Posts Tagged ‘violence’

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.

Here’s the new plan: On March 7, my roommate and I will head outside in Columbia, S.C. But we won’t be out there alone.

Partly due to our much-publicized run-in a couple of weeks ago, and partly due to a lot of soul-searching and heavy thinking on my part, we’re going about this homeless project differently. We’ll be accompanying some close friends who’ve been living on the streets awhile, and we’ll only spend Sunday through Tuesday on the streets.

Does this mean we’re wimping out? Sure. I’m fine with saying that. Living homeless is dangerous, and I lack the courage to stick it out for even one week. This was never about bravery, anyway.

So what will we do with the rest of our Spring Break after Tuesday? We’ll still be bringing you stories about homelessness in Columbia. Since we’ll be able to come back to the comforts of home at the end of the day, we’ll shoot video and dig deeper in a more straightforward journalistic sense.

We want to look, for instance, at the process of obtaining a photo ID (and maybe also a voter registration) when you start with nothing. We’ll talk to some families about the impact of homelessness on the home front.

This was a tough decision to make — we’ve been agonizing over it since Feb. 19 — but I think it will make this project safer and more effective.

Soon after our test-run holdup, friends and experts started flooding my inbox with advice. We learned that the homeless shelters had been full to capacity recently, and we certainly didn’t want to kick someone else out on our account. Some people who had initially raised their eyebrows when I consulted them about the project now voiced their objections more firmly. Here’s what one homeless case worker wrote in an e-mail:

“I was hesitant in helping you before and was tempted to tell you not to do it but failed to act on it. That was my mistake. I would advise you with the current situation as it stands that you not try to experience homeless culture, because it is a safety issue.”

Others put it more bluntly, telling me in essence that the original plan — to spend a week out there on our own — was a good way to get stabbed. I’ve learned that homeless people aren’t just vulnerable to hunger or the elements. Perhaps more than anyone, they’re exposed to our city’s criminal elements.

While doubts waxed and waned in my mind, something remarkable happened: Independently, four different homeless people offered to stick with my roommate and me during the project.

I’ll not give out their names just yet because we’ve not established how they want to be identified, but they are all steadfast friends. We’ve shared meals, celebrated birthdays, written songs, prayed together, and helped each other out when possible. Their kind offers reminded me why I wanted to do this project in the first place: to highlight the struggles and common dignity of our homeless neighbors. Anyone who thinks all homeless people are lazy, dangerous, or addicted to drugs would do well to meet my friends.

We’ll still be doing this with next to nothing: sleeping bags, flashlights, notebook, pen. But we’ll be much smarter about where we go and how we conduct ourselves at night. My friends and I will have each other’s backs. Still interested? Read on.

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.