This is Karl. A half German half South African living homeless in Quito. I’ll admit that when Karl first approached me, I didn’t want to speak with him. I was sending a text message and looking down when he said hello to me. I had never spoken more than a few words to a homeless man before.
Karl: “Are you going to ignore me?” Me: “Is that alright?” Karl: “You can be that way.”
He sat down next to me on the steps of the Monastery of San Francisco anyway. I decided to stay put. Karl told me that he left South Africa nine months ago after he caught his wife cheating on him with his best friend. He had no money left and no one or no where to turn to in Ecuador for help. The nearest South African Embassy was in Peru and a ticket back home to South Africa was over a thousand dollars.
Karl paints to preoccupy himself. His clothing was splotched with the mustard yellow hues you find on many of the buildings in Old Town Quito. All of his possessions, including his paint supplies, occupy an 18 inch by 18 inch cardboard box that he carries with him. He told me he painted over vulgar and obscene graffiti with his own more tasteful interpretations. He would sometimes get permission from the building’s owner, but usually exercised his work late at night and out of sight.
I let him talk. I let him have some of his dignity back. He complained to me about how people sneered at him. He complained about how the police harassed him. He complained about the people that stole his only pair of shoes while he slept.
When he finished, I asked him some tough questions. I asked him if he believed in God (he did), I asked him if he did drugs (he did). I asked him was still in contact with anyone in his family (his sister).
I asked him where he thought he would be in five years.
He told me that he was pretty sure he would be dead.
Turns out Karl is living with HIV/AIDS. I didn’t ask him any specifics. It wasn’t necessary to go down that road. Besides, I really didn’t want to know. I asked him if he thought God had a plan for all of us. He believed He did. I told him to not lose hope. From one day to the next a man with a home could be homeless and a homeless man can find a home – remember Ted Williams, the homeless man with THAT VOICE in Ohio?
I wasn’t naive about the whole encounter. Karl wanted money. I didn’t give him any. Instead, I asked Karl if I could pay him with my last two dollars to take his picture. He was a working man again, even if it was just for a few minutes. Again, dignity.
After the photo shoot I told Karl I needed to leave. I told him I would pray for him. I told him to keep praying. I told him to not give up. I hope he listened.
Karl poses for his photo shoot. Weathered from life on the streets and living with HIV/AIDS, Karl looks far older than his 29 years.