Archive for Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Adjustable situations

Homeless young adults in Lawrence have plenty of resources to help them get back on their feet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using them

January 18, 2005


It's 2 in the afternoon and emergency medical crews are arriving at 10th and Kentucky.

A homeless man is passed out on the steps of First Christian Church -- a popular homeless hangout because the charitable Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen is housed within.

Across the street at the Community Drop-In Center, a gaggle of homeless people react to the unfolding events with mixed feelings -- concern because the paramedics are unloading a defibrillator, disgust because the crisis is most likely alcohol-related.

For William Renfro, a 20-year-old homeless mechanic who is trying to save up money to move into a house with his parents, the latter applies.

"Half the people around here are alcoholics, and that's what sends 'em to the hospital like over there," says Renfro, who says he gave up drinking after losing a friend in a drunk driving accident. "They're stupid. They get a check every month. They could put it in the bank and save it and keep doing that until they can get a place of their own. But they just want to drink it up every day."

The unfolding drama is in many ways a microcosm of the ever-present dichotomies within Lawrence's homeless population. Yes, there are plenty of alcoholics, but there are also plenty of sober people who are trying to get back on their feet.

For Renfro, the sooner he can get out of homelessness the better.

"I hate it," he says. "They tell you when to get up, when to go to bed, when you can go out and smoke."

"I'm tired of looking at these places."

Halfway houses

Dane Norwood, 22 and, until recently, homeless is one of the
younger clients case manager Kristin Harms has been counseling a
lot recently at the Drop-In Center.

Dane Norwood, 22 and, until recently, homeless is one of the younger clients case manager Kristin Harms has been counseling a lot recently at the Drop-In Center.

As Lawrence's City Commission and the Task Force on Homelessness consider the city's homeless plight, they're hoping the majority of homeless people share Renfro's sentiment: that homelessness is an adjustable situation.

It's an optimistic thought, but also one that needs to be tempered with reality. Many of the people who frequent places like the Drop-In Center, the Lawrence Open Shelter or the Salvation Army are dealing with drug and alcohol addictions, mental health issues, or both.

These conflicts are particularly salient among young adults, a demographic that Drop-In Center case manager Kristin Harms says she's been counseling a lot recently.

"I feel like I'm starting to see more and more young people," Harms says. "We have success stories, but there's not a lot of them. It's frustrating to see the same people."

Harms says nearly all of her younger clients have problems with drug addiction and/or mental health (typically bipolar disorder, manic depression and schizophrenia). Though the Drop-In Center can help them with counseling, job placement and temporary aid, Harms says the charity only works if her clients meet her halfway.

"We want to get them out of here," Harms says. "But they have to want to do it."

Party binges

For social workers like Harms, Frank Dean has got to be a nightmare.

The 20-year-old Lawrence homeless man is the picture of irresponsibility: He spends all his money on drugs and booze, he's frequently in and out of rehab programs (usually because he gets kicked out) and he loves to disappear for extended party binges.

"The way we drink here and the way we party, it's not just one day," Dean says. "You have a birthday party, it's gonna last about three months."

William Renfro, a 20-year-old homeless mechanic.

William Renfro, a 20-year-old homeless mechanic.

The hardest part of helping Dean, however, is convincing him he needs help.

"I like being homeless," Dean says. "You don't have any bills to pay, so you can buy all the liquor you want and all the pot you want. If you like to gamble, you can gamble; if you like to collect pipes or whatever, like me, you can do that."

Dean "supports" himself by collecting cans and taking occasional odd jobs like dishwashing. He's been homeless for about two years since leaving the residence of his Topeka foster parents when he was 18. He also has a black hole in his lungs from huffing gas that causes him to cough violently between sentences.

"Basically what brought me to the streets is my drugging," Dean says. "Crack, pot, alcohol, butane -- basically anything I can get a hold of."

Dean doesn't have a home because he doesn't want one. In fact, he tried to hold down a place last year but gave it up because he preferred the streets.

"I'll have a place for about a month, and then I'll be like, 'This is boring. There's four walls around me and there ain't no one else drinking,'" he says.

Though he's admittedly stubborn about maintaining his partying lifestyle, Dean says he does recognize and appreciate that people like Harms are trying to help him.

Nancy Outhonesak, 22, a homeless volunteer at the Community Drop-In
Center is another young client case manager Kristin Harms has been
counseling a lot recently at the Drop-In Center.

Nancy Outhonesak, 22, a homeless volunteer at the Community Drop-In Center is another young client case manager Kristin Harms has been counseling a lot recently at the Drop-In Center.

"I'm not used to people trying to help me," he says, adding that he spent the majority of his youth bouncing around foster homes. "They don't stop trying ... I'm just like, 'Leave me alone! I want to do it tomorrow! Let me do this tomorrow!'"

If he doesn't decide to make some changes, Dean could very well end up on the wrong end of a defibrillator by the time he reaches his mid-20s. Though he's doing his best to postpone growing up, he admits he'd like to have a job and a place of his own eventually.

"I could take it for a couple more years, maybe," he says. "Don't get me wrong, but there's a lot of women out there that don't like homeless people ... the hotel thing is getting old."

On the rebound

Of all the people rooting for Frank Dean, Dane Norwood may be among the most closely invested.

Norwood, 22, volunteered as a peer mentor for Dean before becoming homeless. After serving three months in jail for an aggravated battery charge, Norwood found himself in the very position he used to observe from the other side.

"It kind of tears down your self-esteem," says Norwood, who once volunteered at the Drop-In Center and Jubilee Cafe but now depends on those resources. "I try not to let it get to me. I've never been homeless before, but it's an adjustable situation."

Norwood, who moved to Lawrence when he was 18, is trying to rebound from a broken relationship and the altercation with his ex-girlfriend's ex-boyfriend that put him in jail (he now faces a year of probation). Despite his recent struggles, he remains an overwhelmingly positive personality.

"It's easier to talk about it than hold it in," he says. "I'm trying to be on a positive spree here. I'm tired of all this negative stuff happening. If it's only this bad -- I'm not dead."

Nelle Johnson, Lawrence, passes time with acquaintances after lunch
outside The Salvation Army, 946 N.H.

Nelle Johnson, Lawrence, passes time with acquaintances after lunch outside The Salvation Army, 946 N.H.

Until recently, Norwood had been spending his days at the Drop-In Center and nights at the Lawrence Open Shelter (he had to get there by 7 p.m. to get one of the shelter's 21 available spots). He recently started working at a local telemarketing firm and secured a place of his own.

When asked about Dean's situation, Norwood balks at the notion that it can be partly attributed to Dean's difficult upbringing in foster homes.

"I came from a 'rough background,' too -- that's not a good excuse. I have too much love for myself," he says.

A 'chapter in the book of my life'

Like Norwood, Nancy Outhonesak is getting a firsthand lesson on "the other side" of life.

Outhonesak, 22, is a volunteer at the Community Drop-In Center. She's distinguished from the other volunteers, however, by one big difference -- she's also homeless.

"Before I became homeless, I'd always wonder -- how'd they get to be in that situation?" Outhonesak says. "It never really occurred to me that it can happen to anyone. And it really can."

A homeless camp near the Santa Fe Railroad depot.

A homeless camp near the Santa Fe Railroad depot.

Outhonesak has been in and out of homelessness since April, when her fiance went to jail and her landlord kicked her out of her apartment (she wasn't on the lease). A month later, she lost her job at Farmer's Insurance in Olathe -- which was already barely supporting her and her 3-year-old son Allan.

"The amount of money I was making would cover day care, and that was it," she recalls.

She moved to Kansas City, met a new man and wound up pregnant. When that relationship came grinding to a halt, she came back to Lawrence and took up residence at the Salvation Army; her son, meanwhile, went to live with her parents.

"It took a little getting used to," she says, recalling nights sleeping on a mat and being woken up at 6:30 every morning. "I couldn't see myself getting comfortable there at all, and I wouldn't want to."

Besides the back pain and early wake-up calls, Outhonesak recalls the odd looks she'd get while walking from the Salvation Army to the Community Drop-In Center every morning.

"When you're young it looks a little strange, like 'Where are your parents at, and why don't you have a family to help?'" she says. "I chose this route because this isn't the first time I fell, and it's not going to be the last time I fall. I don't want to feel like every time I need a little bit of help I gotta run somewhere or to someone. I want to feel like I know how to do it on my own."

Outhonesak is working hard to get back on her feet. She now works at Taco Bell and is trying to become financially stable so she can regain custody of her son. In the meantime, she's been sleeping at a friend's house and spending her days at the Drop-In Center.

Robert Taylor, left, and Natasha Hulme sit outside the Salvation
Army waiting for the overnight shelter to open.

Robert Taylor, left, and Natasha Hulme sit outside the Salvation Army waiting for the overnight shelter to open.

"Lawrence is a great community, and people will really help if you just ask for it," she says. "I got on my own two feet, and I'm trying to get in my own home and have this baby and go on with my life -- and just put this as a chapter in the book of my life."

Hope on the way

A year or two from now, young homeless people like William Renfro, Frank Dean and Nancy Outhonesak should have even more resources available to them.

Lawrence's Task Force on Homeless Services recently unveiled a report that calls for a 24-hour homeless shelter, more case managers and re-establishment of an inpatient health unit. Also, two federally funded "Hope" houses opened in December to help people with dual diagnoses of drug addiction and mental health problems.

In response, the Community Drop-In Shelter and Lawrence Open Shelter merged under the leadership of Open Shelter director Loring Henderson, creating the first functional 24-hour shelter in Lawrence.

"We want to be able to say to people who stay here at night, 'OK, we're getting you an appointment tomorrow with a case manager,'" Henderson says.

Recently, Henderson says, some of the Lawrence homeless community's biggest battles have had to do with fighting misconceptions -- that homeless people are drunks, criminals or panhandlers.

"This is not really a sympathetic crowd to raise money for," he says, adding that the Lawrence Open Shelter's policy of allowing people to come in drunk sometimes makes people hesitant to donate.

To that end, Henderson is working to make sure the negative stereotypes don't overwhelm the good things that are happening.

"The homeless and the folks who work with them, to my mind, get a bum rap -- that we're just enabling people or we're giving them a free ride or we aren't doing anything for this problem," he says.

"Well, we are. We're working hard on it."

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