What am I to do with another helpless, homeless man?
Three of the last four Wednesday in the winter of 2017 while volunteering at Loaves and Fishes in Columbia, Missouri, a man, who I will call Carl, has been dumped in my lap near closing time. The first two times he was transported by taxi from a local hospital, the third by a well-intentioned woman who had found him lying on the pavement at a nearby gas station after he had been dismissed from the hospital. Each time Carl was hungry, had no place to sleep that night, was in considerable pain, and was rather helpless.
The first evening I met Carl, he had to make a choice between eating and immediately getting to the Room at the Inn to get a cot for the night. He chose to eat. After his dinner, I dropped him at the downtown bus station, knowing he would be put out within an hour. Room at the Inn was full.
I have interacted with Carl at least eight times within the past 30 days. Once, I got him a sleeping bag and dropped him in a parking garage. Once, a hospital ER called me and I was able to transport him to Room at the Inn in time to keep his reservation. My guess is that he probably slept 7-10 nights at Room at the Inn since the beginning of February. He tells me he slept the other nights in the hospital—but I doubt he was an admitted patient.
On one occasion, I followed a caseworker’s directions and took him to a local social service agency’s assessment center hoping that would begin a journey to food stamps and housing. They dismissed him within 25 minutes telling him to come back if he felt suicidal or depressed. Of course, it is unlikely he would admit to either so this must have been a hoop to keep down the caseload. I took him immediately to Turning Point, a local day center, where they made an appointment for him to meet with a food stamp caseworker the next day. Carl did not show up.
I have confirmed that Carl is in his 50s, has a married daughter in town, has lived in Columbia several decades, and has several trespass warrants but no big crimes. He had told me he worked as a handyman until several years ago when the employer died, has a wife who is in a long term care facility, and that he has seizures that have caused him to fall down. He has lost most of his teeth, has had a broken hand for at least three months, and he appears to have considerable torso pain. As an ER clerk told me “Carl is a sweet man.” He has a good sense of humor, poses no danger to me, and goes thru periods of disorientation.
Last week, I checked the inmate list of the county jail and noticed Carl’s name. At first it said his court date was three weeks away but within a few days he was scheduled to be released the next day after serving three days for “failure to appear” for a previous trespass violation, of which he has many. Several homeless service providers responded quickly and a spot in a detox facility was being held for him. My plan was to meet him at the jail upon his release and tell him of this option. Because the jail released him downtown several hours earlier than they had stated, I searched his side of town. I found him just starting to panhandle and invited him to a fast food restaurant. We had a pleasant lunch and talked for 90 minutes. To my “isn’t alcohol the major cause of your problems liking falling down?” he replied “not to all of my problems, but to many of them.” To my “would you feel better if you quit alcohol?” he replied “I would have more energy, but I feel pretty good after a couple of drinks, too? After a while I asked him, “Carl, do you want to go to the detox facility and give it a try?” He said “I will go talk with them if you want me to, but I don’t plan to stop drinking.” Because experienced homeless service providers have told me “quitting is hard—he has to want it” I allowed the conversation to drift. I had been as firm and clear as I thought I should be. I will talk with Carl again and may be able to get him another spot at the detox facility, if he decides he wants it.
Carl is falling through the cracks. The hospital ER is kind to him but cannot allocate more resources to him. The volunteer and low skilled Room at the Inn staff are not able to devote the listening time to Carl that would be necessary to have him “abide by the rules and get a reservation like everyone else.”
I do not know what to do with Carl. He is not the only one. One local service administrator told me “There are at least 25 guys who I would not be surprised to see died any particular day.” Most of them have fallen thru the government agency, private agency network of homeless service providers and are simply unwanted.
Carl and his buddies bear some of the blame for their decaying condition. From my conversations and observation of the homeless community, my estimate is that the large majority of the over 30-year-old men and women were moving along in their lives until the wheels fell off due to family, health, or employment problems that put them on the edge of vulnerability. Throw in some alcohol or drugs, a minor legal problem or two, some bad luck, and a couple relatively minor bad decisions, and a homeless case is born. Are they deserving of our care and support? Most Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists preach so. It is not that we don’t care, it is that we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to do, so we do nearly nothing.
Housing and living stability is essential as is having a sense of community, access to medical care, and receiving job-seeking assistance. I know all that, and have taught all that, but when Carl was dumped in my lap three different times, I did not know what to do. What should I do about Carl?
David Webber is emeritus associate professor political science at University of Missouri and a volunteer at local homeless services. He wrote “A Night at the Shelter” and contributed to “Street Stories” performed in 2015 and 2016.