Nichole Cooper didn’t know a simple “How are you?” would lead to such a rich friendship when she met Shaker on the street.
“You know, I just saw him and was like, hey, what’s up?” Cooper said. “He offered me a cigarette and I said no and he asked how are you?”
Cooper, a woman from Texas who recently moved to Pittsburgh, works as a missionary for L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry — a Christian nonprofit organization. Shaker, who requested his last name be withheld, is an Iraqi immigrant who arrived in the United States in 2002. He has a green card, but he’s homeless.
Shaker left Iraq because of “guns, hate and the war.” He’s been living on the streets of Pittsburgh with no friends or family since he got to the United States. He struggles daily with the language barrier and suffers from a range of medical issues.
The kind of friendship Cooper has with Shaker is unusual in Pittsburgh — but desperately needed. Compassion is sparse among Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and City officials, who have driven the City’s homeless from their camps in the past. This inhospitable attitude throws people into a vicious nomadic cycle and fails to extend a hand the way I saw happen this weekend.
I met Cooper at ALIVE, a community celebration with a focus on serving the homeless, on Nov. 11 in the Allegheny Commons Park in the North Side. L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry held its first annual event 13 years ago, and now the North Side Homeless Alliance works with the ministry to put it on.
More than 200 volunteers flooded the park Saturday with tables and chairs to set up for the day. Tables of winter clothes and a hot lunch were the main draws for the more than 350 homeless attending the event, as well as job connection opportunities, free haircuts and prayer.
But clothing and food were only part of ALIVE’s mission that day — in a city that makes it exceptionally difficult to be homeless, building relationships with and uncovering hope for the homeless was L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry’s real goal for the event.
North Side residents littered Mayor Bill Peduto’s property with tents in May 2017 to push him to evict a homeless encampment on Howard Street in Millvale. In a public statement after the event, Peduto blamed City Councilwoman Darlene Harris for “politicizing the plight of the indignant.”
Harris, who represents the North Side, said the Howard Street encampment is sanctioned by the City but violates zoning and sanitary laws. North Side residents pushed for their eviction, naming litter, human waste and noise as some of the annoyances they experience living in close proximity to the homeless.
Some parents said they felt uncomfortable letting their children play out in their backyards with homeless encampments in view, and they could smell their camps from their houses.
While it’s understandable to want a safe environment for children in their neighborhoods, simply evicting these men and women from their tents is not the solution. Eviction from a place of power is only victimizing an already marginalized group of people from a place they’ve deemed safe. Even worse — North Side residents calling for the evictions oftentimes don’t really even know whom they would affect, like Terry Araya, a man who lived at a tent site on Howard Street.
“The problem is that most people judge homeless people as bad people,” he said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Araya said the community completely disregarded the homeless, even throwing rocks at him in his campsite.
“They also say we’re doing drugs” Araya said. “None of us is doing drugs. The problem is they just don’t know us.”
Cooper said the Howard Street encampment isn’t much of a controversy anymore, but that PennDOT will allegedly evict another North Side camp this weekend on Madison Avenue in East Allegheny.
This constant fear of picking up and moving on is a harsh reality for those in homelessness, and City officials must stop making eviction a default if they want Pittsburgh to be an inviting, harmonious city.
Jim Withers, founder of Operation Safety Net, a local homeless service, agrees that rousting the homeless is too frequent. Withers, who brought his organization’s van to ALIVE Saturday, is an internal medicine physician with a passion to seek out those who had been “excluded from his care.”
“Eviction seems to be fairly arbitrary,” Withers said. “When a few people complain that they can see homeless people, [officials] respond and just evict them.”
In a City that hasn’t been so kind to those on the streets, ALIVE’s message is even more important — people experiencing homelessness are more than just homeless. They’re as passionate and genuine as anyone else and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect — to be seen.
Maybe the first step in healing broken relationships — and broken perceptions — doesn’t need to be huge or unmanageable. It can be as simple as not looking away, remembering that beneath the superficial differences our desires are largely the same.
We must also remember that most homeless people did not wish for homelessness. No child says “homeless” when asked what they hope to be some day.
“Life happens, and none of us are safe from the troubles of this life,” Cooper said. “I always say, I’m just a couple paychecks away from being homeless myself. What if I didn’t have family? Where would I be? I would be right with them. And would that make me below people?”
Certainly not — in fact, almost all of Cooper’s friends in Pittsburgh are homeless, and she considers them to be some of the most generous, real people she’s ever met.
“Some of the things I think are awesome to share with people [about my life] kind of don’t amount to anything when I hear their stories,” Cooper said. “They have so much to offer people. I wish people could experience the homeless that way.”
Cooper is right. Life does happen — and it’s up to every person to decide if their circumstances will control their outlook.
They’re “walking miracles,” she says of the homeless she meets on a daily basis. And it’s services like L.I.V.I.N.G. Ministry that build them up, both emotionally and practically, to make their lives a little brighter.
The way the ministry treats people experiencing homelessness isn’t complicated — it doesn’t even have to be expensive. Sometimes the best thing you can offer is an ear and your time.