Hope in hard times: Ben Hoover learns what it's like to be homeless

Today I'm homeless. Let me be more specific. I'm homeless and living in the men's shelter Oliver Gospel Mission for the next 3 days and 2 nights. I've set off with the clothes on my back (T-shirt, sweater, coat, jeans, boots all provided by Oliver Gospel Mission), my ID, no money, and a bearded face four days in the making and growing. I'll have a mini camera that I'll use along the way to help document my experience. My partner on this project, WIS photographer Jeff Diamond, will follow me on the streets from a distance to help tell the story as well. The staff @ Oliver Gospel Mission knows I'm coming. The shelter residents don't. We are keeping the presence of a large camera following me along to keep the experience authentic and in an attempt not to upset some of the men. The goal is to blend in, become a part of the community, gain their trust, hopefully hear their stories, and let our viewers and the community know what it's like to walk in their shoes and they can help. I'm not sure what's going to happen. Not sure how the men will treat me. Will they recognize me? If they do, the plan is to be up front and tell them who I am and why I'm here. How they react remains to be seen.

You may be wondering "what's the story? We've always had homeless people." You're right, we have. But what we're hearing from Oliver Gospel and other shelters across the nation is that they are seeing an increase in the "newly homeless." People who are homeless for the first times in their lives. Many of them laid off from their jobs in the recession and still looking for work, others victims of violence suffered at the hands of angry and frustrated family members who have lost their jobs.

A Snapshot Survey of the homeless was conducted by AGRM, a network of independent homeless shelters and rehabilitation centers. Nearly 19,000 people took a survey in October at 114 rescue missions. It found 35 percent said they had never before been homeless.

At Oliver Gospel Mission they have a program called "Hand Up." It's designed for men who have lost their jobs, lost their homes and are trying to get back to earning a paycheck and back into a home of their own. Two years ago, a few men graduated from the program. Last year, 25 men. Social workers at the mission say the recession is the main cause for the up tick in their "Hand Up" rosters.

The men are given a bed, clothes, breakfast, dinner, assistance with job searching and interviewing, and budgeting their money. During the day they are sent out on the streets to search for a new job. They can't come back until dinner at 4:45pm. After dinner, and if they want 2 meal tickets for the next day, they must attend a chapel service at 7pm. After chapel, they are in for the night. Lights out at 10pm. Wake-up @ 5:30am. Breakfast @ 6am. Then, out the door. Another day of searching for a job. When they get a job, OGM helps save their money, budget it, and eventually rent an apartment. I've already spoken with two men who are great examples of "success stories." Graduates of the "Hand Up" program. You'll see their stories on WIS throughout February.

But, this is more than just providing the basic necessities to live. They are in the business of transforming lives at OGM. They don't attempt to put a "band-aid" on problems keeping men back. They want to change their minds and hearts in a way that makes it impossible for them to turn back.

Keep checking back for more of these blog entries. Hopefully they open your eyes to a segment of our community that is often misunderstood. This is only the start of my experience and I already see things I've never seen or known before. BH