The doors are open as crews prepare for the stock show and rodeo. Jeff leads the way past the shuttered concession stands until he sees a men’s room sign and stops.

“At Union Gospel, back then a company hired guys to clean up here after events. You got a sack lunch and transportation for the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. I was assigned to clean the urinals. Another fellow was thrilled for the chance to earn some money so he could buy a bus ticket home to see family. When it was time to return to the shelter, everyone anxiously awaited their payday. Instead, they were asked for an address so a check could be mailed to them.

“I have to say that one of my happiest moments after doing this story was later getting that company’s payment policy changed,” says Jeff.

His piece was published in the paper’s features section on June 8, 1997. Around Tarrant County, business leaders, politicians and others who could make a difference read about “Cowboy” and others Jeff had met. They read about how frustrating it is not to have day access to a restroom, how things like tampons are in short supply among the donated goods, and how sleep doesn’t come easily on a concrete sidewalk.

“Two weeks later, I’m having lunch at the Paris Coffee Shop with people who are asking me what the homeless need most,” says Jeff. Thanks to his article and people — including John P. Ryan of the Ryan Foundation and Jake Schrum, former president at Texas Wesleyan — the Day Resource Center opened in 1999.

Today, it serves about 600 people daily, offering them a place to take a shower, watch television and play cards as well as providing job-search training, health screenings and other life essentials. If you spend time there, see the volume of people who use the center, it’s difficult to imagine Fort Worth without it.

Jeff occasionally still drives on East Lancaster and stops in at Will Rogers. “I’ll never forget what it’s like to clean urinals.

THE DETAILS Breakfast with the Mayor

The fundraiser for the Fort Worth Day Resource Center this year features Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price along with special guest speaker and best-selling author Jeff Guinn. 7:30 a.m. Feb.6. Tickets, $100; 817-367-9383 or fwdayresourcectr.org. The Fort Worth Club, 306 W. 7th St., Fort Worth.

Read the full article at http://digital.360westmagazine.com/article/Community+Service/1917090/243877/article.html.

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