We all remember our first times for everything — that first kiss, first car or first job. Stacey McKenzie, 38, of Bennettsville, S.C., remembers it all, plus the first night he was homeless.
I met him on a corner on Lowes Boulevard in Killeen. He stood with a sign stating he was hungry, homeless and looking for work. I took notice of him as I drove by on a frigid night in December. I stopped and asked him if he liked McDonald’s.
“Anything, man! Anything!”
I told the man, whom I later found out went by the name Stacey, to wait at my truck as I went into the Walmart McDonald’s. When I returned with a bag of food and some iced tea, I found him standing with his black backpack, hands in his coat pockets.
“I never thought I would be homeless. I thought after my time with the Army, I would find a job and live happy. It all was a dream. Dreams come true they say, but some just disappear.”
I opened the rear hatch of my truck and we sat down to talk. I watched as Stacey opened the McDonald’s bag as if it were a prized possession. His dirty hands hugged the hot bag of food, drawing it close to his body to warm himself, and he began eating with small careful bites.
“If you've never been homeless, believe me, the first night sleeping on the street is the toughest part of your life experience. The fear and discouragement paralyzes your soul. You don’t prepare yourself for this. You cry a lot. You beat yourself up for putting yourself in this situation. It is (very) surreal because no one ever thinks they will become homeless. No one.”
Born in Bennettsville, S.C., Stacey left to make a career with the U.S. Army where he served in infantry. While stationed at Fort Hood, he met a girl. They fell in love and when he was discharged, they moved to Corpus Christi. There he found work at a chemical plant.
For six years, Stacey and his girlfriend made a good life for themselves. They had a car, an apartment, televisions and cellphones. Then the bottom fell out from under him. A few years ago, his girlfriend cheated on him, crashed his car and left him with bills mounting. His employer had to make cutbacks and he was laid off.
“I thought for sure I would be able to find another job. I thought being a veteran would help me in landing a job.”
Stacey began to pray that something good would come as he watched his money start to dwindle. Soon he was out of money and his credit cards were maxed to the limit. He had no car, no phone, no friends or family. Stacey was evicted from his apartment and ended up on the streets — alone.
“I used to be religious. I feel forgotten now. I still believe there is someone powerful up there, but now that I am homeless, I think he has forgotten me. I know this is true as people look at me like I am dead.”
Stacey was homeless. No roof over his head, no food, nowhere to turn. He did the one thing he thought he never would do — live on the streets.
“I'll never forget my first night. All of a sudden I found myself homeless near downtown Corpus. I was sober, but I had no money, no place to go and no one I could call for help. I was officially homeless. I was scared as hell. The first time you're homeless, the intense feelings of fear and uncertainty are impossible to forget.”
As he walked the streets of Corpus Christi in search of a safe place to sleep — in a park or on the beach — he hung his head in embarrassment. He passed by people he could have asked for money or help, but he didn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Finally, he found a small hollow place by the beach. Pushing his body as far into the crevice as he could, he laid his head on his arms.
“It was the first place where I felt safe enough to lay down. I closed my eyes. I don't remember how much time had passed. The sun rose and it’s impossible to describe the mixture of fear, anger, vulnerability and, well, homelessness I felt as I lay in that hole.”
I could understand Stacey being afraid. But I wondered about the anger. Where did it come from? What brought it on? Whom did he blame?
“This was all new to me. I had no homeless training. I had no clue how I was going to survive. But now, I was the one who had suddenly landed on bankrupt. The irony was painful. I don’t blame anyone but myself. It was my call to let myself drift down this path.”
Stacey began to migrate from Corpus Christi, walking and hitchhiking, and headed to San Antonio. He begged for money and when he got some, he would buy hot food and drinks and look for a hideaway place for safety and security.
“Living on the streets is a warzone by itself. As you sleep you are robbed of the small effects you hold dear. Blankets, socks, food. You’re (expletive) homeless! How much lower can you go and steal a homeless man’s stuff?”
Moving forward and not finding a job, Stacey headed to Austin and finally back to Fort Hood where he was stationed when he was in the Army. He thought for sure he would find a job on post with some contractor or on highway construction crews. But no luck.
The man who once had pride in himself, who wore ironed jeans and shirts and had clean shoes and hair, never thought he would look the way he does now — unkempt and dirty.
“Homelessness has a face. It is no longer the dirty old man on the street drunk and stinking. It is young people. Look at the homeless now and you will see kids, young men and women. Many are on the streets with their pets.”
When asked what Stacey planned to do now, he shrugged. Hopping off the back of my truck he thanked me for the hot food, the conversation and showing interest in him. Laughing, he told me he’d give me his phone number but, “I ain’t got one.”
I closed the back of my truck and asked where he would sleep that night. He said he had no idea but was headed to Dallas. “Why Dallas?” I asked, and he said some people he had known in the Army lived there.
“Maybe I can find them. Maybe I won’t. Either way, I am on the streets, man. Another statistic for America.”
Bryan Correira is a photographer and Herald correspondent. He lives in Killeen.