Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Gospel Mission’

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.

Advertisements

“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.”

Say you’re getting $200 per month on your Electronic Benefit Transfer card. How do you spend it?

You’ll want to stretch that money as far as you can, right? Get the 24-pack of Ramen, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, maybe some lunchmeat? But if you’re homeless — no pantry, no refrigerator — you buy what you can carry on your back.

I’ve always questioned the spending habits of my homeless friends. When you’ve got next to nothing, why are you spending it on Mountain Dew and cigarettes? Is Starbucks coffee really worth it?

Here in Columbia, you could go entirely without food expenses if you made it to the soup kitchens every day — which is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But that might be part of the reason why some  people end up monetizing their food stamps, either by selling them to each other (in the case of people still receiving paper stamps) or by reselling their EBT-bought food at a marked-up price. As a disclaimer, I am almost certain that both of these activities are illegal. But they happen.

Here’s what you do: Use your EBT card to buy a twelve-pack of soda on sale for $3. Then go into a shelter, Finlay Park, or anywhere the homeless congregate, and sell those sodas individually for 50 cents a pop. Sell them all (not as hard as you’d think), and you turn a $3 profit. You’ve now got $6 in cash where you once had $3 that had to be spent on non-heated food items.

Today we’ll look at some of the decision-making processes that the homeless make  around Columbia. What I’m learning is that, like anybody, the homeless rarely make decisions based on pure reason.

Off the streets, we do the same thing every day. We confuse wants and needs. I didn’t need that album I bought last week, and it would have been wiser to buy groceries than a taco at Moe’s. But I quietly told myself the enjoyment was worth the cost.

Ernest told me yesterday that a lot of people don’t take up smoking until they’re homeless. They willingly take on a nonessential expense — a $6 pack per day in some cases — because the nicotine helps them cope. A cigarette is soothing, and it gives you something to do. Smoking is a community-building activity; everyone bums smokes off of everyone. I have met almost no homeless people who don’t smoke.

The American public has a longstanding tradition of judging the ways in which homeless and poor folks spend their money. We see a picture of a man in a soup kitchen using a cell phone, and we question whether he’s in need at all. (On a side note, many homeless people do have cell phones. Everyone needs to stay in contact, and sometimes that’s the most efficient way to do it.)

There’s also the whole issue of savings. What that amounts to, in some cases, is a wad of cash stuffed in a sock that’s tied to your belt loop and tucked into your pants. When you carry all your money around with you, it gets gone pretty quickly. Either somebody finds a way to steal it or you find a way to spend it.

Savings accounts are not unheard of, though. Tommy has one, and he gets half his unemployment check sent to it automatically. I’ve seen men come up off the streets in Columbia, and if memory serves, they have all had savings accounts. Not a bad idea.

When it comes to actually earning money, there’s one logical question: Why don’t you go get a job?

I asked Tommy that question this morning, and he pulled out a sheet from the unemployment office. In order to extend your unemployment benefits, you’ve got to prove you’ve applied 25 different places by getting the potential employers’ signatures. Looking down the sheet, I saw 22 entries from electrical and heating/AC business owners, each with unpromising memos like “Awaiting results” or “Not hiring.”

Is Tommy looking in the wrong places? Doubtful. Electrical work is his specialty; he’s done it since high school. He’s sticking with what he knows, and he’s not afraid to work. Before his previous employer went out of business a year ago, Tommy would leave his sleeping spot at 4 a.m. to walk to work. But South Carolina’s jobless rate was 12.4 percent in December, and some industries are more vulnerable than others.

At what point do you stop trying?

At breakfast at the Oliver Gospel Mission this morning, a man named Claude told me about two important categories of homeless people.

There are the transients, who see their condition as temporary and are working to get out of it as soon as possible. These are the men who never refer to the Mission as “home.”

Then there are the doohinkles. The doohinkles have no intention of leaving the homeless life. To the extent that they can, they’ve gotten comfortable, and they’re no longer looking for jobs.

My guess is that no one is born a doohinkle. It’s a condition into which you let yourself slide after years of running into brick walls. Yes, it’s a choice. But it takes an awful lot to choose not to give up.

The things that will soon be my only possessions are at the foot of my bed. As you can see from the video, those things don’t amount to much.*

It’s Saturday night, and, come Sunday morning, we’re heading out. Never before have the words “heading out” carried so much weight.

We’re not just going outside. We’re leaving behind a lifestyle of privilege and security, albeit only briefly. We’re going out into a world where nothing is certain and precious few rules can be enforced.

The people who will be showing us the city over the next three days have a subculture all their own, and I’m bracing myself for a sort of cultural whiplash. Yesterday, I took notes in class and bought my dad a vinyl album at Papa Jazz; tomorrow, I’ll make mental notes on the streets and have nothing to spend at the stores.

You could say I’m anxious, but I’m not afraid anymore. I believe we’re in capable hands.

There are a lot of people back home who — through no merit of my own — love me, and I know they’ll be pacing the floor a lot while we’re out there. I’m beginning to understand the mindset of the homeless people who never give out their real names for fear their families will find out what’s become of them. Who would want to put their loved ones through this stress?

I’m anxious because I know we’ll run into homeless people who want no part of this naïve schoolboy project. Some of them, when they find out what we’re doing, will find it intrusive and obnoxious. Such is journalism, I suppose.

Wayne Fields, who directs the Oliver Gospel Mission downtown, told me that he once considered doing something along the lines of this project while he was working with the homeless in Pennsylvania. But he said he ran into the same problem we did: His anonymity was shot.

“Everyone on the streets there knew who I was,” he said.

Initially, Matt and I had considered going out there anonymously, living and speaking as if we were two newly homeless people who’d just arrived in town. But that would have been dishonest and a hard sell. Besides, we’ve been around Columbia too long, and, thanks especially to the local news coverage of our project, the word is already out.

If anybody knows what’s going on in Columbia, it’s the homeless people. Some guys I know will spend hours at the library every day poring over newspapers from around the state and reading news online. And when you’ve got little to entertain yourself at night but talk, word spreads fast. Odds are there are homeless people reading this right now.

As for the safety issue: I know we are putting ourselves in harm’s way. I’ve received plenty of sobering warnings and one jolting wakeup call. But I believe that the potential for good to come out of this project is well worth the risk.

Earlier today, I gave the keynote speech at a convention for high school journalists and advisers. I got a little grandiose toward the end about the power of good journalism, and I’d like to end this entry with a paraphrase of something I said at the end — something that I hope will hold true about this project:

“As journalists, you have a chance to do something incredible. What you can do is you can grab your reader by the collar, pull him down to the level of the people you’re writing about, and say, ‘Look this man in the eyes. This is your neighbor, out here digging through the trash for his dinner. This is your sister who got raped downtown and left out in the cold. This is somebody’s brother, somebody’s friend, somebody’s daughter. What are you going to do about it?’”

* In addition to what I listed in the video, I will also bring a can of pepper spray (at the request of my mother) and a toothbrush (at the persistent, twice-a-year request of my dental hygienist).