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VOL. 125 | NO. 25 | Monday, February 8, 2010

No Room at the Inn

Government, social service groups rethink homeless strategies in a cold world

By Bill Dries

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Homeless men David Johnson, Elmo Lewis and Joshua Parks carry their belongings south of Poplar Avenue toward Downtown. Photo: Lance Murphey

The bed came with a view of a sparkling Mississippi River on a winter day that was about 10 degrees on the warm side of crisp. The trees were bare and no one appeared to be at home near the concrete floodwall that ends just south of The Pyramid.

The “bed” was a carpet pad with a flattened cardboard box on top of the dark ground between a walking trail and a tree line. And there was even a peppermint where a pillow would have been.

A few yards away on the rocks that keep the bluff from eroding were two telltale bundles of black plastic bags, confirming someone had been and was probably still living there. One of the bags included a collection of soft drink cans. Another was weighted by a rock to keep out the elements.

June Averyt and Aaron Harrington didn’t touch any of it as they looked for more than just signs of life – but life itself. Harrington, who was homeless for about two years, noticed the cardboard was dry and firm, indicating it was recent.

“It rained a few days ago. That would be wet,” he said.

During the afternoon, the homeless proved hard to find for the two. On her cell phone, Averyt, a social worker and executive director of Door of Hope, a shelter and counseling center, got updates from Katie Kitchin. Kitchin was coordinating the 12-hour-long census of the homeless.

Affliction as old as humanity

The effort counted approximately 130 people who at that moment said they had slept outside of a house the night before, or would that night. The count was about double last year’s census – an indication of a genuine increase in the homeless in Memphis.

But the count was also a fleeting, blurred snapshot.

The count of the homeless in Memphis varies from hundreds to thousands. People move in and out of the status continually, and most are homeless for weeks or a month or two, not years.

“If you slept outside last night and found housing today, you would have been counted as homeless yesterday,” said Mid-South Peace and Justice Center director Brad Watkins, who participated and organized other volunteers in the effort.

Averyt is a 16-year veteran of working with the homeless – the past 10 years in Memphis and before that in Philadelphia.

“In Philadelphia, people live on grates on the street. But they have this whole system of steam underneath the city, so people can get warm,” she said. “But then they get wet. And if they move off the grate, then they’re cold and wet. And it’s horrible.”

Bigger cities than Memphis might have three or four teams working the streets every night to get the homeless to free shelters.

“But it would be like this whole churning. You’d scoop somebody up off the street, take them to the shelter,” she said. “They’d spend 10 hours there and be on the street in the morning. So it was sort of crazy. This strikes me as much more manageable.”

Averyt, Kitchin, Harrington and Watkins are part of a still-forming effort in Memphis not just to deal with homelessness, but to eliminate it. The goal reflects an evolution of thought in Memphis and other cities.

“I don’t understand why Memphis can’t get rid of its homeless problem – not by getting rid of the homeless, but by finding humane solutions like housing for people,” Averyt said.

Must have an address

In the broader national discussion, some reformers have complained that others “romanticize” the homeless experience. Kitchin wasn’t willing to go that far.

Geno Richardson, who said he is homeless, rests outside the Memphis Music Store on Beale Street during daytime hours. Richardson and others panhandle tourists for spare change along Beale Street at night. Photo: Lance Murphey

“I think people have preconceptions on both sides of that,” she said. “Some people will just think people have done nothing to make themselves homeless. Others will think it’s entirely their fault. Every individual person has a story to tell.”

Kitchin, a public policy expert, is a recent arrival to Memphis after heading the city of Norfolk, Va.’s, Office to End Homelessness. After contemplating some time away from the issue, she is now working informally with the city of Memphis to develop a 10-year strategy for eradicating homelessness in the city.

Part of that is a “rapid re-housing” program the city has already opened. It includes a 24-hour hotline run by MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association) and funded with $4.2 million in federal stimulus money to find shelter before someone becomes homeless.

“Ten-year plans allow communities to basically accumulate the will of political leadership and the momentum in the community to adopt new best practice approaches and putting those technologies to work,” she said.

A bit of political will accompanied by Memphis police officers surfaced in December during the first sub-freezing cold snap of the winter in Memphis.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. dispatched police officers riding with counselors to find the homeless on the bitterly cold Memphis streets and get them in shelters wherever possible. Wharton convinced the Union Mission and others to temporarily wave their $6-$8 fees for those who had already used up their limit of free nights per month.

The effort became controversial when police also began dismantling some homeless encampments around the city. Watkins was among the most vocal critics, arguing that the sweep was heavy handed. He also called for developing a free city-run shelter as a first step toward dealing with the problem.

Wharton denied it was a “sweep,” much less heavy handed. He agreed to work with Watkins on a city-run shelter. But Wharton said the existing shelters as well as local churches were capable of immediately taking in the homeless at least until the temperatures rose above freezing.

“It just seems so ironic that we can bring in strangers from hundreds of miles away with very short notice,” Wharton said, referring to the city’s response to those fleeing Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Yet, we can’t find it within our means to find accommodations for our own. I will not be part of a city that conducts its affairs that way.”

Wharton hung tough on the homeless strategy.

“You can’t allow homelessness to be a license to flout the law,” he said. “And these officers are trained. They know the difference between homelessness and lawlessness. There is a distinction.”

Watkins still sees the police presence differently.

“We are also in favor of data-driven solutions instead of appeals to emotion,” he told The Memphis News six weeks after the initial furor had calmed. “We feel like that’s been a lot of what has driven a lot of the criminalization of homelessness and poverty.”

As quickly as the temperatures plunged, Wharton and Watkins had defined an important discussion large cities across the country are having. The discussion is changing approaches to homelessness that have stood for decades.

“The shelters will always be a critical piece of our safety net,” Kitchin said, noting a 400 percent increase in the numbers of soup kitchens and shelters across the country in the past two decades.

Hundreds took advantage of two warming tents erected by Shelby County in early January to help fight subzero temperatures. Photo: Lance Murphey

“All that we’ve really accomplished is just grown the number of people who are homeless,” she added as she praised the work those institutions do as the “front line” and last resort. “However we do know that emergency shelters and soup kitchens in and of themselves will never end homelessness.”

Watkins said he believes more shelter space is needed in Memphis. He agrees with Kitchin that ending homelessness is “something that we can do.”

Kitchin is still sizing up the existing Memphis response to homelessness.

“We have some really strong nonprofits here,” she said. “Some really dedicated people. The philanthropy in Memphis is something I have not seen anywhere else I’ve lived. And I’ve lived in lots of different cities.”

She added that it’s too early to tell if Memphis should get into the shelter business.

“It’s way too soon, I think, to figure out whether we need to build new shelters and who should be doing what,” Kitchin said. “I think we’ve got to really think through what our plan is and then build the capacity or adjust the capacity according to what we’ve identified in our plan.”

The plan will probably involve some kind of different definition of what constitutes affordable rental housing in Memphis.

“A lot of so-called affordable housing isn’t affordable at all,” Watkins told The Memphis News. “You have a lot of people in this city – a lot of the homeless – who are working and a lot of the not-homeless who can’t afford fair market rent because they make minimum wage. That’s the No. 1 path into homelessness and the biggest barrier out.”

As the cold snap continued, three men died on Jan. 3 in different parts of Shelby County with hypothermia as a contributing cause. The body of one was found in his unheated home.

The city worked with Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division to temporarily restore utilities, including heat, to several hundred Memphians whose power had been cut because they hadn’t paid their monthly utility bills. The effort was unprecedented and for many a first view of a world in which 21st century Memphians live in homes with no utilities.

Door of Hope has monthly rates for rooms – $300 a month plus another $20 – that include 24-hour staffing and counseling meetings. There are much higher rates just for a room and nothing else.

“It’s a mixed bag, what you can get out there,” Averyt explained. “Most of the rooms that you rent in Midtown, if they’re fairly decent, it’s $95-$100 a week. So that’s $400 out of your check or $436 is you do it by the day.”

The check she is referring to is the common $674 a month Social Security disability check.

“It gets really hard to rent an apartment or find a place for $200 a month,” she said, adding that many places require a deposit equivalent to three months’ rent, in addition to the first month.

As they closed down a boarding house in Frayser in 2008, Memphis police encountered a woman renting a tiny room for $500 from her landlord, Frank Holland. She was living in a commercial building subdivided into rooms. The one-time construction company office was rife with code violations, drug dealing, gang activity, roaches and even a murder – all on a section on North Watkins Street named in honor of Holland and a few doors down from a day care center.

The woman was sympathetic to the conditions that prompted the District Attorney General’s office to go to court on the property. She had been a prisoner of her surroundings. But she also told police who served the court notice that she didn’t know where she would live.

"I don't panhandle, I don't drink, I don't do drugs," said Kenneth Peacock, 44.  Peacock, who is homeless, stopped at the side of the road to eat his dinner. "If I can't be blessed with it, I don't need it." Peacock, a former painter and drywall hanger who lost his legs to cancer, said he is unable to seek shelter at the Memphis Union Mission or any other shelter because they are not handicapped-accessible. Peacock said he lost his apartment a few months ago, and now keep find places to keep dry or warm wherever he can. Photo: Lance Murphey

The officers chipped in not only cash for a deposit, but found used furniture for her and helped her get a new and better start in an apartment complex.

But not everyone is as fortunate; others living in similar rooms alongside her simply vanished.

Populations shifts

When someone is homeless because of problems that require counseling and other help, Kitchin said too often the person is expected to recover completely before they can get a roof over their heads.

“If your brain is occupied with basic safety, then it’s physically impossible to take the step to address mental health issues, to take the step to correct education deficits that you might have,” she said. “All of these things we expect homeless people to be able to move through before we’ll let them earn their way into housing. It just doesn’t match with what we know about human behavior.”

Harrington took small steps to the job he now has at a Midtown supermarket and a modest apartment a few blocks away.

“I don’t know how to explain it. Things just kind of fell through,” he said of the problems that made him homeless for two years. “I was trying to help, but I wasn’t in a position to be helping all that much. And I wound up laying my neck across the chopping block a few too many times.”

And those he had helped didn’t always return the favor when things went bad.

Harrington said he has mixed feelings about the ordeal.

“On the one hand, I’d never give up the experience for anything,” he said. “But at the same time, looking back at that, I was expected to be in that situation for as long as I was – I have anger, you know.”

The anger is not directed at those he spent time with.

“It’s more like family than anything. Everybody that’s there is going through the same hardships to some extent. … It brings people together out of mutual necessity,” Harrington said.

These days, he has a bicycle but the back brakes don’t work and he’s balking at the price to get them fixed. Harrington is contemplating a second job to earn money to go to college. What he would really like is to reclaim a motorcycle. But he needs a birth certificate to get a license and he wasn’t really sure about how to get a copy from West Memphis, where he was born.

Such bureaucratic trifles, when multiplied, can overwhelm someone without a home, and suspicions remain. Some programs dealing with homelessness may lose people, Averyt said, when they do something as simple as ask for a Social Security number. The SSN is often a requirement of the government or other agencies to make sure any money they give is going to real people in need.

Back on the hunt

Averyt and Harrington went after one last tip about a homeless encampment at the Mount Moriah overpass over Interstate 240.

Harrington headed closer to the road, and in the tall grass turned yellow in the winter cold he found a narrow trail – an indication of a recent bicycle path. He and Averyt followed it to the side of the creek. But they found no signs of recent camping.

The best spot, he thought, was a large clearing beneath a large tree and several bushes that would be completely hidden in the spring and summer. Squatting within the framework of barren downward branches, he saw no signs of recent life.

“Being in that particular situation, those conditions – humility – you learn humility right then and there,” Harrington said. “A lot of people nowadays tend to look down on the homeless population. They move them into stereotypes. They’re drug addicts or they’re mentally incompetent. It’s not always like that.”

Kitchin said such perceptions aren’t accurate based on years of data that she and others hope will become the basis for future approaches to ending homelessness.

“Your perception of homelessness is the guy pushing the shopping cart or sleeping on a bench who is an alcoholic,” she said. “If you just look at the data, that is a small fraction of what homelessness means. You’re going to have 25-30 percent are families with children in shelters.

“You’re going to have another 30 percent who’ve lost a job and can get back on their feet in 30 days. 80 percent of all people leave homelessness on their own or with very little intervention in a period of about 30 to 60 days.”

That is consistent with Averyt’s experience as well.

“I work in the cracks. If somebody’s taking care of the problem, I’m not interested,” she said. “I only am interested where the problems are. I’m not bashing any service providers. But we’re all overwhelmed right now.”

If the shelters, some like Door of Hope, offering counseling and assistance are overwhelmed, the people they see can be just as overwhelmed by the differing sets of rules and conditions from shelter to shelter.

Two days after the census, all of the places Averyt and Harrington journeyed to were covered by a blanket of ice and snow, leaving all the modern ruins and signs of life they had surveyed a mystery. Was the bed of cardboard and foam beneath still there, or had it been moved by the same feet that left footprints in the soft ground of a warmer day?

Maybe the essentials in the plastic bags had been carefully stowed for future use.

A man Averyt knew and had encountered again at the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s North Terminal probably wasn’t on a bus but wasn’t there either.

“It was like somebody taking all of those little magnets you get for your refrigerator and throwing all of those nouns against the refrigerator and reading them to you,” she said of her talk with him there. “And he thought he was having a conversation because that’s schizophrenia. And it was a conversation about being well educated. And I suspect he was.”

So Averyt gave him her card and invited him to come to Door of Hope and have lunch. She hopes it will lead to him getting the mental health counseling he needs. The man understood the invitation and has showed up several times for something that can’t be packed in a bag, carefully hidden in a hole or doled out in a line at a shelter.

“That reconnection happens in relationships,” said Averyt who rode with police in the controversial stops made in December.

“The police sweeps are good in that they help people move from the thought of, ‘I’m going to be on the streets forever,’ to ‘I’d better find someplace to live,’” she said. “But they’re bad if they destroy the relationship with people who have been working with them Downtown and make people move from place to place. You can’t establish relationships with people who are always on the go.”

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