As we trudged up a muddy hill toward a small tent city last Monday morning, carrying a bag of food apiece and so layered up that our arms couldn’t touch our sides, Tina Busch-Nema called out, “Hello. I’m Tina from Winter Outreach.” We were greeted first by a friendly, energetic dog and then by two men. The younger one looked to be in his thirties and the older one in his fifties. They introduced themselves as Tim and–he said it with a grin–Grandpa. Tim shook Tina’s hand and then looked at me for a name. After I told him my name, he stepped around Tina to shake my hand as well. The men didn’t look like homeless people to me, though they were. Their hair was cut. They didn’t have beards.
But then, they are among the lucky ones, if anyone who is homeless could be called lucky. They are part of a group that has banded together and made for itself a semi-permanent dwelling constructed of poles and tarps. They had even somehow scrounged a Johnny-on-the-spot. That’s quite a coup, because except for the public library–where they can go to keep warm as long as they don’t sleep–there are no public bathrooms downtown. Last summer, while I was waiting for a political event to start, I tried for twenty minutes to find one. In every building I entered, it was locked. Not even the Y would let me use the facilities.
But the comparative luxury of the group with a porta potty did not include hot showers or easy access to a drink of water. Tina mentioned a couple of churches nearby that offer the homeless three hot meals a day, and they probably eat there often. They’d have to do it in shifts, though, so there would always be someone there to guard their belongings. They may not have much stuff, but it would be ripped off if left alone regularly.
We visited two other homeless communities that morning with rolls from Whole Foods and some apples. One was in a tunnel under a street, which went back for a couple of blocks. The ground was muddy and rutted, with graffiti covered concrete walls. Those poor people are about to lose even that much of a home, because the city is starting to fill in the tunnel. The other group was living in a boarded up house where they had found a way in. The cops must know they are there and figure that if nobody objects, then that means several fewer people living on the sidewalks and giving downtown a bad look.
Because downtown is where most of the homeless live. They have to; that’s where the services exist, like the churches that give out meals and the homeless shelters. About 10:15 that morning, Tina and I drove past that landmark of St. Louis, the Reverend Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center. Thirty-five or forty people were lined up on the two sets of steps that went down in each direction from the door. Of course, the people we visited that day avoid the shelters, except for the occasional shower, either because they don’t feel safe there or perhaps, as in the case of Larry Rice, they’d rather not get a sermon with their meals.
They may get the occasional day job, so they can perhaps buy propane for a heater, but their chances of landing a permanent job, even part-time minimum wage, are just about nonexistent. The folks I met looked like they’d be able to do those sorts of jobs, no problem. But they don’t have an address, much less a phone. So how is a prospective employer going to contact them? And since their situation has kept them from getting work, they don’t have a recent work history–which is a fact that looks bad on an application. Besides, what if two applicants show up for a job, one of them well groomed and clean, the other not so much. If you’re an employer, which one are you going to pick? No, most of these people–and remember, these are the lucky ones, the ones who aren’t sleeping alone on top of steam grates–have pretty much given up on ever getting a job.
Most of Tina’s volunteer work for Centenary United Methodist Church is with the less fortunate homeless people. On evenings when the temperature is going to be below 20 degrees, she starts driving around the downtown area at 6:00, looking for people who need a ride to a shelter or delivering blankets and sandwiches to those who aren’t going to a shelter for the night. Sometimes she’s done in a couple of hours. Sometimes it takes until midnight. But she is more likely, these last two winters, she tells me, to run out of sandwiches than she used to be. As for the blankets, the people who avoid the shelters have usually found someplace to stash their stuff, so the blankets she hands out become their property. One man kept his under a construction barrel. It just looked like an empty barrel, but it was his closet. Others keep their property in a plastic bag and hide it under shrubs.
I have no such problem finding a place for my stuff. The only problem I have is that the space heater I’ve got sitting by my legs as I type got too warm a few minutes ago, and I had to turn it off.