Hidden Neighbors: Homelessness as a lifestyle

(Columbia) May 4, 2006 - WIS' Craig Melvin spent nearly 36 hours on the streets of Columbia. He lived among the homeless with no money and no car, just the clothes on his back.

He was struck by the homeless children and women, and struck just as much by the reasons and the ways some people live on the streets.

The Columbia you see includes Main Street, Five Points, and the Vista. But there's another side of Columbia you've probably never seen.

WIS' Craig Melvin went to find that often overlooked segment of society. At one point, he ended up under an overpass.

Craig: What you got going on here?
Harold James: A few of us are staying here.
Craig: Under the overpass?
James: Yeah, under the bridge.

Harold James, 76, has lived under the Blossom Street bridge for about four years. He showed Craig where he stays, and he's not the only one, "There's about four most of the time."

James says he finished high school, went to college for three years, joined the Navy, then worked. But, now, he tells Craig, "I'm retired."

Craig: From?
James: Working. I worked all my life, mostly.
Craig: Mr. Harold, this doesn't look like much of a retirement, though.
James: It beats living in an institution. It beats the hell out of it as far as I'm concerned.

At one point, James lived in a mental institution. He says he's bipolar.

Between 20 and 25 percent of those who live on the streets do have mental problems. For others Craig met, it's another problem.

Craig: You do any drinking?
Homeless man: Oh yeah, I drink.
Craig: You drink a lot, or a little bit?
Homeless man: As much as I can.
Craig: How do you plan to get off the streets? Do you?
Homeless man: It don't look like it's going to happen any time soon.

Another homeless man told Craig, "It's hard. It's hard."
Craig: But I, I can smell the alcohol on your breath. Does that make it harder?
Homeless man: Harder.
Craig: How long have you had a drinking problem?
Homeless man: 30 years.

Many drink. Some do drugs. WIS was shown a number of crack pipes that were taken from people who stayed at the Lou and Beth Holtz Shelter last winter.

Wayne Fields has been running downtown Columbia's Oliver Gospel Mission for five years, "We're helping broken and homeless men to be sheltered, given the gospel of Jesus Christ, and equipped to live responsibly."

"Most of the men we work with here are homeless because of drug and alcohol addictions. And we know that unless those are dealt with, their condition is not going to change. It's just going to get worse."

It's not just some of the "winos" and "crackheads" that don't want to address their condition.

Fields says, "Are there people that are not taking responsibility because they choose not to? Yeah."

Craig spoke with 43-year-old Darryl Cunningham, who gets a disability check every month. Could he get off the streets if he wanted? Cunningham says, "I could go home, but I choose not to."

What does he do with the money? "When I have money, I go to the motel and get a room."

"And a lady?" Craig asked.

Cunningham admitted, "Sometimes."

Then there's Clifford Washington, "Well, I got my own checking account. I get direct deposit and leave it in there."

What is he doing with the money? "I eat. I buy something, clothing or something like that, or pay my little bills. I got a cellular phone."

Another man had been living on the streets four years and not only does he have a cell phone, "WIS sends me the weather report and everything that goes on through WIS."

Craig met that man at Finlay Park where a church group was serving Sunday dinner on a Wednesday evening. Some of the same people eating there ate with him just three hours before at the Oliver Gospel Mission.

Fields says, "There's many places to eat in Columbia, so they'll not go without food."

WIS found there's plenty of food, plenty of clothes, and plenty of help. People on the front lines say one reason we met so many who've been homeless for so long is our community makes it too easy. Fields shares that opinion, "There's aspects of our system as set up that enables them to continue the way they're operating. That can be frustrating."

Even Mayor Bob Coble, who's backing a plan to build a one-stop help center for the homeless, agrees, "For the street homeless, we do enable that."

So Craig asked, "Do you really think all the homeless in Columbia can actually be helped?

Coble answered, "No, certainly some people cannot be helped, but some don't want to be helped."

Craig asked the same question of one of James, the man living under the overpass:

Craig: Is there anything that can be done to help you? Can you be helped?
James: I don't need help much.
Craig: You live under a bridge overpass.
James: Well, what's wrong with that?

What about those who are homeless and want comprehensive help? Some are pushing a one-stop shop to help the homeless.

Reported by Craig Melvin

Posted 6:03pm by Chantelle Janelle