It was important to Shaun that I understand that he didn't smoke. He told me repeatedly that he didn't smoke, and on many occasions while I sat with him he would appeal to his fellow street dwellers as they passed by for confirmation of that fact. Shaun is living on the streets not on account of the usual assumptions we might have, namely, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, too lazy to work, or mental challenge. He is living on the streets because he is too ashamed to face his wife and two young children, Paul and Leah. Why is he ashamed? He is ashamed because he cannot provide for them? Why can he not provide for them? Three years ago he suffered a terrible injury to his left wrist that left his left hand paralyzed - an injury that has not healed to this day and that seems to be getting worse. For Paul, not being able to work is an evisceration of his manhood.
Shaun is from Black Bush Polder where his mom, his wife, and his children currently reside. He has not seen them in three years. This was the fourth time Shaun and I were meeting. He had asked a few days earlier whether I had a pair of used pants, a shirt, and a pair of sneakers to spare as he wanted to go to the hospital to get his wrist checked out. I provided the pants and shirt and my friend Roberto provided the sneakers. Roberto and I had arrived to drive him to Black Bush Polder to visit him mom and his family. The day before, I had asked him whether his mom and his wife had access to a phone and if he wanted to talk with them. He remembered his mother's number. I called the number, and a woman answered. I put Shaun on the line. It was his mother. What followed was the most heartbreaking phone call I ever heard. Shaun was in tears, and at the other end the tears and anguish were obvious. At one point Shaun asked, "Ma, what did you cook?" Pause. Tears. "Ma, and your son is living on the street with nothing to eat. I am coming home, Ma. I am coming home. I am coming to see you and Paul and Leah."
In the end, Shaun's shame proved far stronger than his desire to see his family. When Roberto and I showed up and asked if he were ready, he said that he couldn't do it. His wrist was bandaged, and the viscous, yellowish, white fluid could be seen oozing through it. I did not press the issue as I wanted to leave the choice entirely to him. I understand his change of heart. One does not peel away three years of shame and guilt in an instant, but talking to his mom for that brief moment was, for him, priceless. In the meanwhile, to numb the feeling of shame and guilt that he carries like an albatross around his neck, Shaun drinks high wine. For "what else is a man to do," he says, "with all that time on his hand to sit and think of the pain, the hurt, the suffering, the shame?"
[photo by Ric Couchman]