Posts Tagged ‘urban camping’

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.

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.

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.

When he pointed the shotgun at my chest, I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I didn’t bargain with God for another chance at living. I didn’t fight; I didn’t run; I didn’t think at all.

Friday night was the first time I was ever held at gunpoint. It was also the first time someone tried to sell me cocaine. Both of these things happened within blocks of the University of South Carolina campus.

It had actually been a pleasant night up until about 1 a.m., when we faced death. Heading out for a sort of trial night on the streets, Matt and I had taken a long walk through town with backpack and sleeping bags in tow. It wasn’t as cold as it had been on previous nights, and we were bundled like children of overprotective parents. I wore five layers, if I recall correctly.

We saw the stark contrasts in different parts of our city, watching theme bars and banks give way to liquor stores and payday lenders. We tried our hand at dumpster diving, coming up with some bitter chocolate baking cups and a mostly-full peach-mango drink.

Early on, a man rode by on a bike near the corner of Harden and Gervais, slowing down with squeaky brakes to make a casual offer:

“Hey guys, I got weed, pills, and coke,” he said. “What’s good?”

We politely declined and headed on.

I’d picked out our sleeping area beforehand, and I thought we were safe there. It was a fairly well-lit park between an all-girls dorm and a busy intersection, and it had a gazebo that would keep us covered in case of rain or snow.

As we laid ourselves down on the park benches, three guys approached us on the path. I kept still and hoped they wouldn’t give us any trouble, figuring the worst we’d get was a heckling by some sons of Southern gentry.

When they were within feet of the gazebo, one of the guys said, “What you got?”

We quickly realized this meant they wanted our valuables, so we stood with our hands raised and complied. We told them we had nothing they’d want and offered our bags to be searched, and then they pulled out the guns: a pistol aimed at Matt and what looked like a sawed-off shotgun aimed at me.

From there, it was a blurred rush to go through my five layers of clothing and turn all my pockets inside out. They took what little we had to offer — pens, books, gloves, an apartment key — and threw them aside, thunking and tinkling off the gazebo ceiling and concrete floor.

When they were convinced that we really were worthless, the one with the shotgun gave me an open-palmed smack and pushed me onto the bench, and Matt got two pistol-whips on the back of his head.

And then they were gone, sprinting toward the Pickens Street gate and then off into the quiet Columbia night.

After jerkily searching through the shrubs to find my key, we hoofed it back to our apartment and called it a night. We phoned the police and stayed up ‘til 3:30 filling out paperwork and answering their questions.

We never got a good look at the three guys’ faces. We could tell they were black and roughly our age, but beyond that everything was obscured by black clothing and bandanas. They seemed jumpy, though more in an amateurish than a drug-addled way. They were nervous, maybe more than we were.

There’s a lot that can go wrong in the city. I know that. I just never pictured it happening within my comfort zone. We like to salve our fears by thinking that all violence, prostitution, and drug-dealing takes place in that far-off world of Other, the part of town that social workers call “troubled” and sorority girls call “sketchy.”

Last night, that mindset came tumbling down. There are no walls. The only thing separating the well-to-do undergrad from the ghetto-raised youth is a couple of city blocks.

What does this mean for me? Honestly, I’m less at ease, although I slept soundly once I was back in my bed. Maybe I’ll have a hard time revisiting that gazebo, which is where I used to stretch before my morning runs. Maybe — and I know this is wrong — I will view my African-American neighbors with suspicion for a while.

But Matt and I agree on one thing: We are undeterred from this homeless project. If anything, this was an appropriate introduction to our upcoming week on the streets. I hear homeless people telling me all the time about getting mugged where they sleep, and it always baffles me. If you’re going to hold people up, why go for the ones with almost no possessions?

I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know what it’s like to stare at a gun barrel in the middle of the night with nothing to defend myself and no one to call the cops for me.

I read in my Bible this morning how David said he was like a green tree in the house of God and how he called the Lord the upholder of his life. It’s hard to know where to find security, but I’m finding it in prayer right now.

If I ever meet those three men again, I like to think I will forgive them. Who knows what they’ve been through, and who knows how long they’ll waste away in prison if they’re caught?

As for us, we will be careful. During our homeless week, we’ll find our way into a shelter every night instead of sleeping outside. We will leave our keys with someone else. We will always keep our heads on pivots.

We will never take life for granted.

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.