Breakfast was served to all comers.
How far are you from homelessness?
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Over 1,000 persons in Richmond and surrounding counties are homeless, with just 850 beds available for them any given night. As part of April’s Affordable Housing Awareness Week, a consortium of advocacy groups sponsored an event, held Thursday, April 22, called “Walking in Their Shoes.” From 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, participants spent their day the same way the homeless do.
The Homeless-for-a-Day Gang of Ten met at the Conrad Center on Oliver Hill Way, near the city’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts building. The center provides free breakfasts to anyone who shows up, and participants shared with the center’s regular clients a meal of Sugar Pops, a sausage patty, pound cake and canned peaches. Among those prepared to walk in the shoes of the homeless were a church rector, a pastor, the manager of a major bank’s philanthropic arm and a criminal justice student from VCU. Executive Director Kelly King Horne of the volunteer agency “Homeward” led the orientation, telling participants each of them would be supplied with a make-believe personal history which included pertinent information … the good, the bad and the ugly.
“Seventy percent of homeless adults have been in jail or prison, so a lot of you today will be ex-offenders because that’s the reality,” she said. “Each of you has a profile; they are fictional, but I’ve been here seven years , I’ve talked to a lot of people, so they’re sort of composites of things we’ve heard … it’s not a real person, but they are real stories.”
The rules were short and to the point: Each participant signed a “release and assumption of risk agreement” and were advised not to engage in dangerous or illegal activity. They were to bring along no wallets or purses, just one piece of picture ID and five dollars. Panhandling, either as a giver or a recipient, was strictly discouraged. King said that when approached by a panhandler, the best thing to give him or her is not cash, which only encourages the homeless to stay on the street.
“We have a document on our web site called The Street Sheet,” she explained, “which lists meals, which lists those immediate services you need if you’re on the street. You could print that off and give that to them. You could even give them a bus ticket. We have some cards [which list our] programs that you could give in lieu of cash.
“I say ‘no.’ I say it respectfully, I don’t look down on people, but like ‘No, I’m sorry.’ I was panhandled once, and it was like, ‘Can you help me get something to eat?’ I said, ‘Well, the Salvation Army is right there,” and she says, ‘Honey, I don’t eat anyone’s cooking,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t help you.’”
On the demographic side, Horne said that while most homeless persons are single men, “About 25 percent of the homeless population are people in families, usually a mom with kids, although not always. Today there are probably 131 kids who will spend the night in a shelter. We rarely find kids on shelters, so that’s the good news. We do some things right. But 131 is still 131 too many, because those kids are at greater risk of homelessness as adults.”
Each participant had a list of agencies to visit, places where help of various kinds was available for someone with his or her personal profile. They were invited to the regular Thursday free lunch at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church downtown on Grace Street; St. Paul’s is also where they met at 3:30 for debriefing, getting feedback from a variety of private and governmental agency representatives, and relating the day’s experiences.
Steven Geissinger is a psych major at VCU. His profile was of a man with a criminal record who was living behind a Wal-Mart and had chemical dependency issues.
“I didn’t realize how complicated the programs were,” said Geissinger. “The gap between when you can get help and when you’re no longer eligible is so slim.”
Bryan Appel, a youth minister at St. Pauls, had a backstory in which he was working man whose business had downsized, leaving him unemployed and with child support payments on which he’d fallen behind. He was pleased and a little surprised at the level of empathy he got from various agency personnel.
“They were taking this very thick, boring, almost tedious language but speaking to us as people and with care,” Appel said, marveling that in such a bureaucratic situation, common humanity was able to triumph.
In fact, Geissinger and Appel’s team was handled so efficiently by the agencies they visited, they returned to St. Paul’s an hour early … and since it was a nice day, they walked back from their last appointment, saving bus fare and returning with their five dollars unspent.