What’s my angle? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately.

My simple answer is that I want to learn as much as possible about the homeless experience in my city. The best I can hope for is to paint a realistic portrait of life on Columbia’s streets.

My complicated answer is an ever-expanding list of questions. I’ve heard a lot of outlandish and unsettling things from the homeless people I know in Columbia, and I want to check them out. Here are a few for starters. Feel free to let me know what you know on these topics, and by all means suggest more topics I should investigate.

1. Is there really homeless prostitution downtown? I’ve heard about this on several occasions, and the story usually goes something like this: Upper-middle-class men cruise the main strips in their cars, slowing when they approach clusters of homeless men. They roll down their windows and offer money for sex, and if one of the homeless men is desperate enough — often for a drug fix — he gets in the car.

Here’s Lightfoot, who chose not to use his real name for this interview, talking about the prostitution he said he has witnessed in his months living on Columbia’s streets:

Does this really happen in our city? I’ll be asking around and keeping my eyes peeled to find out.

2. What’s it like in the shelters? I’m involved with a homeless ministry that takes dinner to the bus stops once a week, and we occasionally run into people who say they won’t go to the shelters, even when it’s below freezing. Some have been banned for behavioral or drug issues, but others tell us they’re avoiding either the spread of germs or the nightly potential for fights to break out. What are conditions really like in there? What does it take to keep the peace and to keep people clean and healthy?

3. How common is it for homeless people in Columbia to have savings accounts? Some have said that helping people open accounts is one of the keys to ending poverty.

4. What do homeless people think about the welfare services and public institutions around Columbia? What are they saying, for instance, about MIRCI or the Salvation Army? Do they see CMRTA as a reliable way to get around town? Do they take advantage of free health care when they need it?

5. Can families stick together on the streets? Many shelters are for men or women exclusively, and I hear stories from time to time of couples who have to part ways while they’re homeless.

6. Are the day labor agencies viable places to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? Is it possible to find steady enough work there with good enough pay when you’re trying to get off the streets?

7. How effective are faith-based aid groups at helping the homeless? One encouraging thing I’ve heard from several homeless people is that, thanks to the churches, nobody starves to death in Columbia. But are there cases where you have to sit through a sermon just to get lunch? What is a homeless person’s spiritual life like? When you’re trying to get some help and you’re living in the Bible Belt, does it behoove you to talk about Jesus — even if you don’t really believe?

  1. Edna Boroski

    These are all great questions. The answers are applicable beyond Columbia. It is good to hear that the churches are providing meals. Some of the people do not, it seems, feel safe even to sleep in provided shelters. That is troubling. I’m looking forward to your posts during your week of study. The work is not done, unfortunately, when your study is complete. Then it’s time to get to work on designing some more satisfying solutions to meeting the needs of our homeless brothers and sisters. The idea that families have to separate in order to get shelter is particularly troubling.

  2. How easy is it for a homeless person to register with a Doctor or primary care practice?

    How easy is it for a homeless person to open a bank account?

    What is it like trying to enrol for college/vocational courses as a homeless person?

    What is it like trying to keep all your documentation safe as a homeless person?

    How much casual violence/abuse do homeless people face from frontline services such as police?

    How long before the experience of rejection/failure to access basic services becomes a significant barrier to even trying?

    • Paul Bowers

      Good questions, Kevin. I’ll see what I can find out about all of those.

      On the college/vocational course front, I do know one woman who made it through vocational school in Columbia but hasn’t gotten enough money together to pay tuition and get her piece-of-paper degree. Basically, a few hundred dollars stand between her and job prospects right now.

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