Shipped Off

When you're down and out in West Palm, a free ticket to New York can mean just being homeless in another city

With no one to bail him out, Joe sat there for five days. It was enough time for Joe to lose his job. He missed paying the weekly rent, so his landlord padlocked his apartment. With his car impounded, the only thing he owned were the clothes he was wearing, including a bright blue shirt with a photo of New York City firemen raising an American flag with the words "All give some, some give all." He pleaded guilty September 5 to not having a driver's license, and the judge sentenced him to the time he had already served in jail. He left the lockup with nothing. "I was totally fucked," he says. "Here I had a job, a car, and an apartment, and in a week, I lost everything. Next thing I know, I'm sleeping on the beach." After a week of having sand fleas attack him while he slept, a nun who helps the homeless sent Joe to the Homeward Bound program. It took about two hours to get him set up for his journey north, and Jordan saw Joe off for the 3:30 p.m. bus, bound for New York on September 11.

Joe wanted to go back home anyway, but it astonished him to see how little Palm Beach County offers for its homeless residents. There were men sleeping there on the beach nearby who'd said they had been doing it for years, with no shelters for them. Some said they'd take the free bus tickets if they had anyone who would take them in. "Palm Beach County doesn't offer any help whatsoever," Joe says as the bus heads north. "It's like they'll send you somewhere and that's it."

West Palm social worker Lela Jordan gives Joe a couple of bags of junk food, a bus ticket north, and a kind farewell. On the way, Joe naps with a fellow Greyhound passenger.
West Palm social worker Lela Jordan gives Joe a couple of bags of junk food, a bus ticket north, and a kind farewell. On the way, Joe naps with a fellow Greyhound passenger.

Joe looks as if he has just raided the junk-food aisle at a 7-Eleven. In his left hand, he has a torpedo-shaped bottle of fruit punch, in his right is a bag of cheddar crackers, and on his lap sits a container of strawberry apple sauce. He doesn't have a spoon, so he dumps the apple sauce straight onto his tongue. It's been dark for a couple of hours on the first night of his trip, and the bags of junk food the City of West Palm gave him are his dinner. He's the only one eating on the bus, and a couple of guys in the back seat take notice.

"Yo, man," says a guy in the back. With skin as dark as baker's chocolate and matching black Orlando Magic shorts and tank top, the only thing we can see of the man is his gold teeth. They're glowing like a jack-o'-lantern from the passing headlights. "Whatcha got in them bags?"

"Help yourself," Joe says, pointing to the junk food in the storage bin above his head. "There's crackers and juice and stuff."

The guy with the gold teeth raids the bags with Mike, a burly six-foot-three guy from Orlando. By the time the three of them are full, there's nothing left but raisins and a mound of chopped walnuts as dry as sand.

"Aw, man, we gotta get ourselves a six-pack," the gold-toothed guy says.

"I hear that," Joe says, licking strawberry apple sauce off his finger.

"Or -- we need some smoke."

"They'll find that shit on you," Joe says. "They bring dogs on the bus in, like, South Carolina."

"For real?"


"Well, then we best smoke it all before they find it."

Joe laughs and turns back to his Cheez-Its, but soon, he's thinking the same thing. Shortly before 11 that night, the bus pulls into the Greyhound terminal in Jacksonville. As we file off, I ask Joe if he grabbed the junk food. "Nah, there's nothing left," he says, leaving behind his only food.

"I'm gonna get me somethin'," the gold-toothed guy says. Joe and Mike follow him out back of the bus terminal. There's a guy covered in what looks like chimney soot sleeping on a bench and another man crouched over a picnic table under a tree. Off the dark bus, we can see the scars running across the face of the gold-toothed guy. We can see his wily smile. "Oh yeah," he says, "this looks good."

The gold-toothed guy revealed not long ago why he's heading to New York. He was hiding for a year in Fort Lauderdale, escaping an assault charge back home. Now he's going north to face it. He'll spend the weekend getting high with his wife, and then he'll turn himself in on Monday. He turns to Joe, pointing at the man under the tree. "Yo," he says, "go talk to that boy over there."

Joe runs across the street as the others watch. He enters the tree's shadow, and the man turns to look at Joe. We can see only their silhouettes as they talk. A minute later, Joe jogs back over. "He's only got rock."

Joe's comment couldn't have come at a worse time. As he utters it, a lanky sheriff's deputy steps out of the bus terminal, eyeing Joe and the others. He stares for a minute, and they shut up about finding something to smoke. The deputy looks them over and then turns to me. He looks at something he sees as obviously out of place, with my dress pants and reporter's notebook in hand. It seems to distract him enough to forget about the drug deal he almost witnessed, and he goes back in. Then, the static-filled terminal intercom announces the departure of the bus to New York. The three file reluctantly back on. "They will leave your ass," Joe explains as we walk down the aisle to the rear seats. "So you gotta get on when they call it or you'll be walkin'."

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