Posts Tagged ‘savings’

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.

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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.

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.

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?