I got talking to Tosheam Dudley in New Orleans and he told me his short homeless story in the eight minutes we had before my bus arrived.
Tosheam arrived in the not-aptly named ‘Big Easy’ in 2009 from his home town on the New Jersey shore. He came to be reunited with some of his family, but on his way was arrested and charged with stealing the truck he was driving. This was later disproved, but at the time Tosheam didn’t have money for a lawyer so spent 1 year, 1 month and 1 week in prison. (A feature of the punitive American penal system is its fondness for symbolic, ritualistic punishments.) After being released, Tosheam had nowhere to go so was on the streets for eight months. He slept in a park where he was later joined by the ‘Occupy’ movement. Tosheam recalls being interviewed by a TV crew and saying ‘I ain’t occupying nothing. I’m homeless!’ Eventually, the encampment was ‘swept’ and Tosheam entered a series of New Orleans shelters, including the notorious one I’d been told about by homeless advocates, which he described as ‘full of rats’ (I think he meant the furry rodents). He said the hostels were ‘all fine, but no place was home.’ When we met, Tosheam had just left the hospital where he’d had eight stitches in his head after being attacked at his latest hostel. He was on his way to see his public defence lawyer to discuss a variety of problems including a new ID card and the withdrawal of his food stamps. He was also trying to beg enough money for something to eat and the fare to his new temporary ‘home’, this one in Algiers on the other side of the Mississippi from New Orleans (although the city authorities probably wish it was the one in north Africa!) Tosheam has no idea if, or when, he will find a permanent home.
Just another homeless story from approximately 3.5 million in America each year. They’re all different and all the same. This is a vast country with a very mobile population. The dynamics of displacement, dispersed kinship networks and economic necessity makes people accustomed to travelling long distances to find a better quality of life, a quest that is intrinsic to the American identity. This spirit of individual optimism and resourcefulness can be admirable, but also leave a trail of victims, like Tosheam Dudley.
Toseham holding the lease agreement for his new shelter.