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Archive for Sunday, December 8, 1991

HOMELESS

December 8, 1991

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Gravity seems to have a stronger tug in the Salvation Army's Emergency Shelter.

The air seems heavier here and smells like gym socks and coffee. Light from ceiling lamps in the shelter the gymnasium in the Salvation Army facility at 946 N.H. glances off the gray walls and illuminates the tile floor.

Jim McDonald, the shelter supervisor, opens doors to the shelter at 9:30 on a recent Monday night. His "clients" begin to trickle in, meandering, strutting and hobbling.

Most of the shelter clients are men. Some have narrow, wispy bodies, their wiry backs slightly bent. Others are heavy and compact.

They tell jokes and trade insults. They shout as they laugh, as though they must force their laughter through the denser atmosphere.

Gravity tugs at their facial hair too. Almost every cheek is at least a little fuzzy. Those who have been homeless the longest have thick, barbed beards.

THE EXTRA GRAVITY in the shelter is homelessness.

Some of the residents are fighting its pull and dragging themselves out of the latest pothole in their lives. Some have physical disabilities that prevent them from breaking free. Others succumbed long ago and found they could live with their situations.

The shelter has been averaging about 30 clients a night since it opened Oct. 11 this year, said McDonald. The clients come to the shelter to enjoy a warm night's sleep and a paper plate full of hot stew, pasta or chili.

McDonald says he recognizes some of the same faces every evening.

"There's a good 12 we can count on every night or so," he said.

"The rest of them, either they've just come to town and are just passing through, or they've had some problems paying their rent and are staying with us until they can get some help."

Many of the shelter residents like to congregate by the building's entrance to smoke cigarettes and talk before they sleep.

Most know each other by their first names. The mood is lighter out here, like the menthol cigarette smoke that wafts up in the nippy night air.

JOHN COMES OUT to light up a cigarette. He has spent four or five nights at the shelter and is thinking about spending the next few weeks there.

"This is like an oasis," John said. "I've got a place to sleep at night, and they don't burn the food or nothing."

He was thumbing his way west on Interstate 70 from Lake County. Ill., heading for an uncle's place in Las Vegas, Nev., when a state trooper pulled over in front of him.

"He said, `You can't be doing this, hitchhiking is illegal,' and drove me into town here," John said.

He soon found the shelter and decided to rest for a few weeks in Lawrence before continuing his trek.

Like many of the shelter residents, John walks around the city after the shelter temporarily closes at 8 a.m. Sometimes he sits in the library. He likes to read Omni magazine.

Kenny shoots out of the shelter with a wide smile on his face. Instead of wandering around town this afternoon, he went to Kelly Temporary Services and landed a job with E&E Specialties.

Like John, Kenny was heading west and stopped in Lawrence to take a brief respite. This is only his second day in town.

"Getting off the streets is all that matters to me," Kenny said. "I decided to stay here and try my luck, and so far it's working out."

KENNY IS ABLE to work, unlike many shelter residents. Several have physical disabilities that disqualify them from many jobs and allow them to collect minimal welfare stipends.

"Polio keeps me from getting gainfully employed," said Craig, lifting a leg stiffened by the disease.

He has worked several odd jobs, including a stint as a bank clerk. From experience, he knows he needs a desk job.

"I can't stand or walk very much. I can't work at McDonald's because of all the moving and footwork."

Craig was forced to leave a one-room apartment he rented two months ago because he couldn't keep up his rent. He is living off government aid and the occasional gigs he gets playing flamenco guitar.

He winces as he talks about looking for a new job.

"It took a year of constant searching to find the bank job. I didn't feel like I had the energy find a job around here," he said.

You need a car to get to interviews and a place for an employer to call to follow up, he says. He has neither.

"And if I get another job, I'm not going to work for five dollars an hour like I did when I was a kid. It's not worth losing my Social Security."

Craig has continued his job search, however, which is more than he will say about several other shelter users.

"I don't see some people trying," he says, glancing at other people in the shelter. "A lot of these people have never wanted anything more than a hot meal and a bottle to crawl into."

MANY OF THE long-time shelter residents agree that some of their peers accept their lifestyles and have done little to reverse their fortunes.

"There is a certain degree of people who are homeless by choice," said Clyde, who has stayed in the shelter every winter since it opened three years ago.

"They are rebelling against society. They're saying, `I don't want to be what someone else wants me to be.' They want to get away from the world."

But not every homeless person is homeless by choice, he says. They need employers to give them a chance.

Clyde works part-time at the Brass Apple restaurant and for Kansas University food services. But even with the steady income, he opts to spend his nights at the shelter.

"I'm not homeless. I don't have to be homeless. I want to be here. These are my people here. These are beautiful people."

BUCK, WHO claims he was the first homeless person in Lawrence, says he doesn't see any benefit or wisdom in owning a home.

"What am I going to do with a house worry about paying property taxes," he says.

"Am I going to go to bed every night worrying about somebody burglarizing me? I just enjoy being around."

Buck says he splits his nights between sleeping on the banks of the Kansas River and staying at the shelter.

Buck says he's originally from Virginia and traveled the country by train for decades, picking up odd jobs as a fruit picker. He says he settled in Lawrence seven years ago.

He says he stays at the shelter whenever the weather or his wife gets cold. He lives off of a $142 monthly welfare subsidy and the food he finds in dumpsters by restaurants.

"As the old song goes, `If it ain't locked . . .'" he cackles. He laughs so hard, he can't finish his joke.

BUCK SPEAKS with clarity and conviction one moment, and then whispers about a plot to seize the Russian embassy in San Francisco the next.

A few of the more recent shelter residents say they notice how being homeless brings about a mental instability and eccentricity that perpetuates the homeless condition.

"A lot of these people can't think straight enough anymore to get themselves out of their situations," Craig said. "And then they feel powerless and then they lose their self-esteem."

"The toughest part of this lifestyle is getting out of this lifestyle," says Rob, who said he was laid off in September from his job.

Once a person gets used to surviving without a home, it becomes harder to slip back into a normal lifestyle, Rob said. He admits he's planning to go to Colorado and live off the land before he tries to find a new job.

Many of the shelter residents admit that one of the main traps of homelessness is alcohol abuse.

"When you're sitting out there during the winter, you don't have a place to go and you're freezing, the first thing you think about is getting in a bottle," said Dennis.

Dennis is struggling with an alcohol rehabilitation program, McDonald says. Clyde isn't suprised.

"You can't tell a person you can't drink," Clyde said. "They will do what they want."

THE ONE PLACE they can't drink is the shelter. McDonald enforces strict rules on inebriation, tossing out anyone who arrives drunk. If someone raises a fuss, McDonald calls Lawrence police.

The police take any problem clients to the station at Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, two blocks south of the shelter, to sober up, McDonald said.

He is quick to point out that "everyone for the most part follows the rules" and that life in the shelter isn't always gloomy.

Clients can play rock 'n' roll on a stereo receiver until "lights out" at 10:30 p.m. Sometimes they feast on surplus chicken or pizza donated by local fast-food eateries.

McDonald rents a couple of movies every Friday night for the residents to watch on the color television by the coffee maker in a corner of the gym.

The favorite flick among the crowd so far is "Dances with Wolves." The movies help lighten the mood, McDonald says.

The shelter crowd definitely enjoys watching football. Seven clients slouched on metal folding chairs by the televison on a recent Monday, catching the matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins before they went to bed.

The electric green of the football field clashes with the greys, browns and whites of the gym. During halftime, quarterback Dan Marino chats about his new multimillion-dollar contract.

Gravity catches his words. They fall flat and seem to rattle on the tile floor like stainless steel spoons.

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