Sitting on a weathered bench with street grime covering his unshaven face and torn clothes, he looks out into the sea of faces walking by. As he watches, he realizes that not one person has made eye contact with him or even acknowledged him in any way. So, he tries to start a conversation with a simple “good morning sir” and “good morning ma’am.” No response. Then the realization sunk in. \
“I realized I had passed from the mainstream society to the homeless society. People would walk by and not look at me, clearly ignoring the fact that I was there. I knew that was a typical reaction, but I had never felt that,” said English instructor Gus LaFosse. “I was invisible. I had crossed over into that invisible realm of throwaway people. I could hardly believe it.”
Last summer, LaFosse spent the hottest week in recorded history living as a homeless person under the Murphy Street bridge in Shreveport, La. Temperatures ranged from 110 degrees to 113 degrees.
“It was a miserable week. It was so hot,” LaFosse said. “I would go to the library a lot, but I didn’t tell the other guys because I thought it was cheating. One day one of the guys asked me, ‘Hey, where did you go yesterday?’ and I said, ‘The library’ and I told him how I thought it was cheating and he said, ‘You’re homeless; there are no rules.’’’
In the summer of 2009, LaFosse went on a mission trip to the Common Ground Community in Shreveport with the Wesley Foundation for McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. The Common Ground Community is a group of people working together to provide for the residents of the surrounding neighborhood. LaFosse’s experience here is part of the reason why he decided to live as a homeless person for a week.
“It completely changed my life,” LaFosse said. “During the week, we mainly worked with kids and then we did church under the bridge and that’s what really inspired me.”
With only a two-man tent, a can of bug spray, one gallon of water, a couple of books for reading and writing and a worthless camera, LaFosse journeyed to Shreveport to live with some “outdoor” friends.
“It was not very different because I spent hours visiting and it was exciting because it was something new and different,” LaFosse said of his first day under the bridge. “The more time spent, the more challenging and the more realization set in. Because I was homeless I had no resources like in a house; I didn’t shower, didn’t shave and after a few days I looked and smelt like a homeless person.”
For the first four days, LaFosse didn’t eat; however, one day a church group brought food so he was able to eat.
“One day I went to a Circle K (in Shreveport) who are very kind to homeless people, and my friends told me to go and get free ice. When I got there the ice machine was broken so I walked across town to another Circle K and they didn’t know me and a lady there said, ‘Here, why don’t you get an ice Coke and some hot dogs?’ I was very impressed by that,” LaFosse said. “Some people shocked me with how kind they were and some shocked me with how rude they were.”
Every night he slept in the same place for safety reasons.
“It’s like a really bad camping trip! There is no way to prepare; you just have to look at it as an adventure,” he said. “There are some tough times and I have to focus on the 80 percent good and not the bad 20 percent. My goal is to reach people, make friends with them and do what I can to help them.”
Before teaching English at KC, LaFosse went to McNeese State University where he was an adjunct instructor and student. After graduating, he taught at Lamar State University for one year before moving to Longview.
“I’ve found I’ve been able to use what I’ve learned out on the street in class and what I’ve learned in class out on the street,” he said. “It turned out that my time at Common Ground prepared me for what to teach in Kilgore. I had never been in an English class where you had to give a speech and so I required my students to volunteer and give a speech about what they learned.”
After seeing downtown Longview for the first time, he realized how much the streets resembled the Shreveport area and he knew he wanted to help the community.
“I’m in the process of opening a community house in Longview and that’s why I came to Kilgore College,” he said. “My first concern is a building. I have been making friends, but what is lacking is a building.”
A community house is a constructive and positive place for making friends and resources.
This December, LaFosse is going to live among the homeless community for a month living in various locations in Shreveport.
“I want to experience as much as I can to learn that lifestyle and how I can help them,” LaFosse said. “I will spend Christmas and New Year’s with my outdoor friends. I am using this opportunity to raise money for the community house. I will call the fundraiser ‘Survive-a-thon.’ I will encourage people to sponsor me.”
To follow LaFosse’s “Survive-a-thon,” visit his blog at www.thegiftoflvoe.blogspot.com.
His reason for living as a homeless person is not because of some political or religious agenda. He is simply doing this because he shares a deep love with these people and he wants to connect with them and understand them.
“I’m doing this because I feel called to be a homeless advocate. I cannot truly understand, love and serve these remarkable human beings without meeting them on their level,” LaFosse said.
While at times his work may be challenging, LaFosse has learned much from these experiences and he encourages others to break out of their habitual thinking that pushes them away from people who are different than they are.
“Don’t believe the stereotype about homeless people. They are not dangerous or uneducated and their homelessness is not caused by money or by being lazy. They are just the opposite,” LaFosse said. “The stereotype just gives people an excuse to ignore them. They are good people with problems.”