Hidden Neighbors: Looking for a solution to homelessness

(Columbia) May 5, 2006 - WIS' Craig Melvin and his photographer lived on the streets for nearly 36 hours. During their time on the streets, they found people are homeless for a host of reasons. Some have mental problems, others have addiction problems and some simply choose to live on the streets.

Craig also took a look at a proposed solution for your hidden neighbors.

Finding food on the streets was fairly easy, it was the walking that eventually took its toll. Craig traveled at least 30 miles in 30 hours.

However, it was the sleeping that proved to be the most difficult. On a chilly night, Craig's photographer Nick Modiset and he fortunately found a blanket in Finlay Park.

After a restless five-hour nap, they were awakened by two Columbia cops, "We need your ID. This probably isn't the best place to take a nap."

"You're not supposed to be out here and it's for your safety. The park hours are marked. Anytime you're out here after those hours, there's nobody to watch over you."

Brent Krick, 22, doesn't agree with that viewpoint, "We're public too. Even though we might not have a house to live in, it's a public park."

Krick has been homeless for six months. Krick says the city owes the homeless a place to live, "Either let us stay in the park if we don't have work that day or put up a place where we can all go."

Later that day, Craig met Pat Caldwell. She's been homeless for five or six years. Caldwell eats most of her meals at shelters, and there's some monotony, "Cheese, cheese, cheese everyday. Bologna and cheese everyday."

Caldwell thinks the city should provide transportation so she can get better food, "They don't give you bus tickets now to go to the food bank."

Trish thinks emergency rooms should be more hospitable.

Charles Watkins has been working with the homeless for nine years. He says not only do most of the homeless feel like the system owes them something, many don't take advantage of help the system offers. "Take the wino that doesn't want to work. He just wants enough resources to get a bottle of wine everyday. That's all he wants. You can offer all the programs you want, but if he doesn't want to do that, he's not going to do that."

Watkins frequently takes homeless people to job sites. "I've taken them around there in my car. Sometimes, but they run that game on you."

He remains optimistic, saying the homeless can be helped.

Local community activist Sam Tenenbaum says he knows how to do it, a one-stop shop for the homeless, "You'll have the shelter in the same place you have the one-stop shopping of basic needs-from healthcare, to training, to getting a GED. They'll live there. They'll work there. Some will work in the facility itself."

Tenenbaum and Dr. Moss Blachman are part of a group that wants to put the facility somewhere in or near Columbia, "When we put someone in a shelter, in the wintertime, sure we're putting a room over their head and keeping them warm, but we're not making them any better than they were."

"If your goal is to get them off the streets, forget it. That's not going to happen," says Wayne Fields. Fields has been running downtown Columbia's Oliver Gospel Mission for five years. "Just because you have a central location, it doesn't mean all the homeless are going to stay there"

He explains, "Part of their lifestyle is being in the city."

Craig voices one concern, "If you create something that makes life too comfortable for them, are you going to attract more homeless to Columbia?"

Dr. Blachman answers, "The tendency is to think of the homeless as the bag lady or the derelict guy on the street. We need to recognize the faces of the homeless are much more varied than that. There are women, children, faces, men of all types, many of whom desperately want some kind of help."

Posted 5:55pm by Chantelle Janelle