Homeless advocate Leo Rhodes moved from Seattle to Portland a couple of months ago to get some rest. He had become so preoccupied with educating people — politicians, journalists and school children — about homelessness that he wasn’t taking time to eat and sleep properly.
Although some see him as a pillar of strength, Leo complained to me that he is “not Superman.” He told me, without sounding bitter, that others have tried to help, but no one else was “stepping up because he needed a break.” Many people expressed an interest in helping but find that they burn out after only a month or two, Leo said. But they do not have the same passion for the cause that drives Leo.
After talking to Leo for an hour, I came to realize that the ghosts of homeless friends drive him to continue his advocacy work.I found Leo Rhodes at the Street Roots office early one cloudy May morning. He had just located an online article about himself and the tent city he had helped establish in Seattle. (See http://www.vanmag.com/News&Features/Tent_City) He wanted to give me an interview, but Leo had a hard time tearing himself away from the computer screen. He is currently homeless as he has been off and on for 20 years. He has no computer, no phone, no roof over his head. Not even a change of clothing.
The Pima Indian has a small backpack. It mostly contains paper and pens for the book he is writing about the Seattle tent city. When it rains hard and the papers get wet, he has to throw them away and start over.
Leo sells Street Roots outside Panera Bread in the Hollywood District. The money goes for food and writing paper. He receives no public assistance. He appreciates it when individuals give him a sandwich or piece of fruit. It helps, he says.
I found it difficult to get Leo to talk about himself. I wanted to know how he is taking care of himself so he can regain enough health to continue his work. This articulate man would begin to tell me about his reduced lung capacity, his arthritis or untreated sleep apnea, but then he would fall silent. “My head is so full,” he said, apologizing. “I can’t stop thinking about them.”
“Them” are all the friends who have been murdered while homeless or who have committed suicide because they cannot tolerate being treated like “mangy dogs” by those with secure shelter, he says.
Then there are the friends who have died because they could not access appropriate medical care.
Leo gave me several graphic examples of tragic deaths that came as a result of the stereotypes “housed” individuals hold about the homeless. One of Leo’s “ghosts” was an educated man, a lawyer, who was told by the group of boys who beat him to death with a baseball bat, “You should be thankful that we’re doing this to you because you’re useless, dumb, lazy, and stupid.” Three days later, the murdered man’s friend, who witnessed his death, committed suicide because he could not deal with the memory of what had happened.
While that might be an extreme example, the stereotype — that everyone who is homeless s drug addicted or mentally ill — is very real. So pervasive, according to Rhodes, that government programs are aimed at these populations, with little money left over to help others by providing affordable housing.
When Katrina hit, Leo told me, “200,000 people became homeless overnight. Those homeless aren’t mentally ill or addicts.”
Many things can lead to homelessness: housing foreclosures, divorce, injuries, and illness. Leo’s advice to the housed: Make a financial cushion for yourself, and fight for affordable housing for all people in need.
BY ELIZABETH SCHWARTZ CONTRIBUTING WRITER