Posts Tagged ‘SC’

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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Even when I am living on the streets, I will be far from homeless.

As several people have pointed out in the past week — some more subtly than others — I’m just some privileged white kid who thinks he can urban-camp for a week and understand what it’s like to be homeless.  Point taken.

There is a lot more to being homeless than not having a bed to call your own, and I realize that.  The things I’ll be experiencing during my homeless week are only the basic, physical privations.

I met a woman named Dawn last weekend in Finlay Park.  She’d been out on the streets for a month, and she was getting around on crutches with a sprained foot.  She had experienced the cruelty of strangers and the cold of our city in the dead of winter.  But in the midst of all those things, here’s what she said was the worst part:

I have no children, so I won’t experience the anguish of being unable to provide for them.  In a way, I’m being spared the worst.

Another important shortcoming of my homeless week: I’m planning this out.  I’ll have some warm clothes, a rough itinerary for each day, and a definite ending date.  This is not how homelessness works.  Here’s how Mike, whom I also met in Finlay Park that day, explained his homeless experience:

“Homelessness is just something that happens to you.  It’s not something you plan on.  Five years ago, being homeless was the last thing I thought I was gonna be.  I had a good family, my wife worked for a senator, and you know, I have a problem with alcoholism, and it just led from one thing to another and it kept getting worse and worse, and then the next thing I knew it was I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I had to try to find places to sleep.”

A far cry from my situation, to be sure.  I’ve met recovering drug addicts who can’t even piece together a narrative of how they got where they are.  The sheer uncertainty of circumstances can take a toll on people’s minds.  To know neither where you are going nor where you have been is a deeply troubling thing.

What’s more, I* have no handicaps.  I was reminded of this today by a homeless man named Albert.  Albert is an older black man with a ready smile and a penchant for talking about God, and he has no legs.  He told me he lost them in an accident involving a bulldozer.

I was driving up Gregg Street when Albert approached me in a manual wheelchair.  He was having trouble getting up the hill, and he said he would appreciate a lift.

I asked him if he’d like me to push him or help him into the passenger seat, but he shook his head and said, “Just roll down one of your windows for me.”

He gripped the back edge of a window frame as I slowly ski-lifted him all the way up the hill, and then he thanked me and rolled on.

I am not mentally disabled.  I am not heartbroken.  I am not an Army veteran with PTSD.  But these are key elements of so many homeless stories I have heard already.

That’s the thing: I’m not just heading out on the streets to tell my story.  I’m doing this to hear others’ stories.

As far as the personal experience, my expectations go about as far as this description, given to me by a man named John whom I met on the steps behind Richland County Public Library:

“When you’re on the streets, this is your pillow,” John said as he set his backpack down.

“This is your blanket,” he said, patting his camouflage fatigue jacket.

“And this is your bed,” he said, lowering himself onto the concrete, staring straight at me.

* I should here note that “I” has become “we.”  My roommate Matt will be accompanying me on the streets for reasons of safety and perspective.  So all you moms out there can breathe a little easier.

UPDATE: Plans have shifted. We’re still doing this project, but we’re going about it differently. Read more about it here.

Here’s the idea: On March 7, 2010, I will head outside in Columbia, S.C.  For one week, I will leave behind my apartment, my money, my food — almost everything except the clothes on my back.  My purpose?  To document the homeless experience in my city firsthand.

Throughout that week, I will share my experiences via computers at the public library.  I am prepared to eat at soup kitchens, sleep on park benches, beg, dumpster dive, and generally do what it takes to survive in an urban environment.  But this is not about how tough or resourceful I am.  It’s about the people who do this every day — 853 in Richland County by the last count.

Other people have done this sort of thing before, and under much more difficult circumstances.  The unique thing about what I’m undertaking, I think, is that you’ll be able to follow along daily as my week unfolds.  By all means, tell me what to expect.  Tell me if I’m ever wrong or casting things in a false light.  And if you are or have ever been homeless, tell me your story.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be conducting some interviews and keeping you posted on my preparations, so stay tuned.  I think we’re going to learn a lot.