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Benny Barrett is Homeless(ish)

Benny Barrett records stories of the homeless on an iPhone he received as a Christmas present.
Benny Barrett records stories of the homeless on an iPhone he received as a Christmas present.
Photo by Drew Gaines

For the past three and a half years, Benny Barrett taught Latin at a Catholic high school in Waco. Now he's living on the streets and in homeless shelters in downtown Dallas. Except, that is, when he needs a break.

"My job was killing me," Barrett says, sitting at a table in Main Street Garden Park on a recent afternoon. Barrett is 28, but with rectangular glasses framing a boyish face, he could pass for one of his old students. He pushes aside a book to tell his odd story.

He felt overwhelmed and disinterested at his job, he says, designing curriculum, teaching and grading and feeling all the while rather do something else. Half of his salary went to his student loans from studying at Baylor University, where he majored in Great Texts, "books written by dead white dudes," he says. He could hardly keep himself afloat. So he quit and moved back to Dallas, his hometown.

That's when he decided to live out the "what ifs," the ones that sink into the darkest of daydreams. His parents live in East Dallas -- but what if they didn't? What if he had no one to support him? He didn't want to burden his parents anyway. So with no money and no benefits, he moved to the streets on May 23.

What's ensued has been a sort of experiment with no formal hypothesis and no strict variables. He's gathering experiences and stories and video-blogging it all -- using an iPhone his parents bought him for Christmas. He uses a pseudonym, Arthur B. Black, in the videos. A lot of street people have fake names, he says; one of them told him he should too, so he complied. Each dispatch begins, "Arthur B. Black here," and ends with him signing off like an old-time radio host.

In the inaugural days of sort-of street life, he kept things light. He chatted with other homeless people in the downtown parks, posting a video of man named Chaos who can play guitar well enough to keep himself fed and praises the freedom of street life. Other videos show Barrett with Jimmy, who's happy to comply with anything his new companion suggests. And there's Andrew, their third musketeer for a short time, a clean-cut young man whose blank expression seems to indicate a man numbed by life's troubles.

Barrett says his goal is to tell the stories of those living on the streets. At first those stories came in the form of vignettes that were random and quirky. It all looked too fun for a reality that's anything but. He's settled in now, though, and the mood has turned more honest and raw.

In one video, Barrett and Jimmy sit on a bench sipping beers while Jimmy shares his story with the frankness of someone with nothing to lose. Jimmy was hit by a bus in Colorado and received a $250,000 settlement that only fueled his additions to crack and alcohol. "Smoked it and drank it up," he tells Barrett. He and the woman he had recently made his wife blew the money in less than six weeks.

That was a little too heavy for Barrett, who proved, if nothing else, that homelessness isn't some open-air version of funemployment. Jimmy's story, combined with his own self-imposed reality, recently forced him to take a break. He crashed at his parents' house two nights, a comfortable reminder that his story is different than the others he aims to tell. But after the brief breather, he's back to his parallel universe on the streets.

An earlier version of this post misspelled Barrett's name.


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