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Where will I sleep tonight?

Two weekends ago, Monitor staff writer David Holmstrom went to downtownProvidence, R.I., posing as a homeless man. Wearing old clothes, and a wool cap, he stepped off abus from Boston during a snow

The office is down a flight of stairs, opening up into a kind of large, bright foyer without chairs. Behind a counter a woman with glossy red finger nails listens carefully to me, leaning forward a little. I speak in a low voice, deliberately perplexed.

She learns I am an older man of sparse means, in a jam because a relative failed to pick me up at the bus station. "He doesn't have a phone," I plead, "so where can an old guy find a bed on a stormy night?"

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She suggests I wait in the community room. I glance around at the jumble of people in the foyer, some waiting to use a public phone. Others mingle, or come and go. A security guard in dark blue is seated at a desk, talking on a phone. The mood is casual, friendly, non-bureaucratic.

I step into the community room wondering who is homeless and who is not. At tables, or standing along the walls, some 50 people have gathered. Alternating odors of coffee, sweat, smoke, urine, and woolly wetness waft over me. Duffel bags, backpacks, and small suitcases line the walls.

The chatter in the room is loud. People move in and out of the doorways, busy and anonymous. Near the free coffee dispensers, a group of Hispanic men laugh good naturedly among themselves. A white-haired, stout woman, barges into the room behind me, talking loudly, swearing and blaming someone for "changing my folder."

I sit down at a table of silent, deflated men. My assumption is that the old clothes and the unwashed patina on their faces mean they are the chronic homeless. Some younger people here are the episodic homeless, slipping in and out of poverty when a job ends or the rent goes up, or a drug binge swallows a paycheck. Some wear designer clothes either pulled from the racks of donated clothing, or bought when they had money.

When a tall man with neat, Eddie Bauer type clothes steps quietly into a far doorway, stereotypes disappear. He wears a stylish brown jacket, green scarf, and tan felt hat, circa Indiana Jones. Is he staff or homeless?

The guy in the Tommy Hilfiger jacket? Homeless. The young man dressed immaculately in all black? Homeless. The guy with the clipboard, scuffed shoes and hangdog look? Staff. The young woman with the radiant smile dressed in wrinkled pants and threadbare sweater? Homeless.

The man in the felt hat is muttering to himself now, oblivious to anything but the ghosts he imagines are talking back. In the doorway, beside him, a wiry young man throws off his battered coat like opening the flap of a tent. "Where's the fireplace?" he shouts, and the room jumps with laughter.

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For the next three hours, while snow gathers outside, I sit and imagine little cameo portraits of each person. A starting point. Winters and summers. Things happen. The roads not taken. Obscurity. They end up here. More obscurity. Who are they?

I see the label "homeless" as imprecise, a kind of damaging shorthand quickly obliterating humanity and differences. Vickie, a young, soft-spoken woman with ramrod posture and directness, says she has two sons, a home, but is in drug rehab wanting to finally rid her life of drugs.

A gray-haired, semi-toothless man, a veteran, says proudly, "I've got two wars under my belt." Another man blames gambling debts. Two women are escaping violent men, a primary cause of homelessness among women.

A handful of men sit and stare, caught in sad, rambling monologues. Several national studies indicate that nearly 25 percent of the homeless are mentally ill. I watch the "cleaners," men compulsively flitting around the tables, folding newspapers, unpacking and packing their bags, or picking up cups or scrapes of paper. Others sit and laugh together like old friends. All the time the "F" word rattles around the room as if the users were in an expletive contest.

"Six o'clock," says Arnie in a San Francisco 49ers cap. Earlier we talked. He knows I am new, just drifting in from Boston. "Get the bus outside," he says, fatherly. "To the shelter."

Up the steps and out into the snowy darkness, people peel off in different directions carrying their bags. Most head up the block to wait near a Dunkin' Donuts store. Nearly everybody smokes. My toes are quickly numb as we wait. Finally a rickety old green bus arrives to scattered cheers.

"Ladies first," say the men, joking as eight or nine women board first, followed by the jostling men. On the bus I notice a woman wearing a fur coat, hair piled on her head. With her is a younger man, planting a kiss on her cheek every minute so.

After a 20-minute ride to nearby Cranston, we arrive at the Welcome Arnold Emergency Shelter, a service of the Urban League.

Again, the atmosphere is easy, welcoming. The staff offers attentive help, hot food, and for those who want it, training and job programs at other locations. We are searched for drugs and weapons. I spill the contents of my plastic bag on a table and identify myself with a US military discharge card.

"Room 202, bed 13," I am told. "We'll interview you later." I am given a clean towel wrapped around a small bar of soap, sheets, and a strange kind of felt blanket.

Upstairs, 15 beds, about two feet apart, are covered by blue plastic bed covers. The room is clean but overheated. I sit on my bed and talk with Red, a husky, former alcoholic who says he can barely remember his 10 years on the streets of New York. Around us most of the men are lying down, eyes closed, some carefully make their beds, meticulously folding and smoothing the corners of the sheets. Others are taking showers.

"I haven't had a drink in months," says Red. He works on a building demolition crew by day. "I just want to get to a place where I can forget the past, just leave it there, and be at peace." As if the difference is profound, he says he still uses drugs, but would never sell them.

Next to us, Eddie, short and thin, his pink face heavily lined from alcohol, says he caddied for golf stars Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler, and Julius Boros years ago. "I made money off those guys," he says softly and offers nothing more.

Dinner downstairs is rice, chicken coated with bread crumbs, a forgettable soup, and Kool Aid. Red and I sit together, and talk about impeachment, betrayals, and politics - which he says is "like a radio in your head not to be listened to." At other tables, most men and women sit alone; others shoulder together in clusters, talking and laughing.

Most are easy and congenial. Some have short fuses, quickly angered over slights. A young African-American behind me says he has been on the streets since he was 14. "I've been hustling all the time," he says. A black woman, probably in her late 30s listens and says, "The streets of New York are cold-blooded and mean."

A staff member interviews me later, and I tell my story to him, uneasy in hiding what I am. I sign a copy of the "Emergency Shelter Standard Rules" to indicate agreement. In the hallway he snaps a Polaroid picture of me for the files.

Later I realize the brotherhood of the staff here or at the Traveler's Aid office would have taken me no matter what story I told. Show up. Ask for help. You got it.

In my two days among the homeless I never felt in danger. Part of this is attributable to my appearance. In their eyes, I was inside their culture, disenfranchised and older, and surviving at the bottom.

I spend a sleepless night. It's not just the coughing, snoring and outbursts of men dreaming that keep me awake. I lie there pinned down by comparisons. Sixty miles away are my comfortable home and loving family. Here there is a kind of slow desolation.

Poverty shapes the road here. The homeless are stalked by rising housing costs and the past. Being poor often means you are a paycheck, a spouse battering, or an illness away from life on the streets.

The next morning, waiting for the bus, there is a high moment of dark humor. One of the younger men, the last one down from the second floor, surveys the sleepy crowd waiting for the bus and says, "Waking up to this crew, I can see why someone would want to die in their sleep."

A few of those who only sit and stare manage to join the laughter.

Back in Providence, under a cold rain and along slushy streets, I decide to panhandle. For hours I drift in an out of cafes for occasional islands of warmth as I muster the courage to ask for spare change. It is unimaginably hard to beg, to look into eyes and say, "Give me some money."

I approach five men and five women. "Can you spare some change?" I say to each one, holding out a gloved hand. My feet are blocks of ice.

Each man refuses to even look. Four of the women pass by. One woman in a burly brown coat stops and says, "Do you know where Jesus is?" Desperate for humor, I respond unkindly, "Is he in Providence?"

She offers a teacher's scolding look. "If Jesus is in your heart," she says, "then you can find a way out of your problems." She puts a quarter in my hand. You are a blessed Samaritan, lady.

I make my way back to the bus station to go home, perhaps no closer to new insights about solutions for the homeless. But I am more empathetic, like standing in a deep hole instead of looking into it. And I recall the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "We must all learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

*To cover costs incurred during his stay, David Holmstrom and the Monitor sent grateful donations to the Urban League and the Traveler's Aid Society.

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