By Julia Masters
Shivering on a sidewalk bench, Aurelio DiScala wept.
The wooden planks provided no warmth, no shelter. Freezing tears streamed down toward his beard tied into uneven sections with neon rubber bands. She was supposed to be here by now, DiScala thought through his exhaustion. It was his third night in a row without sleep.
She had told him over breakfast at the Waffle House that she still loved him. She said that she would come for him tonight — so where was she?
It wasn’t until later the next day that he realized they’d never spoken. There had been no breakfast of smothered and covered hash browns. No confession of love or promise of a future.
It was all a hallucination.
This happened soon after DiScala’s arrival to Chapel Hill two months ago. Since then, the scruffy ‘metaphysical shaman’ set up camp in no man’s land outside the Red Roof Inn in Durham. The camp is at the end of the line on the Chapel Hill Transit D Route, making for an easy commute to Franklin Street.
An estimated 131 people are experiencing homelessness in Orange County, according to a report by Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.
“People are homeless for three reasons: because they can’t work, won’t work or choose to be,” DiScala said. “I’m all three.”
The Norwalk, Connecticut, native graduated Apex High School in 1999 and attended UNC Charlotte for two years. He then transferred to UNC Wilmington, where he studied computer science, played rugby and started smoking marijuana.
Through the years he worked for General Electric Power, Kenan Flagler Institute of Private Enterprise and played semi-professional rugby for the Atlanta Old White Rugby Club. He has waited tables, rolled pizza dough, gone to Europe and Turkey on soul searching quests and lead cults of metaphysical thinkers, including one in Carrboro. He has also been diagnosed with ADHD, depression and delusional disorders.
Glancing down at the ground, he noticed a rusted razor blade. He Picking it up, he was torn between carefully placing it in his book bag or throwing it away, like invisible forces were playing a game of tug-of-war with his body. He chose to throw it away, because every time he gets a pain on the right side of his nose, it’s his spirit guiding him toward the right decision.
DiScala said that due to his diagnoses, he cannot hold down a job and work normal hours like most 38-year-old men. Beyond this, he chooses homelessness.
“The homeless population with diagnosed mental conditions have problems getting jobs just like felons,” Annie, a Carrboro resident who mentors the homeless, said. “In some cases, the homeless could get off the street; some want the negative freedom to be out all night, drink, commit crimes and justify it by being homeless.”
Part of the family
DiScala chose Chapel Hill as his home base because of its “gentle feminine energy.” There are no territory wars when it comes to the best spots to position on Franklin Street.
There are no laws prohibiting panhandling and the IFC Community Kitchen serves three course meals, making Chapel Hill a haven for DiScala.
Annie said that the longer a person remains homeless, the closer they feel to the street community. Many of Chapel Hill’s homeless become recognizable on the street, adopted into a new makeshift family.
“Rick! Rick! Where have you been?” DiScala shouted.
“Hey man! What are you up to?” Rick, a recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and fellow member of the homeless community, responded.
DiScala stepped into a store and returned with a pack of India pale ales. Rick pulled out two inconspicuous disposable coffee cups from his bag. He ventured into the nearest alley and poured the beer into the cups.
Rick and DiScala sat back, sipped their beers and laughed over somewhat crude conversation, similar to what one might witness walking by fraternity court on a sunny day. Except these men were sitting on the ground, thinking of when their next meal would be.
When worlds collide
Annie compared the student and homeless population in Chapel Hill to two ships passing by one another on their way to different worlds. While she does not believe it is necessary to interact, she thinks students should be aware of the misconceptions surrounding homeless individuals.
“I feel like I usually walk quickly past them or try to avoid eye contact,” Justin King, a junior neuroscience major at UNC-CH, said. “I feel like if I make eye contact I’ll feel more guilty about not giving them money.”
Sometimes interactions between the two ships are less mundane.
Walking home from work one afternoon, junior Isabella Gonzalez realized she was being followed. She noticed that a homeless man she’d passed leaving the ITS office was still behind her as she veered off onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Panicking, Gonzalez sped up and frantically dialed her mom’s number. She only hung up after making it to Mill Creek, where the man stopped and watched her walk into the building.
Annie said that the key to the balance between Chapel Hill’s two worlds is to encourage students to treat the homeless with humanity.
DiScala holds a crumpled “Homeless, please help” sign on the street. His long, frizzy curls partially cover a pink scar he got in Mexico defending his girlfriend. He appears stand-offish to those that peer sideways at him as they walk by.
They know he is homeless. They know he is probably hungry and in need of a shower. They assume he has struggled with substance abuse and made terrible life decisions.
They don’t know he recites phrases in ancient Greek and Latin. They don’t know he created and coded his own video game. They don’t know that while science fiction movies are his favorites, Sex and the City holds a special place in his heart. They don’t know that he is a Cancer and his favorite time of year is the fall. They don’t know that he’s been in love.
“You can get very very depressed living on the streets, lose your will to live and start going through the motions,” Annie said. “The problem is when someone doesn’t have something bigger than themselves to believe in.”
DiScala said that he uses a different tactic to endure life on the streets: “I live without fear, act without fear, I never run.”
Edited by Anna Farmer.