Hidden Neighbors: Seeing through stereotypes

(Columbia) May 3, 2006 - You've probably run across a homeless man in downtown Columbia. You've probably run across several.

There are as many as 3,000 homeless in and around Columbia. While the overwhelming majority are men, not all of them are.

When you think about the homeless, certain images come to mind. They're always looking for a handout. They sleep anywhere. They're lazy.

WIS' Craig Melvin asked one homeless man, "Are you working?"

The man responded, "No, I don't want to work."

"So," Craig asked, "what do you do?"

The man said, "I just hang out."

And you've probably also heard they're drunk.

Those may be the people you thought about when you decided to read this story. But you may never have met Breya, who told Craig, "We already prayed to God and he's going to give us a house."

She's six-years-old, adorable and homeless. She has a plan for the future, "I only want to live in this Hannah House so long. I want to have my own room, so I can start figuring out why I'm so scared of dark."

Breya and her mom live at the Hannah House in downtown Columbia along with nearly 40 other women and children.

Every morning, while the women head to work, the school bus picks up the children from the homeless shelter.

Carlos is 10. He's already on his second homeless shelter, "At school, my friends be talking about when they spend the night at my other friends' house and when they ask to spend the night here, could they spend the night at my house, they can't."

If you thought homeless children were rare, you may be suprised by what News 10 discovered. Hannah House turns away between 20 and 30 children every week.

We met Breya, Carlos and several other children in shelters, but we're told some live on the streets and in cars.

We wanted to see for ourselves, so Craig Melvin hit the streets of Columbia for 36 hours, living among the homeless with no money, no car, just the clothes on his back.

He ate in shelters and churches, walked the streets, battled the elements.

On his first night, he walked to the family shelter on Two Notch Road. That's where he found a 21-year-old who didn't want to be identified. She graduated from a Midlands high school that's in an upper-middle class neighborhood, "After high school, I just worked. I never went to college. I always wanted to go."

She's six months pregnant, already raising a 10-month-old and she's homeless, "I lost my job and bills fell behind. I got evicted and had nowhere else to go."

She says she has no family or friends to help. Child support isn't an option because she says the father of both children is in jail.

She does work, "I get paid $8 and some change an hour. After taxes, I gross about $525 every two weeks."

Craig asked, "Do you think you're going to be able to raise a 10-month-old and one on the way with $525 every two weeks?"

She thinks so because "after I have this baby, I'll be working two jobs and taking a trade and with the grace of God."

She's optimistic and embarrassed, "When you're in a shelter, people look at you like you're nobody, like you're on drugs, like you're just a bum basically when everyone is not in that situation. It's just that some people have downfalls in life."

For those trying to pull themselves up, it didn't take us long to see there's lots of help.

On any given day, there are at least five different places to get a warm meal. You can also get hygiene kits, job training, drug and alcohol rehab.

There are churches, shelters and counseling from people like Charles Watkins. He volunteers at the Cooperative Ministry, "We try to help them solve their problems rather than just a handout. A former director used to say, give them a hand up, not a hand out."

A hand from Hannah House is just what Tabitha Wilson needed about a year ago when she showed up with two children and no place to go. Next month, she's moving into subsidized housing. "I've still got my job, so hopefully everything will work out, save enough money there, so hopefully by the time I move, I can have my own place."

That would be a dream come true for the 21-year-old.

There's a six-year-old who lives at the Hannah House with the same dream, "I dream about princesses, some dreams you don't want to hear about. The most important dream is getting a new home."

If this story broke your heart, the next in Craig's series might just make your blood boil. You'll meet the people who say they want to be homeless and who feel entitled to the handouts to facilitate their way of life.

Reported by Craig Melvin

Posted 6:08pm by Chantelle Janelle