Archive for the ‘Digging Deeper’ Category

Good news for Columbia’s homeless: Catholic Charities of the Midlands will open a free shower and laundry facility downtown Monday, March 7, right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. As you can imagine, sometimes a hot shower and clean clothes can make all the difference when you’re on the streets.

It’s filling a need. There are no coin laundries in downtown Columbia, and few opportunities to take a free shower, so a lot of people end up taking “bird baths” in a bathroom sink at places like the Richland County Public Library.

Chuck Waters, a homeless man who’s part of the Homeless Helping Homeless advocacy group, told me that once the Winter Shelter closes April 1, “you’re not going to have a place to shower unless you use a hose or go to the river.”

The facility, called Clean of Heart, will only be able to serve about 30 people a week to start, and you’ll have to sign up in advance at Catholic Charities, but, in the words of one of the organizers, “It’s 30 more than right now have access.”

Read the rest in an article I wrote for the Carolina Reporter.

The local Fox affiliate had me on the air recently for a talk show about homelessness in the Midlands. You can watch it here (I show up around the 18-minute mark).

(me on TV)

So what else is new?

  1. Remember when I asked Columbia’s churches and charities if they’d be willing to open a free laundry service? Well, I got a call from Mary Gohean at Catholic Charities of the Midlands, and she said they’ve been working on putting a laundry and shower facility for the homeless in a building across from the central bus stop on Laurel Street. Great location, great idea. It opens March 7, and they still need a few fifth-Friday-of-the-month volunteers.
  2. Construction is still underway for the Transitions Center, a new-school homeless shelter at the old Salvation Army site that will include year-round beds and recovery programs. They’ve set the completion date for April, but then there’s the matter —sound familiar? — of funding and staffing it.
  3. Every couple of years, states have to conduct a homeless count to determine how much federal money they get for certain programs. That was this year, and I tagged along as a volunteer to see how exactly it works. In South Carolina, it works like a census, which makes sense when you’re downtown and can divide the land along a grid. My team, however, was assigned to rural Lexington County — all of it. While there are probably more homeless people downtown, it seems like we’re missing a lot of people out in the woods this way. More thoughts on that later.
  4. I’ve done a so-so job of keeping up with my homeless friends who watched out for me on the streets. Ernest and Dawn spent their summer up north, working for a traveling carnival. They’re back now, but they’ve had some problems, including a couple of hospital visits for Dawn’s seizures. All they can get is ER treatment; what they really need is to see a specialist. Big John and I still see each other fairly regularly through a Monday-night homeless ministry; he’s still roughing it outside and keeping his wits (and his wit) about him. As for Tommy, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. I’ve heard he had some hard times this past year, but I’ll wait until I’ve finally found him before I go into any detail.
  5. Some homeless people have started an advocacy and service group called Homeless Helping Homeless. They started out meeting at the future site of the Nickelodeon Theatre on Main Street, but I’ve been told they’re now meeting at Sidney Park CME Church on Blanding Street on Mondays at 6 p.m. They do things like pick up trash downtown and attend meetings of homeless service providers. I’ve met a couple of the members, and they’re a refreshingly honest bunch.

That’s all for now. I’ve been doing a lot more reporting than this, but it’s for a long-term freelance magazine piece about the changing definition of homelessness. I’ll let you know when someone publishes it.

Among my glaring character flaws: I’m terrible at keeping up with friends.

Matt and I made some close friends during our three days on the streets, and I want to do a better job than usual of not losing track of them. This post is about that.

Ernest, Dawn, Tommy, and John were our indispensable Sherpa guides. They showed us where to sleep, taught us how to walk and talk and argue, and introduced us to kind souls while steering us clear of the crooks and mouthwash drinkers.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when I’ve been more dependent on someone for safety. Maybe that’s why homeless people are often so choosy with their friends: Befriend the wrong person and you’re endangering yourself. Friendships among homeless people seem to be less based on common interests and more based on the idea that a person will protect and stick up for you, maybe even lay down his life for you.

I sat down with Tommy for dinner Monday night, and he got all emotional with me, talking about the serendipity of our paths having crossed and the firmness of his conviction that we would always be linked. It was the sort of conversation that men rarely share, and when we shook hands goodbye, I knew it was something sacred.

The next evening, I got a call from Ernest, who had me on speakerphone so I could hear Dawn as she thrashed him in a game of rummy.

Back on March 31, the day before the Winter Shelter closed, I gave the two of them a ride to the Greyhound station and sent them on their way with a bag full of sandwiches and apples and a calling card — all the things I thought my mom would have handed me. Ernest had secured jobs for both of them, along with a friend, in a traveling carnival based out of Indiana. As we pulled into the parking lot, someone was singing Leonard Cohen on the radio:

“Love is not a victory march;

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

It was a tough departure for Dawn, and while some of this had to do with the fact that she’d never left the state before, it was mainly because she was leaving her children behind.

Dawn’s got three kids, and she knows that no court will award her custody while she’s homeless. The plan is to save up her money until the carnival ends in October and then come back to collect her children. She said she hopes they’ll understand one day why she has to do this.

As for Tommy and John, they cleared out of their downtown sleeping spots once the Winter Shelter closed, hoping to avoid confrontations by setting up camp in the woods. So far so good, but tensions are high. John’s been talking about some bad blood among their group of friends, and Tommy, a recovering alcoholic, has decided he can’t be around his longtime friends who drink liquor every night.

Still, Tommy was in higher spirits Monday night than I’d ever seen him. He’d spent some considerable time sitting by the river alone, playing his guitar and watching the water pass, and he spoke euphorically about Heaven and the promise that all things will be made new. I could tell he’d been praying a lot, and he said he’d been praying for me.

Tommy talked plans: He wants to start a homeless Bible study, and he said he’s got around 25 people interested in it on either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday nights. He asked me to see if any college ministries wanted to help out.

He told me that, once he finally gets things straight with Veterans Affairs and receives his five years’ worth of checks in arrears, he’ll put most of the money in the bank, buy some good boots and a tent, and hike the Appalachian Trail, living off the land and the kindness of strangers. Upon returning, he’ll find a place of his own and continue the job hunt.

I asked if I could tag along once again, and he said that would be fine.

Columbia’s Winter Shelter closed for the spring Thursday morning, sending hundreds of the city’s homeless back outside at nights.

“250 people are headed nowhere,” said Billy, a 56-year-old homeless man who’d been staying at the Winter Shelter. The shelter’s exact capacity is 240, but the fact remains: Living arrangements are up in the air.

Billy, who withheld his last name, listed the same potential sleeping spots as many others facing the same predicament: parking garages, abandoned houses, the woods. If there is an unoccupied nook or cranny downtown, odds are the homeless scoped it out Thursday night.

Cooperative Ministries Executive Director David Kunz, whose organization helps fund the Winter Shelter, said there will not be enough beds in other area shelters to absorb the 240 homeless who left Thursday morning.

“The good majority of them will be sleeping outside,” Kunz said.

This happens every year. The shelter won’t reopen until October, so downtown residents and business owners will have an increased number of outdoor neighbors throughout the warmer months.

Steve Rowland, owner of Drake’s Duck-In on Main Street, said his problems are about to multiply: panhandling during lunch hours, drunken confrontations with customers, defecation and urination in front of his store at night. He’s owned the restaurant for 40 years, and he says he knows people who have been homeless that entire time and made no attempts at getting jobs.

Steve Rowland, owner of Drake's Duck-In

“I didn’t inherit the responsibility for these irresponsible people,” Rowland said. Every morning, he has police escort his manager into the store in case someone is sleeping on the front porch again.

Dorothy Thompson, who runs T.O. Thompson Jewelry Repair with her husband Harold, said she’s more concerned about prisoners being let off at a nearby bus stop than about the homeless, whom she sees as mostly harmless and in need. Still, she said she had to put up a chain-link fence last summer to keep people from sleeping on the stairs behind the store.

Is it safe to go downtown at night? Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter said that only 2 or 3 percent of Columbia’s homeless are criminals, and that they tend to commit more property crimes — specifically auto break-ins — than violent crimes.

“Homelessness is a public health concern, not a police concern,” Carter said. “The enforcement end, to us, is not as important as trying to line them up with the right services.”

What if the Winter Shelter were kept open year-round? Certainly, some people would get complacent and learn to call it home.

But for the ones who are still trying, a shelter is a chance to save money. Here’s a common scenario: A man stays in the Oliver Gospel Mission’s transient dorm for 30 days, at which point shelter policy dictates he has to leave for 14 days so his bed can be offered to someone else. For those first 30 days, he has no housing costs and can save his money toward more permanent living arrangements.

For the 14 days outside the mission, though, he can either live on the streets for free — and run the risk of being robbed in his sleep or arrested for urban camping — or he can check into a hotel room. He chooses the hotel.

Say the man pays  $40 a night at the hotel. Over 14 days, that costs him $560. In other words, he’s paying a month’s worth of apartment rent for half a month in a hotel. So much for savings.

When it comes to nighttime on the streets, one thing is different this year: the Clean and Safety Team. Funded by private donations and a special tax on downtown businesses, these goldenrod-clad guards patrol the downtown area. Their job is broad-ranging, but part of it is to move homeless people along when they’re caught sleeping downtown.

Until recently, the yellowshirts (as they are nicknamed) would call it quits around 11:30 p.m. Homeless people knew this, and they waited until then to lie down.

Now, the yellowshirts have a third shift that goes late into the night. There are two ways to look at this:

  1. The streets will be safer at night. Daniel Long, the team’s homeless outreach coordinator, called the yellowshirts “the eyes and ears of law enforcement” and said they’ve helped solve several crimes downtown with the cooperation of the homeless.
  2. Things might get ugly at night. For some, like my homeless friend Tommy Capps, the late-night shift means it’s hard to get any sleep. When I stayed outside with him one night, we got to sleep around 11:30 p.m. and woke up at 4 a.m. For a few days after the night shift began, Tommy got almost no sleep.

Tommy has expressed concern about the volatile mix of persistent yellowshirts and tired, frustrated street sleepers. Tommy is himself non-confrontational and carries no weapons, but all it would take is one belligerent homeless person to turn things awry.

“One of them could make 20 of us look bad,” Tommy said.

“Patience is a virtue,” muttered the man whose elbow kept bumping mine in the Social Security office waiting room. The place was exactly what you’d expect: yellow wallpaper, no windows, everyone overhearing everyone else and smelling everyone else’s body odor. Folks were getting impatient.

If you’re used to instant gratification, homelessness might not be for you. I found that out during our three days on the streets, and it became especially evident later when I walked (literally) through the steps of obtaining a photo ID.

It took me four and a half hours, seven miles of walking, and $17 to get it. There’s been some debate recently about how much of a hassle it is to get one of these ID cards, which are issued by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles to people who can’t or don’t have a driver’s license.

A bill in the state legislature (H.3418) would require you to present photo ID at the polls in order to vote. This is significant because, according to the South Carolina Election Commission, 178,000 registered voters in our state don’t have a DMV-issued ID.

Republicans say the bill would prevent voter fraud. Democrats say it’s a modern-day poll tax, using expense and inconvenience to keep minorities from voting.

Daniel Long, homeless outreach coordinator for the City Center Partnership, said that most of the homeless in Columbia aren’t registered to vote in the base case, and that this bill wouldn’t do much to remedy that.

It’s not as though they’re politically apathetic, though.* The shelters are abuzz with talk about the new homeless transition center that’s being built at the demolished Salvation Army site on Main Street. There’s some uncertainty over whether the city will provide funds to operate it, and the homeless have a good idea which City Council members will vote for or against it.

Homelessness is a perennial soapbox topic in Columbia, and this transition center is shaping up to be a sticking point in the mayoral election.

And yet the homeless will have almost no say in the decision. Even in news stories about homelessness, there’s an obvious pattern: Anecdotes about homeless people are used for color, sprinkled onto stories about politics and posturing.

No, it’s not impossible for the homeless to vote, and it still wouldn’t be impossible if Bill H.3418 passed. After all, many of them already have driver’s licenses — I watched men plopping them down to check into the Oliver Gospel Mission one night — and the ones who don’t have ID can get a waiver from the mission to cover the $5 printing cost at the DMV.

But as city election season comes around, it’s another reminder that they are not a part of civil society. Whether it’s due to a lack of transportation, a lack of ID, or a lack of motivation, there’s a sense that democratic participation will have to wait until they’re off the streets. In the meantime, their voices are muted, open to interpretation by reporters and politicians.

(my photo ID)

* This is, after all, the state whose lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer, compared the welfare system to “feeding stray animals” in January. If you want to see a passionate electorate, bring that one up in Finlay Park. As reported in The State newspaper, Bauer went on to say this: “You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”