It’s around 6:30 pm in Downtown on Northeast 6th street’s southern sidewalk. The sun is starting to set behind the courthouse, and the cars parked around the Federal Detention Center of Miami are starting to clear out.
In the vacant spot where the prison van usually parks, Carlos Ramos and a man who only goes by “Penguin” are picking up their tent—and all their possessions. They’re heading a few blocks towards the bay to busk for some beer money.
They’re homeless, but far from hungry. Three or four different church groups have stopped by over the last couple of hours in cars full of home-cooked chicken and rice and beans, and Camillus house is a few blocks over. Carlos and Penguin have a stack of packed Styrofoam platters next to the tent.
They’ve got a camp stove and a Coleman tank of fuel to cook any fish they can catch, but the fuel’s running short.
“It’s almost out,” says Penguin. “There’s enough for one more cookout.”
“Oh, one more cookout?” Ramos laughs, “That’s good. That’s good.” Ramos is a 48 year-old Puerto Rican immigrant.
From left: Penguin, “Peru”, and Ramos
“[My childhood] was beautiful,” he says. “My mother was a beautiful woman.”
Ramos says his mother kept the house, and his father was a farmer. He says it was a culture shock coming to the U.S.
“I remember…We lived in this little house in Puerto Rico, right? This little wooden house. And I didn’t know how to sit on a toilet until I came to America.”
Ramos was the youngest of seven siblings – the baby of the family. He was nineteen when he lost both of his parents.
“I ran away. I went crazy, I messed up my life.” Ramos struggles with depression and has attempted suicide more than once.
“A couple of weeks ago, I tried to, I tried to, you know—” he gestures a rope pulling at his neck, sticks out his tongue and coughs. His antidepressant prescription ran out a few weeks ago, and his mental health spiraled out of control. “But I’m not that stupid. I called the hotline, and they helped me.”
That’s why he’s in Miami, to see a therapist at Camillus House. He’ll be able to fill a prescription for anti-depressants. He hopes to return to Puerto Rico or move up to Alaska where his daughters live – after he gets help for his depression – and finds a job and a place to live.
Ramos initially left Puerto Rico for New Jersey. And like any good Jerseyian, he’s a Bruce Springsteen fan. He’s read Springsteen’s biography and empathizes with the musician’s struggle against bipolar disorder and alcoholism.
“Seriously, this—it’s not easy. Living is not easy. You gotta – it’s a hard job, you know what I mean?”
After moving to Jersey, Ramos was arrested for dealing pot.
“I was greedy. I was bartending and trying to make a little extra money.” The cops got wind and set up a sting. Then, like so many other ex-cons, upon release he was tossed to the curb with no support system. He hasn’t been able to find a job because most employers discriminate against ex-cons. Without a job, and banned from public housing by the law, Ramos was forced onto the street.*
Ramos admits he struggles with alcoholism. He says it’s his way of coping.
The thing is, depression and mental illness aren’t problems exclusively for the homeless. Penguin says, with his head popping out of the tent, that he’s been on Northeast 6th St. long enough to see suicides from the skyscrapers of downtown Miami.
“I’ve seen mother[f-ers] drop here on the street.” He says the wealthy people lose all their money and fall apart. “They kill themselves. They don’t know how to survive it.”
Penguin himself wonders a lot how he’s still around. He’s a veteran who, like so many, enlisted in the Navy in the zealous wake of 9/11. He was sent to Pakistan in 2003 as a SEAL and points to that as the root of his drug problems.
“You know what grows in Pakistan, all over Pakistan? Weed. Weed and opium, and it’s the best there is.” He tried opium to deal with mental trauma while the doctor on base prescribed him amphetamines.
When he returned to California and the prescription ran out, he turned to methamphetamine.
He fled California and its meth scene, heading East, and has managed to stay clean here for a few years.
What do you think when you see the homeless? Are they maniacal drug addicts, fighting the urge to mug you to cop their next hit? Are they street grenades of insanity? Are they free-loaders who need to find themselves a job?
Carlos and Penguin seem more like regular people – as flawed and complex as any – who have fallen through social cracks. They represent the epitome of the holes in our system, which fails to catch its most vulnerable members. They are archetypal representations of our country’s flaws.
Our country has subjugated its territory, Puerto Rico, to second-class status. Years of unbalanced power relations have left many there struggling and impoverished. Out of desperation, Ramos moved to the U.S. to chase The Dream, only to be awoken to forceful reality. What if Ramos had been given an education? What about just a decent-paying job? Or treatment for his mental illness?
Penguin represents an even greater tarnish in American character. As the most gung-ho nation in the world, one expect better care to be taken for those who lay down their lives for the ideals of this country and in the name of brotherhood. Yet in Penguin’s case, after throwing a soldier into cross-fire water, he was hooked on drugs, then left him out to dry when he came home. There are 47,725 homeless veterans in the United States.
“We’re just trying to survive, you know?” says Ramos. “I just follow my heart and try to remember that God is with me.”
The wind started to blow down 6th St. from the bay and the Freedom Tower, calling the duo to earn that bit of beer money. Loose change isn’t going to pay for rent or Prozac, so for now, this is all Ramos and Penguin can hope for.
As I loaded up my bike to leave, another car stopped by and a hand out the window left Ramos with a big box of corn muffins. He insisted I take one, and one of the Styrofoam containers of arroz con frijoles.
“Take it, take it,” he beckoned. “We have plenty.”
*To learn more about ex-cons and the criminal justice system, click here.