COLUMN: ‘I am a human being’: Green St. homeless deserve much better

By Eric Naing

Walking to class under a sunless, grey sky while a bitter Champaign wind cuts though you is never fun, but imagine if you had to live in that condition every day. Like many of my peers, I tend to forget that there are more than just students and professors living on campus. I recently talked to a homeless man on Green Street who was kind enough to tell me about his life.

Aaron Maurice Hughes is a 57-year-old local man who has been homeless for the past three months. Originally from Sturgis, Ky., Hughes made his way to Champaign to stay with his brother but found himself living on Green Street after a run of bad luck.

I asked him what it was like to be homeless on campus. He told me that in the past three months he has been spit on, kicked, robbed, had a beer bottle thrown at him and has repeatedly been called a nigger. Yet, he says he loves the students. “You all are my kids,” he says. “I walk around all day and check up on my kids.” He dutifully greets every person that walks by him with a cheerful hello. Hughes has a remarkably positive attitude despite his punishing life. “I see people, love, the world and Jesus,” he said.

Hughes tries to sleep around the corner of 6th and Green Street, usually under the awnings in front of Noodles & Company or Gameday Sports. At night, he only sleeps for a couple hours at a time in one location until he is forced to move by a police officer or a business owner. Even when he finds somewhere to sleep, he is constantly worried about being robbed or beaten. He told me that he refuses to sleep in local shelters because he is afraid of being robbed or attacked while he sleeps.

When you are homeless, health concerns take a back seat to eating and trying to sleep. Hughes told me that aside from needing glasses which he could never afford, he also has pneumonia. “I’m dying on the street,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow.”

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    As we talked, it was obvious that the cold was getting to him. Every minute or so, he would wipe his runny nose and his teary eyes with an old cloth that he constantly pulled from his pocket. He was visibly shivering despite being bundled in layers of sweatshirts and a thick, black jacket which he got from the McKinley Foundation. He apologized for his clothes being so dirty telling me, “I can’t afford to wash anything, all my money is for food.”

    Hughes said that he gets to eat every two or three days, “I walk around and pick cans up, that’s how I eat.” The entire time I sat and talked with him, he never once asked me for anything. “Give what you got to give, but I’m not forcing you to do anything,” he told me. As a gesture of thanks for talking with me, I offered to take him out for lunch. We went to Junior’s for a burger and after ordering he told me, “I haven’t eaten in three days, I forgot what food tastes like.” I asked him what the best thing students can give him and he replied with one word: “love.” After his meal, he told me that he planned to go sleep on the steam grates by the Illini Union to keep warm.

    I am no saint. In the past, I have walked right by many homeless people without giving them a second thought. “I’m a human being,” Hughes repeatedly told me, which basically sums up everything that I learned from my short time with him. Whatever you think of the homeless, just remember that they are people. Like what Mr. Hughes told me, give what you can give, but the most important thing you can do for the homeless is to treat them with the kindness and dignity that any human deserves.