Posts Tagged ‘Salvation Army’

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.

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“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.”

We were up before the birds and out with the runners this morning. I’ll not say where we stayed because I don’t want to compromise our friends’ safe spot, but suffice to say it was not the Marriott.

When you sleep on the streets, you are breaking the law. There are urban camping laws here in Columbia. What our friends tell us, though, is that the authorities won’t give you trouble as long as you lay low and clean up after yourself. Usually.

That’s the thing about being homeless: You’re living in a legal gray area, often with no permanent address or photo ID, and you can get picked up for any number of activities that constitute your daily life: loitering, panhandling, public urination, sleeping where you ought not.

Can you avoid these things? Yes, but it means you’re constantly moving, usually broke, spending money at restaurants just to use their restrooms, and sleeping in a shelter with hundreds of strangers.

I should introduce you to our friends.

Tommy, who turned 49 last week without realizing it was his birthday, is an 18-year veteran who served in Cambodia, a skilled electrician and AC worker, and one heck of a guitarist. He taught me Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” yesterday on Christine, the weathered Fender acoustic he named after his mother.

Ernest, 31, worked on the assembly and teardown crew for a carnival for years and is trying to get back up to Indiana where he can get a similar job. He grew up in Cincinnati, had a rocky relationship with his parents, stayed with a foster family for a while, and spent time in jail for shooting someone’s car with a BB gun. He is generous with what he has; he bought sandwiches for Matt and me yesterday and hands out cigarettes to all who ask.

Dawn, 33, is a mother of three and a gentle spirit. She went to celebrate her daughter’s eighth birthday yesterday and came back heartbroken, sick of the streets and wanting to be with her children more often. Still, she might accompany Ernest up north if the two can save up and get a bus ticket.

John is Tommy’s good friend. We haven’t gotten to know him very well yet, but he’s been helpful and has a disarming sense of humor.

It would take pages to sum up everything that happened yesterday, so I’ll instead share a few things I’ve learned:

  1. You sleep on cardboard boxes, not in them. Break them down and pile them three high, and you’ve got yourself a sidewalk Serta.
  2. Everyone loves an underdog – especially the homeless. Tommy, and several other people I’ve met, feed the strays of Columbia. “I could’ve used that $3 for more cigarettes, but it’ll do more good in a kitty’s belly,” Tommy told me.
  3. You really won’t starve here, but you might not get many vegetables. Here’s what I ate yesterday: one Chick-o-Stick, one roast beef and Swiss cold sub sandwich, half a Hershey bar, two beef tacos, one Now and Later (banana-flavored).
  4. One of the obstacles many homeless people face in getting a job is clothing. I asked some of the guys a blunt question last night outside of Starbucks: If you’ve got all this time during the day, what’s keeping you from applying for a job? Their answer was that potential employers can tell when you’re homeless. They said that if you’re wearing dirty clothes and carrying your world on your back, and if you bear the inevitable BO that comes with spending most of your day outside, they assume you’ll spend your first paycheck either on drugs or on a ticket out of town. So how about it, churches and service providers? A free laundry service? Seems like it could make a difference.
  5. Food stamps go for 50 cents to the dollar on the black market.
  6. Some homeless people sleep like I do during exam week. By the time the yellowshirts (jonquil-clad workers from City Center Partnership who will tell you to move along if you lie down downtown) had called it a night and we’d army-crawled our way to the safe spot, it was 11:30 p.m. Our alarm clock was the 4 a.m. bells at St. Peter’s, and we cleared off before we became a nuisance to the businessmen.
  7. Since you can’t bring sleeping bags into the Richland County Public Library, storage is a big deal. You can hide your pack in the bushes in Finlay, but, as Ernest learned yesterday, sometimes scavengers will find your stuff. Tommy pays a friend $15 a month to let him store his guitar during the day.
  8. “Sally” is the Salvation Army. The “Breezeway Inn” is where we stayed last night.
  9. It’s not panhandling if you don’t ask for money. Tommy was toting his guitar through a Bi-Lo parking lot Saturday night and got approached by a couple who wanted to dance the shag. He obliged with a reggae song, a crowd gathered to dance, and he made $100.

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?