Can't take away his dignity

A neatly dressed homeless man proves a person can preserve his dignity, even when things seem desperate.

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Ken McEwan is nicknamed "Cowboy." But he's really not a cowboy, he says; he's a gentleman. It's his hat that makes folks think of a cowboy. We met at a soup kitchen in Fort Myers, Fla., but he didn't fit the stereotype of a homeless man: He wore a chalk-white trench coat, white shirt, and pressed pants. His beard was neatly trimmed. He was articulate and his mannerisms refined.

In a soft voice, with a tear in his eye, he told how he came to be homeless. A young, energetic couple had brought him to the soup kitchen. Sometimes, on cool nights or when rain threatened, they let Cowboy and some of his friends sleep on their floor. They assured me that all his stories were true and that he was always well groomed. They had no idea how he was able to maintain his appearance.

Cowboy wasn't telling. Just because a man is homeless doesn't mean he must lose his self-respect, he said firmly. He had fought in the Korean War. His frustration is that he has been denied veterans' disability benefits. The situation was dire because, as he tells it, people don't believe he is homeless. I asked to take his picture and instinctively he held up his sign. I believed him. A person can have very little yet preserve his dignity. It is those precious individuals who remind us of our common humanity.

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