Homeless man makes a living on downtown Bethesda streets
Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006
Al Szekely has a laptop computer, cell phone and e-mail account. It’s a roof over his head and four walls to call his own that he’s lacking.
For about two years, Szekely, 59, has been homeless. Most recently he has taken up residence on the streets of downtown Bethesda, sleeping in a parking garage stairwell.
Despite losing almost everything he had, being beaten, robbed and generally ignored, Szekely still has hope.
‘‘One thing I do is keep my faith strong with God,” said the graying and bearded man. ‘‘The more adversity people face, they’re going to gain faith or lose it. My faith is stronger. I can still smile, tell a joke, make someone laugh, make their day better.”
Szekely wasn’t always this way. He used to have a home and a business. A former mechanic, he came to the Washington, D.C., area two years ago from Dublin, Ga., to fight for disability benefits, following an on-the-job accident that left him in a wheelchair and eventually drained his savings. He had no health insurance.
‘‘I’m still the same human being I’ve always been,” he said. ‘‘I have a heart, I have feelings just like you.”
Szekely made his way to Bethesda because he heard it was quiet and there weren’t many homeless people. Since settling in, he’s found ways to get by.
‘‘If you manage what little you got, you can make do,” he said.
He often checks his e-mail at a Bethesda computer store. He gets his coffee from a local coffee shop just up the block, where he said he buys one cup and the second one is free. The guys who sell Italian ices from carts on the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues hook him up with cool treats on hot days. And other employees from area shops generally keep an eye out for him. However, employees at downtown businesses would not comment on helping homeless people.
‘‘There are a bunch of good kids that watch over me and make sure I’m alright,” Szekely said.
That’s why he prefers the streets to shelters, where he said he’s been robbed. He spent a total of a week in shelters in and around Washington, D.C., including a night at the county’s men’s shelter on Gude Drive in Rockville, which left him with ‘‘a fair impression.”
There need to be more shelters, he said. But not of the kind most people think about.
‘‘Shelters are no more than warehouses ...,” he said. ‘‘I’m not talking about handouts. Give me an opportunity to go to school. Give me an opportunity for honest work.”
Homeless residents need educational resources, job placement and training and ‘‘some form of counseling to get you back into society,” he said.
A Washington, D.C., organization, Street Sense, is hoping to expand to Bethesda to give homeless people there an opportunity for job placement and training. The nonprofit produces a newspaper that covers issues surrounding homelessness and is partially written and distributed by homeless people. The organization sells copies of the paper to homeless vendors for 25 cents. The vendors then sell the papers for $1 and keep the profit. It is a way to earn income, and it can sometimes lead to job offers, said Street Sense Executive Director Laura Thompson Osuri.
But Szekely disagrees.
‘‘I was a Street Sense vendor,” he said. ‘‘I sold Street Sense. It’s hogwash really.”
Szekely said it’s wrong to make homeless people, who have a hard time getting money, pay for the copies they sell. He also said the product is hard to sell because it is only published once a month.
‘‘The paper doesn’t sell that well,” he said.
Osuri confirmed that Szekely worked selling Street Sense for a few months, and said the program works for many area homeless. In a 2005 survey of vendors, the organization found 20 percent had started part-time jobs and 16 percent had found housing.
‘‘It works for lots of people,” she said. ‘‘Most of the vendors are trying to get off the streets.”
Street Sense does not give the paper for free, so as to give vendors a buy-in to the product, Osuri said.
‘‘We could give it for free, but then there’s no investment in the product,” she said.
Susan Kirk, executive director of Bethesda Cares, a community outreach program for the homeless, said that she wasn’t entirely familiar with Street Sense, but thought the group had good goals of teaching homeless people self-respect and some business skills.
‘‘They’re trying to teach many micro-entrepreneurial skills,” she said. ‘‘It’s the baby-step side of it.”
Kirk said that many homeless people do whatever they can to begin working and find stability in their lives. But others just aren’t ready, for a variety of reasons.
‘‘We deal with the chronic homeless,” she said. ‘‘The people who have been on the street for a long time.”
Some homeless are mentally disabled, some are addicts and some are scared frozen, but feel safe in Bethesda, she said.
Sometimes homeless people would rather panhandle than deal with their problems that are preventing them from moving out of homelessness, she said.
‘‘We try to discourage the community from giving to panhandlers because that’s a way to make them stay.”
Kirk said Szekely does not come to Bethesda Cares or use any of the organization’s services.
Szekely sometimes carries a sign that says he’s a veteran, however he said he did not want to talk about his military service. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs has no record of Szekely applying for benefits, said VA spokesman Phil Budahn. But that does not necessarily mean that he is not a veteran, he said.
He’s fairly well known in the neighborhood and while some people have reported uncomfortable or even nasty run-ins with Szekely, 2nd District Bike Patrol officers and some managers at nearby businesses said they have never known him to be a troublemaker and have not received any complaints against him.
Szekely said he is waiting to receive a Social Security check, which he expects by the end of the month or early September. Then he plans to go back to Georgia, where he said he’ll be able to afford to rent an apartment.
Szekely said he believes that people get what they give in the world and said he’s working the best he can to improve his situation.
‘‘I’m waiting to get my check,” he said, ‘‘and then I guess you can say I’ll be a success story because I’ll be off the streets.”