Sitting alone on a bench outside of Birmingham’s Church of the Reconciler, April Williams didn’t look like the social type.

Her arms were tightly folded, her eyes stared straight ahead. She didn’t look mean, just wary.

I hesitated, but finally I took a seat next to her on the bench and introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m April,” she said in a voice that was surprisingly youthful.

She explained that, like the group of homeless men gathered at the edge of the building, she came to get some of the breakfast the Church of the Reconciler provides on weekends, only she overslept this time.

Now 45, Williams has been homeless most of her life. Nevertheless, she told me it’s the men who have been in her life who she looks back on with the most regret.

Williams said she was raised in Oklahoma City. Her father worked as a truck driver, and her mother stayed at home in their camper with Williams, her sister and two brothers

“My dad used to beat me. Maybe that’s why I keep falling for the wrong guys,” she said. “Yeah, he was abusive to my mom, my mom was mentally abusive to me. She’d tell me I was good for nothing, I’ll never amount to anything. It took me a long time to get my self-esteem back.”

When she turned 18, Williams left home. She and a boyfriend moved to Wyoming and she soon gave birth to a daughter. Over the course of their relationship, they lived in apartments and trailers.

Williams was blunt about the reason the two finally split.

“He beat the shit out of me,” she said.

I looked up from my notebook, unsure if I should write those words down. Williams’ expression remained nonchalant. She didn’t seem to have even flinched. I scrawled the sentence down in all capitals.

“One day he pulled a knife on me and tried to cut my throat. He was an alcoholic, still is. I went and lived under a bridge for a while. I had plenty of blankets, but it still got pretty cold.”

Though Williams was homeless sporadically before coming to Birmingham in 2011, she sometimes lived in trailers and small apartments.

“My daughter, she’s cool,” she said. “I was in and out of the hospital and I lost custody of her when she was ten.”

Williams explained that she suffers from borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. I told her this was difficult to believe, she seemed so comfortable talking to me. She then explained the crippling anxiety she experiences in large crowds.

“My heart starts beating really fast and I just think ‘I have to get out of here,’” she said.

Despite these hardships, Williams said she has reason to be optimistic. A friend of hers said he is confident he can find lodging for her in a nearby boarding house. The rent will be pretty cheap, so she said she thinks she can cover it with her monthly Supplemental Security Income check. When I decided to ask her, perhaps naively, if she was excited, the school girl enthusiasm returned to her voice.

“I’m so excited!” she said. “I’ll finally be able to save some money. I really, really want to go to college.  I’m a slow learner, so I’ll need help.”

I looked up from my notebook toward a group of men standing a few feet away at the edge of the church. I could hear them all laughing amongst themselves, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.

“How come those guys are standing over there?” I asked Williams. She just shrugged.

“Do you ever talk to them?” I asked. “Are they nice?”

Again, she shrugged.

“Some of them are alright,” she said. “Some of them are mean. I don’t go over there.”

I tried to gather my thoughts for a moment, wondering if it would be wise to try to get them to talk to me. After a few moments, I decided I should go over, at least for the sake of having a balanced story. If they brushed me off, at least I could say I tried.

“Do you think they’d be alright if I asked to interview them?” I asked Williams.

“They might,” she said. “I don’t guess it would hurt to ask.”

After thanking Williams, I apprehensively traipsed over to the edge of the building. There were at least six men hanging out. Some paced back and forth sporadically; others leaned against the wall of the building, passing a small bottle barely concealed by a brown paper bag. I was suddenly aware of how naïve I’d been in my attempts that morning to dress down by wearing my old jacket, a faded sweater and a pair of pants from my floor that had scarcely passed my “looks clean enough” test.

Some in the group ignored my presence, and others eyed me suspiciously. I tried explaining that I was a student doing a news story on the church.

“Would any of you guys mind talking to me?”

I can only imagine how innocent I must have sounded. The men were accordingly hesitant, and most of them insisted they didn’t want to talk to me if they would be identified in the story.

“Put me on the news,” one of the men finally volunteered.

The man, Dennis Mckinnon, 56, said he was from Ozark, Ala. He grinned like a little kid at the opportunity to be interviewed.

“Everybody know me,” he said, his grin widening. “They call me Snoop Dog.”

I started to question him about the homeless experience in Birmingham. I asked him if he’d been harassed by the police before. I began writing everything he said but, after a few moments, I realized his story about running from the police naked after having sex was only a joke. I tried not to show my frustration.

One of the men standing on the wall laughed incredulously and challenged Snoop Dog’s boast.

“You talk too much, man,” Snoop Dog replied. “Hush, I’m talking to him.”

“Hey, man, let me use your phone,” he asked.

I scrambled to think of any excuse, afraid that he would slip away with it while I talked to one of the other men. After thinking more, I realized it would be impossible for him to walk away into the open street without notice.

The first phone number he told me to dial didn’t work, so he recited a second number. A raspy female voice answered. I was unsure if I should speak, so I passed the phone to him.

“This Den-Den,” he said. He repeated that several times before asking “where’s Brenda at?”

It seemed to take a while for Brenda to make her way to the phone, but she must have finally arrived, because Den-Den (Alias Snoop Dog) began expressing relief that she was alright.

The conversation didn’t last long and, after handing my phone back to me, he explained that Brenda was his girlfriend. She lived with several relatives in a housing project that had caught fire, and he hadn’t heard from her since the previous day.

“I sure appreciate you, man,” he said without a note of the silliness that had colored his previous statements.

At that moment, another man dressed in a faded tan jacket joined the group. He was met with handshakes and a generous share of “what’s up man” greetings from the rest of the men.

He noticed me and raised his arms in mock incredulity.

“Hey, who’s the rich guy?” he said.

“Now, do I have to go over this again?” I laughed, unabashedly assuring him that I’d over-drafted my checking account for gas money to drive to Birmingham.  Den-Den scoffed and waved his hand.

“We still don’t know, he might be the police,” he said.

Noticing my camera, Den-Den hurried to the edge of the corner and retrieved his bicycle.

“Hey, get me,” he insisted, posing in his best Snoop Dog impersonation.

I snapped a few photos and, by the time I’d replaced my camera in its bag and was about to leave, Den-Den was back to joking around with the guys leaning against the building. He turned away from the group when he realized I was leaving.

I shook his hand and thanked him for his time.

“I appreciate you for letting me use your phone,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on with Brenda. Thank you, man.”

He pointed toward a red brick building down the street and told me that it houses a soup kitchen for homeless people. If I needed to interview anyone else, that would be the best place to go. As I walked away, the laughing and cutting up resumed, seemingly undisturbed by my intrusion.

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