Posts Tagged ‘homeless shelters’

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.

We came back to our ordinary college life Tuesday afternoon, and already I’m taking the things I’ve got for granted: a microwave, a bicycle, a room to call my own.

(Sorry it took so long to post this; I spent a long time trying to eliminate the wind noise and eventually gave up.)

Our three days on the streets confirmed something a close friend told me before I left: We were stepping into a subculture.

When you’re homeless for a while, you develop a keen eye for fellow homeless people. And when someone new enters your community, you’re naturally curious. That’s why, within a few blocks of leaving our apartment, we were questioned by an older homeless man.

“You two running away from home?” he asked, stopping to lean on his cane as we passed him. Everyone wanted to know our story. It’s an icebreaker, like asking a college kid what his major is. The next question was usually a request for cigarettes. As I’ve said before, everyone smokes out there.

It’s a fairly tight-knit community, partly because everyone hangs out in the same areas downtown: Finlay Park, the Richland County Public Library, and the soup kitchens at Washington Street United Methodist and Ebenezer Lutheran. When I asked someone at the library how to get to the lunchtime soup kitchen, he told me, “Just follow the crowd.”

The homeless community is not just tightly knit, though. It’s isolated. In our three days, we never had a conversation with someone who was not homeless or involved with homeless services. We’d ask folks on the sidewalk for the time, but there was rarely so much as polite chit-chat afterward.

Ernest said he never speaks to people outside of this homeless circle. A soft-spoken man named Craig, whom we met while waiting for the library to open one morning, said that he’s started attending a church downtown, but that he hasn’t let any of the congregants know he’s homeless. He arrives clean-shaven in a collared shirt, and no one suspects a thing.

Being homeless in public was an experience I can only compare to traveling in a country where you don’t know the language. In the markets in India last winter, I could speak to other English-speakers, but I couldn’t get far beyond a nod or a cordial As-Salamu Alaykum” with most of the natives. Here in Columbia, with several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag tied to my backpack, I was just as much an outsider. All the charm in the world wasn’t going to bring me back into the public’s good graces.

I never experienced any outright meanness from non-homeless people, just courteous distance. Occasionally, though, there are unabashed harassers, like the group of young troublemakers who drove by the bus stops in recent months peppering homeless people with their paintball guns. Or like the college students who confront homeless people in the winter night and settle the argument by dousing them with ice water. Or like the lady in the park who failed to correct her daughter when she walked by my friend Dawn and said, “Mommy, isn’t that a homeless piece of shit?”

I also became aware of two distinct approaches to being homeless. They’re essentially the same two approaches anyone can take in life. But when you’re homeless, they can mean the difference between life and death, or at least between a bed inside and a box on the street.

On the one hand, there are people like my friend Ernest, who talks about shelter life like prison life: “You back down from a fight, you’ll get punked.”

Ernest and I talked often about the very real threats that homeless people pose to each other. There are a few who will not hesitate to rob you in your sleep, and others who pick fights seemingly out of pure meanness. Is it worth fighting these people, though? Ernest seems to think so.

“People get angry at the world and take it out on each other,” he said.

On the other hand, there’s my friend Tommy, who believes so firmly in the virtue of keeping to himself that he stays out of the shelters except for the coldest nights. He camps out in the woods whenever possible, and when he does come inside, he lives by the same sort of maxims they preach at Oliver Gospel Mission.

“You go through the serving line and they give you one biscuit instead of two, be thankful for that,” the preacher said in his sermon Monday night.

There was certainly syncretism of these two approaches, but I learned which people leaned more to one side or the other. My friend John, for instance, stayed with Tommy and was almost always of the same conflict-avoidance mindset. But when he realized someone dangerous was following him to our sleeping spot, he sprung into action.

“The pen is mightier than the sword!” he bellowed, turning and brandishing a ballpoint pen like a shiv. He was banking on the tracker thinking he was crazy enough to do something, and it worked.

Surviving on the streets, though, is just as much about keeping yourself sane. Whether it’s through church or music or a cornball sense of humor (“I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention”), everyone out there needs to maintain a sense of normalcy. Maybe Tommy said it best:

“You’ve got to stay positive.”