Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hopeville, Saint Louis, MO, USA

During the Great Depression, my grandmother and grandfather were a newly married couple. Their first home together was in a Tent City in northwest Tarrant County Texas in the area of where Eagle Mountain Reservoir would eventually be as the dam was completed and the reservoir began to fill up. My grandfather was one of the lucky ones working for the Civilian Conservation Corps. He had a job and they had a home, albeit a tent. Plus, they had a community.

Our friend, Connie, called Saturday morning and said, “Barbi, you have to come out here and see this. We are in Hopeville, the tent city.” So, Debbie, Tucker and I jumped in the car and went there.

What is community but a diverse group of people pulled together by a common thread. That is Hopeville.
Connie had been told to talk to “Big Mama” before she walked into the community. So, she asked for Big Mama. She was told that Big Mama was in the shower and would be out soon.

Shower? In a tent city?

Well, why not, indeed? When we used to camp a lot, we had one of those black water bags with a shower hose attached. Fill it up, let it sit in the sun for a while and a nice warm shower c ould be had even out in the woods. So, why not in Hopeville? I have no idea what their shower looked like but I do know that “necessity is the mother of invention.”

Picturesque it was not. There were many rickety looking structures, fraying tarps and tall weeds all around the area. But if one looked deeper, there were tents raised on platforms to keep them out of any rainwater runoff. There was a popup camper and a few more tents hidden away in the woods with front porches and areas to sit and enjoy the company of neighbors or the quiet of the evening…at least as quiet as it can be in the city.

There was the communal area where meals are shared if one had a desire to do so. There were port-a-potties set off from the “homes”. There is even a mail box set up on 1st Street and a USPS vehicle delivered mail while we were there.

The Saturday morning of our visit, a local preacher had come by to share a prayer, a scripture and a blessing before the breakfast. The smell of sausage, onions and hashbrowns cooking filled the air. Eggs had been brought by Connie and her husband. We came empty handed…not knowing what was expected or what was needed.

So, we just listened and looked. And asked a few questions.

Big Mama used to work in Social Services, mostly with people who had mental health issues. She was laid off and ended up losing her home. She is now the “Major” of Hopeville. One guy is the Constable type person, making certain that things don’t get out of hand and that order is kept. One couple had been in Hopeville in the past but had just returned two months ago. He was trained as a chef at Cordon Bleu Culinary School. He started work at the age of 15 as a grill cook. He supervised the cooking for the morning meal.

Away from the main crowd was a young couple. I don’t know their intentions but it seemed obvious that they had a purpose and were about to set off to accomplish that which they had planned. Not that much different than many other young couples on any given Saturday morning.

It occurred to me at the moment of watching them, rather naively, I might add, that just because one does not have a stationary building overhead does not mean that one is “home” less. A home is where one’s heart is, so the saying goes.

As the young woman walked past us after getting her breakfast, she told us thank you…as if we had done something other than just BE in their space. She and her male companion got in their car and left to do whatever it was they had planned.

Although I do know that being homeless can and does create anxiety, stress and fear which can lead to disorders associated with mental illness, I will venture to say that there are many other reasons for homelessness other than mental health.I didn’t meet anyone in Hopeville that had any more evidence of mental illnesses than those of us visiting. There was laughter, good natured ribbing, one grouchy old guy, sassy young people, some aloof, many sort of wary, some singing, some shouting orders… there was even a dog chasing a cat. Everyone seemed to very normal. (whatever the heck that is…) Perhaps ordinary is a better word to use. Everyone seemed ordinary.

There are many opinions about Hopeville and whether or not it should be allowed to remain a viable community. Larry Rice and the New Life Evangelistic Center believe that the tent city is a better alternative than living on the streets. Lord knows, NLEC is full to capacity at any given time. As I have seen, the city seems full of people with no homes looking for some sort of space they can claim as their own. The area surrounding Centenary Methodist Church and St. Patrick’s Center always have people milling about.

I have to say that I agree with the thought that a community that has tent shelter is safer than little or no community living in an alcove of a building or behind a dumpster in the alley. In my three and a half years in the city, homelessness seems far more of a problem now than before. There are definitely more women and children on the streets now than there were three years ago.

Yet, I also realize that a tent city, subsidized or merely allowed to exist, could be seen as creating a new and different problem and that a more permanent solution needs to be created. I do, however, question the motives of some. I was told by a few of the residents that LumiƩre Place Casino does not like them living so near for fear it will hurt business.

In January, 2011, the City of St. Louis established rules that allowed the residents of Hopeville to stay if they did not harm themselves or others or any property. The City banned “drugs, criminal activity and drunkenness.” (Aren’t these rules everywhere??) Propane cookers/heaters and safely contained fires could be used for cooking and heating. Now, we were told, there is a new eviction date – December 2011.

Is a Tent City the best place for these people to live? Well, surely no, one might immediately claim. Perhaps the reasoning would include that they do not own the property. Or that it is unsafe. Or that the winters are far too cold to thrive in a tent. Or maybe people are just idyllic and believe everyone should have a home. I can see the merit in all but I especially like that last one. I believe that also.

However, it is disingenuous to say that we contribute to the problem by allowing the people to live in tents in the city. Or that by giving people blankets and coats and food we compound the problem because it keeps them from going into the shelters where they would be better for them. I love it when we so easily determine what is best and better for other people. How kind of us!

We would like to think that everyone has a place to get out of the extreme weather and to be safe. We especially love the thought that if a person is homeless, they choose to be shelter-less – to live outside of the rules required to get inside the shelter. It is justified reasoning – the reason doesn’t have to be real; it only has to justify the actions…or non action.

Is Hopeville a place I would want to live? No, not really. But then, I can guaran-damn-tee that I would rather live in a tent behind the levee wall than to live in an alcove of a building in the middle of the city. I can also see a great deal of personal autonomy living in a community with community made rules rather than in a shelter run by people trying to do good by ensuring that others follow every rule.

Do-gooders are sometimes the bane of a good deed.

Meanwhile, as we have this discussion, there are people who do not qualify for one of the empty beds in the city shelters. Then there are people who do not wish to have one of the empty beds because they feel they are perfectly capable of providing that on their own. Regardless of those who want or don’t want one of the beds or whether those of us who have beds feel they are or are not worthy of said bed, the common statement I heard in Hopeville is the same one I hear from those who walk through the Cathedral…

…they all just want a job. 

Falling Off of the Edge

Homelessness is a problem in any big city in any given economic climate. When times get tough, homelessness gets worse. It’s a fact. Numbers are not needed to prove it; one only has to spend a little time to see it.

Saint Louis is no different.

When we think of homeless people, how many times do drugs and alcohol pop into our minds as the cause of homelessness? I cannot recall the number of times I have heard the statement that some people ‘choose to be homeless.’ It is easy to think that, I suppose. After all, what might the average person do to keep from being homeless? Surely I would never allow that to happen, right?

And then there are those pesky runaways. “Troubled” kids – that just means kids that cause trouble, to their parents, to the schools to the police.

Did you know that the National Network for Youth puts the number of “disconnect, unaccompanied and/or homeless youth in our country” at 2.5 million? That’s a whole lot of mothers’ babies all alone in this world doing whatever they have to do to survive. That’s two million five hundred thousand children and youth whose chances of being productive citizens in the future lessen dramatically every day they are disconnected, unaccompanied and/or homeless.

What if we thought about homelessness differently? What about these “excuses” for homelessness:
An abused woman with children running from a violent partner/spouse…
A recently discharged veteran, disabled, not yet receiving benefits…
A family living too close to the economic edge, falls off due to a crisis such as injury or sickness…
A senior citizen living on a fixed income that is far too fixed and no support system in place…
Children abused and/or neglected by parent/step-parent…
Children sexually abused by family member or family friend.
Uninsured, under-employed, have to choose between medicine and rent…or food and rent…or any number of other things and rent…
Me losing my job and my partner losing her job in the near future, times are tough, we are both in our 50’s…

All these explanations sound a lot more reasonable than someone choosing to be homeless. I have never heard a child answer, “a homeless person” when asked what she or he wants to be when they grow up.

The only thing separating me and “them” is a small puff of wind.
Working upstairs at the Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Saint Louis, I had forgotten the number of people who walk through the first floor hallways on a daily basis to get a drink of water, use the facilities, or just to sit in the Nave seeking a modicum of shelter from the streets. Back on the first floor now, I am only there a couple of weekdays each week now but I am still amazed at the people who come in seeking help.
Many are looking for “the lady in the bookstore.” That lady would be Debbie, my partner. Word on the street is that she will help with incidentals like snack foods, toiletries and sometimes socks and such. We have a small “emergency” closet church where we store pop-top foods, crackers, fruit cups/snacks, toothpaste and brushes, deodorant, etc. Being in the Bookstore on the ground floor of the Cathedral, she is often the first person that sees or is seen by those seeking help.
There was a woman and her little girl that came seeking help not long ago. Their time was up at New Life Evangelical Center, a non-profit church center downtown that provides help for those who are homeless. The woman and her child had been there as long as the rules allowed so they were on the streets. She was trying to get into one of the shelters for women and children but had been told by them that there was no room. She wanted a suitcase, pillows and shoes for her little girl. A call went out for help and three people promptly responded with the requested items.
A couple of weeks ago, as I walked from one office to the next, I saw a young couple standing in the hallway. They had a little boy with them. They were hot and sweaty, tired and looking lost. I asked if I could help them. They said they had been told to come to the church to find “the lady in the bookstore.”
The couple was from Colorado. Out of a job, his grandmother in Saint Louis County had bought them bus tickets to bring them to St. Louis so he could find a job. She told them they could live with her for two weeks. They had been there three weeks and at the end of that day, they had to leave her house. Their little baby was with her for the day. Hoping to find a place to stay for the night, they still had to return to pick up the baby.
At a board meeting the other day, I heard an oft repeated statement:  there are plenty of beds for “the homeless” in Saint Louis. Well, that’s all good and fine if one is comforted by numbers. 200 homeless; 200 beds (small random number to show a point). Comforting, right?
No.
Because the fact is that just because the beds are there doesn’t mean that those who need them are allowed to sleep in them. There are rules and regulations deciding who can and who cannot use the different facilities.
Rules help keep community safe. But it is a fact: the street is not a safe place for women and children.
To stay in many of the shelters, one must have proof of identity. There is also the residency restriction. One must be able to prove they are a legal resident of Saint Louis to stay in a homeless shelter in Saint Louis. If a couple wants to stay together, it won’t be possible in most places. If a father wants to stay with his wife and children, it isn’t possible. If a woman and her children just lost their home but are not actually abused and running scared, it is far more difficult for them to find those elusive beds.
These are just a few of the details of why those beds are not filled at night but the nooks and crannies of the streets are.
This is just the beginning, I think, of things I have to write about this subject. We have a problem and somehow we have to figure out what needs to be done.
While talking to the people who THINK they understand the problem is an important part of understanding, talking to the people who are actually living within the problem, hearing the whys and hows of what brought them to the point and what they believe will help them – that is where we have to get serious. There has to be the recognition that those who are without a “home” to live in are no different than you or me. They are people who found themselves, suddenly or otherwise, without the basic need of shelter. We cannot superimpose our perceived understanding as a solution.
Just as with any alleged problem, the solution is often a state of mind. Even more often, the solution to the problem often involves simply removing the offending sight from the eyes of the offended.
Out of sight; out of mind. That type of solution has to eliminated.