EDITOR’S NOTE: Lycoming County’s homeless population often is overlooked and full of people from a myriad of backgrounds. Here On the PULSE finishes a week-long series on the local issue with its last of six different profiles on individuals struggling with homelessness.
“There’s definitely a correlation between health and homelessness … That’s what my book’s about. It needs to be told,” says Steven Michael Sykes, an author, poet and musician who has lived and worked at the American Rescue Workers for a year.
He was born and raised in Williamsport and spent most of his life in the city, save for a couple of years in Tampa, Florida.
Sykes says he toppled into the realm of homelessness when “the wrong medication caused a very adverse side effect. I have epilepsy.”
Developing the disorder, which affects the brain, “started probably the toughest year of my life,” he says. “You’re used to one thing, and you have a medical ailment completely change the whole facet of your life.
“Epilepsy crushed my family life, ruined my marriage. I haven’t talked to them (my family) in over a year. Some family (members) understand, some are compassionate, but some say you’re faking it, you brought this on yourself.”
The neurological disorder is very common in the U.S., with more than 3 million cases diagnosed every year. It is characterized by seizures that can range in severity from nearly undetectable to so violent that they cause broken bones.
“I only knew a few people who ever had seizures,” says Sykes, who has been dealing with the disorder for about 10 years. “And now that pretty much dictates my day … if I get through it with no seizures, it’s a great day.
“Nobody understands what it’s like to have a seizure, unless you’ve had one. They’re bizarre. Back in the day, they thought you were possessed by a demon. It’s not pretty.”
Dealing with the change in his health and what he admits as poor planning and reliance on people he later realized he could not count on changed his life and his future.
“But it’s happened to other people … lots, some smarter than me, older, richer, poorer, different sex, all of it. I’m nobody special, but I know that. I’m a common person … well, I wouldn’t say common, I’m a little bit uncommon,” he says, smiling faintly.
Sykes says he doesn’t fit the mold that many people have in mind when they imagine a homeless individual.
“I graduated high school, went to college. My parents were affluent. They weren’t wealthy but they weren’t poor either,” he says. “You see that depiction on TV or what you think a homeless guy is, some wino pushing a cart with a ratty beard — I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. But … some guys here have $300 phones and sneakers. They just were either ill prepared, came here from another town, only knew a few people, or, like myself, the health thing … This place has its share of people with health problems, for sure.
“Everybody has a story; some of them are a lot worse than mine.”
At the American Rescue Workers shelter, where about 40 men share lodging on any given day, he is not alone.
“I’ve always said there’s two places in life you should never be — jail or a homeless shelter. You will not enjoy either one … but this place is great,” he says. “It is definitely a learning experience and you either adapt to it or …. end up in the mental ward, back in jail, leaving or being kicked out.”
Those who adapt can succeed. In Lycoming County, he says, “there’s plenty of resources if you want to seek them out. It’s not just handed to you.”
There also are plenty of people who need those resources, although the general public might not realize it.
“People are so busy and involved in their tablets and their screens and their phones, you miss a lot,” Sykes says. “We’re here. Not everybody is that guy you see living under the bridge … There are people around here that are tent sleeping by the river, for sure.
“There’s a lot of places around here that offer a free lunch. You might see them at the drug store, see ’em at the courthouse. (The issue of homelessness) is a lot bigger than I thought, and I grew up here.”
Sykes is on one of the county’s lists to secure a more permanent housing option.
“I’ve met some good people here,” he says, “but I’m not destined to be here forever.”