Homelessness: a common theme to at least One Type

The New York TIMES has an article “A Bright Light, Dimmed by Homelessness”

that reminded me of an ESPN E-60 story about Schyler LaRue, AAC player of the year who tuned homeless.


I do know a few people like the women they describe–but maybe not as talented. I have had a lot of interaction with a guy this winter who just doesn’t make the decisions concerning his own shelter that most of us would make. It is frustrating that I do not succeed in getting him out of the cold–but at some level he is making his own decisions.

Why don’t homeless people go to shelters?

It is reported that three-quarters of Los Angeles’ homeless are in tents, vehicles and abandoned buildings. In New York City, more than 100 social workers are assigned to persuade the estimated 4,000 homeless to go to the city’s expanded Safe Haven rather than ride the subway throughout the night.

Volunteers and housed citizens alike often ask why don’t homeless people take advantage of shelter opportunities? Having asked myself the same question, I’ve listened very carefully over the past few years. Here is what I have learned.

Viewing the homeless as lazy freeloaders prevents a deeper understanding of their decisions. The freeloader perspective naturally predicts the homeless would use all the services available to them — but they don’t. Most homeless people are very short-term goal oriented. They are focused on getting through the day rather than where they will spend the night.

For most chronically homeless, there is no”normal” day. They often do not have routines, they usually do not need to know what day it is or what time it is. That’s why they miss appointments with their caseworkers and forget where they left stuff. Many homeless do not plan very well. Getting to a shelter by a specific time is an obstacle they can avoid by just sleeping at their campsite which is always open and for which they do not need a reservation.

Many homeless do not make good decisions. They intend to get an ID or go to the food pantry, but something comes up and gets them off track. In that way, they are like most of us who only stick with our New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking, lose weight or save more money for a few weeks. People do not freely choose to continue alcohol, tobacco, opiate or chocolate addictions. Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous groups provide support for many housed students, housewives and business people. Some homeless, too, have addictions that prevent them from making it through the night without a cigarette, a toke or a drink, so they decide to stay outdoors.

Social workers and volunteers often say their guests “won’t follow the rules.” It is not that simple. Many homeless do not seem to really comprehend the rules or know what is expected of them. Social workers and volunteers sooner or later realize that raising one’s voice and repeating a request a dozen times doesn’t accomplish much. A frequent comment I have heard from those who choose not to go to an available shelter is, “I don’t want no problems.”

Humans seem to like their familiar comfort zones. Shelters that are here one week and there another don’t become familiar. Sleeping in your own bed, even if in a campsite, is your own bed. Shelters are noisy with no personal space. Many homeless follow their own clock. They are 24/7, not 9 to 5. Being required to be in at 7 p.m. and out at 7 a.m. doesn’t always fit well. Moreover, checking into a shelter means leaving one’s regular camp or space unoccupied, inviting ransacking or theft.

Personal safety and property security are issues facing the homeless, including those staying at shelters. Checking their bags at the door makes sense for program organizers but means a loss of control for a homeless guest. Most of us housed people don’t like having a purse, or pack, checked at a movie theater or sporting venue. The closest most of us come to feeling like a homeless person checking into a shelter is probably going through security at an airport. We don’t like it. We don’t like taking off our shoes and walking on that filthy floor, emptying our pockets in front of strangers and being told where to stand and when to move.

However well-intentioned they may be, caseworkers and volunteers sometimes seem more concerned with following their own rules than serving the needs of their homeless guests. Despite their good hearts, it is not unusual to hear volunteers and staff say, “They should be grateful for a warm place to stay.” Imagine overhearing a TSA inspector say, “They should be grateful that they will make it there safely,” as you wait in line fearing you will miss your flight.

Assisting the homeless in obtaining a standard apartment is a laudable goal but mini-houses, mobile homes, even storage sheds, may be a step up from the streets for some men and women who just don’t use existing shelters.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Need Not Appear, if Paid in Full

Need Not Appear,  if Paid in Full


                This morning I drove a guy to court in an adjoining country related to his plea bargain for check fraud that he thought he has settled last year. He has been paying restitution for six months but might have had his probation revoked because, much to his surprise, he had not paid the court costs of $312.  He had believed that the court costs were rolled into the restitution plan that he had agreed to and honored. As it turns out, he missed a half day of work, and pay, for his two-minute court appearance.  He works maintenance at two low-rent motels and needs medical attention and the flexibility that having money in your pocket gives you. Continue reading

ESPN had excellent story about homeless star

ESPN had excellent segment about homeless basketball player

ESPN’s E-60 had an excellent segment by reporter Shelley Smith July 30, 2017 about a woman who went from college basketball star to a schizophrenic homeless person.  In 2000, Schuye  LaRue was ACC Rookie of the Year at the University of Virginia. After her sophomore year she abruptly decided to turn pro and ended up going to Italy to play. After a brief time, she returns home to the Washington DC area to live with her mother. Continue reading

Carl Update: I found him after three months

Carl Update: I found Carl after three months

After three months of casual looking, I finally happened upon a homeless guy I call Carl. I was happy to see him. A week ago, his daughter had told me where to look.
I first met Carl last February 1 when he was dropped off by a taxi from the hospital at closing time at a soup kitchen where I volunteer once a week. I did not know what to do that cold night and dropped him off at the bus station that was due to close in 30 minutes. I was disappointed in myself, the hospital, and almost everyone who I spoke with about what I should do. I described this in a March 10, 2017 op ed essay in the Columbia TRIBUNE


Continue reading

It’s Closing Time at the Soup Kitchen

This evening at CoMo Loaves and Fishes was quiet with at least seven guys with no place to go on a cold rainy night staying inside the door after 6:30. Someone started singing “It’s Closing Time” by Green Day which was soon modified to

“Open the door and make us go out into the cold …
It’s Closing Time . . .
You don’t have a home
But you can’t stay here.”

I appreciated their cooperativeness but it still hurts that I could not (or did not) do anything to prepare them for the night.

Continue reading

Nashville’s Room In The Inn

Nashville’s Room In the Inn has six programs serving the homeless, the one similar to Columbia’s Room at the Inn is the Winter Shelter Program.  Below are its five key features:

  1. Uses congregation model— about 20 congregations shelter 12-15 guests in their own church about one night a week;
  2. Open from November 1 –March 31 (in a warmer climate than Columbia).
  3. Not more than “observational security”—no security wanding, no security guard, no checking metal items at the door;
  4. Alcohol use is not permitted (but there is alternative housing); and
  5. A sit-down dinner is provided by each congregation each night.

Continue reading

What to do with Carl, another homeless man?

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.

Continue reading

The Deserving vs. Undeserving

             The Deserving versus Undeserving in the 21st Century

 Based on my personal observation and conversations over the past 7-8 years, the population of Columbia’s street poor consists of few undeserving. Most street poor have multiple reasons for being on the street. Here is what I have seen of this mostly male group:

1.        Few veterans—because of societal efforts to care for these “deserving citizens.”  Less than 10 percent.

2.       Lots of alcohol and drug users—I don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect but propose discouraging all alcohol and drug use. Probably more than half.

3.       Mental disabilities—at least than one-third, probably more

4.       Stigma of criminal justice system—probably more than I would guess, at least one quarter.

5.       Family disruptions—marital problems, disputed child support, kids kicked out, at least one-quarter.  Several fathers and mothers have been rejected by their children.

6.       Physical disabilities—job injuries and accidents. A quarter.

7.       Spotty work records—older folks without social security or pensions because of prison, “working off the books,” and being screwed over by an employer.

8.       The working poor— probably just a few of the “truly homeless” but many of Columbia’s poverty population.

9.       Marginal intelligence—just not smart, unlikely to be hired. 10 percent.

10.   Social misfits—some people probably have never fit into schools, churches, or their communities.  Perhaps they are lazy, more likely they are “loners.”  They just miss the bus, forget to turn in the forms, and can’t follow directions.  10- 20 percent.

From time-to-time, I have been asked “are those people deserving of our help?”  I think about this when I am walking around town and eating at the University Club. Here is what I think.

      In a just society, comprised of small communities, we each would get what we deserve. Generally, if we did not work, we would not eat. In the olden days, family members and community members had to “pull their own weight.”  But even in that ideal, simple world most citizens would agree to assist those who, thru no fault of their own, could not provide for themselves. We would care for the young, and the old, the mentally feeble and the physically lame. America’s Great Depression (of the 1930) s complicated that idyllic social system. Macroeconomic failure challenged the foundation of “earning what you deserve” and mass migration overloaded communities’ capacity “to take care of their own.”

                By the 21st century, rapid economic change, often governmentally funded and induced, can cause “undeserved” job loss; damaging bad personal decisions can result in drug and alcohol addictions, and large cities and suburbs do not have the capability of communities to identify, let alone, to take care of their own.”

                Consequently, distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving has become difficult if not impossible. Despite America’s superior wealth relative to other countries of the world, we are less likely to see citizens as deserving of societal assistance. America’s racial heterogeneity, and our history of racial tensions, makes public discussions and decisions about the deserving and undeserving more difficult.

                Societal “assistance” is a wide category of government programs, community resources, and social practices. We don’t call “executive severance packages” social assistance but we should.

                In 1971, A THEORY OF JUSTICE by John Rawls, developed the notion of a “veil of ignorance” as a mechanism for dissecting thorny ethical issues. Simply put, a “just solution” would be the one selected if all decision makes were behind a “veil of ignorance” such that they did not know their “original position,” e.g. gender, race, age, occupation, height, etc.  In such a just society, designed behind a veil of ignorance, there would not be racial nor religious discrimination. There would not be gender pay discrimination, but there may be gender role differentiation based on child rearing. It is likely there would be a good deal of parental leave and support for young children.  A just society would have to figure out what position it wants to take on family issues and single motherhood.

                In that light, my hunch is that we would be spending a lot more time talking about the “undeserving rich” than we now talk about the “undeserving poor.”  In 2017, our president and a majority of our Senate, have accumulated much more wealth that they have earned.  They “deserve” it because of family inheritance or tax advantages. College admissions are increasingly related more to family wealth and connections than individual merit. A just society would alter these current social practices.

                A just society would care for the elderly, as America has done rather satisfactorily over the past 50 years, and it would eliminate racial differences in economic opportunity. A just society would provide for foster children and orphans.

                A just society would most likely provide at least transitory support for the technologically displaced (due to government policies)  farm hand, coal miner, and black smith. (Maybe this is basis for larger executive severance packages.)

                Drug addictions and criminal records are challenging personal situations to think through. Certainly, a just society would invest in drug treatment and prisoner rehabilitation.  Often a social expenditure today will reap a high rate of return.

So who of Columbia’s street people are undeserving?  I suppose it is mostly a question of duration and number of chances society is willing to provide. Alcohol and drug addicts will be an increasing portion of our society, and probably the easiest to assist, but society’s patience is not unlimited.

Family disruptions deserve more public discussion. Many homeless men can tell you their horror stories with child support enforcement. Likewise, the plight of aging parents do not receive media attention.

The criminal justice system imposes a heavy burden on ex-convicts who have served their time. I’ve seen several well-intentioned guys who just can’t get a break in getting a job.

I suppose the least deserving are the 10 percent who are just plain old tired and worn out from being bounced around society. Their work history is probably spotty, their skills declining.  If we are lucky, “through no fault of our own,” we have a pension, social security, a supportive family, maybe an inheritance, to see us through. Otherwise, life can be tough.