We in Alaska have a clear view of homelessness. It is the Brother Francis Shelter and Gospel Mission. It is the Sullivan Administration’s crackdown on illegal camps and the protest of John Martin, which led to the temporary “sidewalk ordinance.” It is the contentious debate between Fairview residents and the Red Roof Inn. The question is: are these debates echoed in the cities of the Lower 48? With this in mind, I decided to interview residents of the Salvation Army Red Shield Shelter in Tampa, Florida – a city as different from Anchorage as Anchorage is from Los Angeles- to find out how the city is coping with this most complex of issues.
The bet began as a joke. I stated that he was going to be denied because service providers don’t think in terms of solutions. They think in terms of funding streams and non-profit programming parameters. My friend disagreed, stating that he thought in terms of infinite possibility.
It was a Sunday. Phil Bourquardez Park was filled with about 100 homeless persons. Every couple of hours a church-inspired group pulled up and distributed fully-cooked meals.
My friend planned to ask a server for a job. Any job, legal or under the table.
“She handed me a meal,” Byran Cunningham said. “I handed it back. That shocked her enough to pay attention to me. I told her I didn’t need food, I needed a job. She told me she didn’t know how to help me get a job. So, you win the bet.”
My printed words fail to capture the pain embedded in Byran’s vocal tones. For someone in his position, who is attempting to stop being homeless, the current stream of services is a catch-22. While we are thankful for the generosity of Metropolitan Ministries, Trinity Cafe and Salvation Army, that generosity doesn’t replace the freedom of movement or self-pride a job provides.
The frustration of wanting to get ahead, yet lacking the liquid currency to do so generates some weird thinking. On New Year’s Eve, while we roamed deserted streets, my friends and I imagine ourselves inside the “Tampa Bay Homeless Zone.” It feels like downtown is a specifically designed area where services are concentrated – and jobs are not.
When I shared a recent newspaper article, explaining the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative’s shift in policy from the shelter model to the permanent housing model, frustration spilled over.
“Yeah, right!” Bobby Masterollne said. “$7 million! For what? All this money flowing around and no one ever bothers to ask us what we think, and we’re the ones who are homeless.”
“I’m not even from here. All I want is a bus ticket home. Get me $200 and Florida will never see me again,” said David Kivel. Men chuckled.
So many of us are from different states, where we are from is our nickname.
“Four or five years ago, a van used to pull up and take guys to a labor pool,” Bobby said.
“What happened? Why do we have to walk all the way to Pacesetters?” I asked.
“No money in solutions, bro. You know that. All we need is $1000 a month to get outta this place,” Bobby said.
I can pick up on a good idea when it is presented, so I asked several men in Dorm 4 of the Salvation Army what they needed to stop being homeless. That is, taking into account what is already provided, what else is needed? The list was basic.
$9,600 annually for a one bedroom, fully furnished apartment. $780 annually in monthly bus passes. $960 annually in electricity. $600 annually for an internet-based cellphone.
The grand total is $11,940, or $5.74 per hour. Meaning that a full-time minimum wage job resolves the issue. I tried to push back.
Mainstream understanding of the issue is that the chronic homeless are mentally ill and/or on drugs. More laughter.
“I got mental issues from my government service,” said Jon Stickney. “I don’t want to be here. One of those professionals downtown would commit suicide if they had to live like us. We don’t drink anymore beer or smoke more weed than they do. Spiceheads don’t even care where they lay down. That’s not us.”
So, the collective message isn’t to throw more money at the problem, but create jobs.
Anyone know how to do that?