Posts Tagged ‘yellowshirts’

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.

“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.