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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


The Soup Kitchen and the Rain

                (this is one person’s story that I wrote as a monologue in  April 2016)

Setting: a monologue by a 40ish year old woman, although gender could be easily changed, who walks out to center stage carrying a two-inch thick notebook. She sits on a bar stool, getting up and strolling around several times.


 I currently volunteer as a doorkeeper at a local soup kitchen once a week. My job is to welcome the guests coming for dinner, to turn away people who have been banned, and to discourage any problems in the parking lot.  I’ve been volunteering at homeless shelters, women centers, and foster homes since I was in graduate school about 12 years ago. I’m now a sociology professor. I like college kids and publishing stuff but when I serve the homeless and the needy is when I feel most alive—like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing—what we ALL are supposed to be doing.

 I remember when I first committed myself to serving the poor. Back in grad school I was looking for a master thesis’ topic. My advisor wanted me to expand a paper I had written on a critique of behaviorism in social science but I wanted to write “a postmodern critique of TV crime shows” because I had watched a lot of LAW AND ORDER, CSI and BONES.  He wasn’t going for that so I was kind of stuck for a topic.  

After one of our frustrating meetings I was walking down High Street when a homeless woman asked me for spare change. I looked at her but declined and walked on. After I few minutes I thought “I should have given her a dollar.” For some reason, I turned around and went back and asked “you want to get a sandwich with me?” She said “Sure, I haven’t eaten today.” We walked a few steps and went in a local sub shop. I told her she could get any sandwich she wanted but that I usually ordered a turkey on wheat. She said “I’ll get that too.” I asked if she wanted anything to drink and she asked “what do you drink?” I told I just got water and she said “I’ll have that, too.”  We never exchanged names but I have taken to calling her Tina.

 We sat inside and talked about the day. I asked where she was from, what she will do if it rains, and if she goes to the women’s shelter. She answered all my questions in a few sentences. After a while I noticed a local newspaper laying on the chair next to mine and the headlines read “Council to Ban Panhandling.” I acted like the paper was mine, folded it and took it with us when we left. We exchanged “have a nice day” and went our separate ways. I went straight to the campus library, sat down, and read the article on the proposed ordinance. It must have mentioned the words “criminalizing the homeless.” I immediately did an internet search and found thousands of articles on local regulations in other cities prohibiting soup kitchens, replacing street benches with ones that had a divider, and closing parks to eliminate places where homeless gather. Right then and there I decided “yes, that’s it. I will do my MA thesis on “criminalization of the homeless.”

As part of my research, I volunteered at a shelter and I have continued serving the poor wherever my academic career took me. Here is my Master’s thesis—about criminalization of the homeless.  I remember that sunny day talking with that women in the sub shop back in graduate school when I decided it was okay to study poverty but only if I really tried to understand it. Here, look, I included Tina in the acknowledgements. (shows a few pages in her thesis).

 For some reason, I never talk about it with my colleagues and only mentioned serving the poor a few times in my classes. I give lectures on the causes of poverty, the deserving versus the undeserving poor, work disincentives, drug addiction—all that stuff. Students don’t understand. I doubt most of my colleagues understand.  

 The last few years I’ve worked at soup kitchen. After a few months I knew most of the guys and women who come regularly. I always smile and hold the door for them, call them by name. Usually they return the courtesy. Some know my name, some call me ma’am, only a few ever say “good evening, honey” or “how’s your day, babe?”  Occasionally, at least two-three times a night, I will have a longer conversation with one of them. Maybe it will be about a broken leg, or how to find a sleeping room, or about getting the bus across down.

(A slight pause. Tone because more personal, and then more intense, growing to anger).

  I’ll tell you about one night a few months ago that I can’t forget. Maybe I don’t want to forget it. You know how every organization has to have rules? The soup kitchen has rules about opening and closing time, not allowing in people who have been banned—things like that.

 It was a rainy late afternoon, not that cold but a spring storm was blowing in and the temperature was dropping rapidly—maybe 70 degrees when we started but probably under 50 at closing time.

We are supposed to open the doors at 4:45 but by 4:15 at least 20 guys were huddled near the door, under the small overhang but they were getting drenched anyway. I let them in early and told them there couldn’t be any trouble and that it was 45 minutes until dinner would be served. I just prayed everything would be cool. I kept one eye on the door, one eye on the dining area—and tried to stay calm and peaceful.

 Right at 5:00 when the serving line just started moving, a young woman Megan shows up at the door. I knew Megan was banned—she had a habit of creating a disturbance almost everywhere she has been. Sometimes it is about borrowing a cellphone, or bumming cigarettes or sometimes about what sounds like lining up a drug deal.  You could tell she was once a pretty girl but now her hair was matted, her teeth were black, she was dirty—and tonight she was soaking wet. I opened the door and she said that the director said she could eat there. I knew that was not true. I said “Megan, give me a couple minutes.” I walked a lap around the dining area so I could think and went back and said “Megan, you can come in, but absolutely no trouble. I will keep an eye on you” My stomach became more tense, I squeezed my fists and thought “Oh, Megan, I want this to work so badly—please just sit down and eat your dinner.”  I know that by now, Megan doesn’t even remember how to just sit down and just eat her dinner.

(stands next to the stool)

Several times, I left the door area—which I am not really supposed to do—to watch the dining  area, there were lots of conversations, some guys were trying to dry off their packs, a few had small towels, some were wringing out their shirts over a trash can. I appreciated hearing laughing and thought it was good for about 100 homeless folks, street people we used to call them, to gather together. Because of the rain, of course, more people came for dinner, and they stayed longer. The place was packed. There were several outburst—two that seemed rather serious. I sat down next to one of the arguments—it seemed to be about using the new synthetic drug—between a man and a woman. The woman told me several times rather nicely “don’t worry about us. He knows he is wrong, he won’t do nothing.”  I put my trust in her. After a while it cooled down and peace reappeared.

 At closing time, it was pouring. I had found a few plastic bags that I handed out when they were leaving but they were too small and too few. Several groups got into cars, some duos and trios were bunched under umbrellas, most were now walking with soaking feet. It would be a cold night.  I felt mad and frustrated that there was nothing more I could do. My fists and stomach were tight.  So many people volunteer, try to serve the poor, but it is hard to see men and women wet and cold.

 Megan and about six guys were bunched near the door. After a few minutes some bickering sprang up—I swear you never know why or where this will happen. I opened the door and said in my school teacher voice “Hey, it’s fine to hang around here because of the rain but there can be no trouble.”  I know I was pleading.

To my surprise Megan replied, “She is right, she is a good woman, she deserves our respect.”  I mouthed “Oh, thank you, thank you.”  I almost collapsed in relief.

A few minutes later, they dispersed.  I checked the bathrooms, the back hallway, turned out the lights, locked the door, and got in my car. I realized I was dry from the rain. I thought about breaking the rules for Megan. I cried. I could feel my face and my neck and shoulders relax.  I was beat.   I knew I would be back next week.

(She gathers her notebook from the stool and exits).