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While on my early morning recreational bike ride this morning I had a conversation with an apparently homeless man who was a real-life reminder that not all “homeless” people are the same, and so policies for dealing with them should probably not be all the same.
The man I talked to was on foot and was looking for a Salvation Army shelter (or presumably some similar overnight sleeping facility that might provide meals). There is no such facility in my town. But I admired the man’s logic for concluding that there must be. He said he observed that he had seen no people sleeping on sidewalks, on benches, or in doorways, so they must be sleeping in a shelter somewhere in town.
Pre-pandemic, I did some work with the primary organization that helps the homeless and (as they say) “marginally housed” in my county, so I actually know something about the “homeless” here. I live in the county seat of a semi-rural county about 25 miles west of a major metropolitan area (Fort Worth, Texas). The homeless of the type who sleep on the sidewalk do not come here. It is a far walk to get here. Once here, the distances between things are very long for a person on foot. There is no public transportation. And there are few resources here to help them. So they stay in the urban metropolitan area. There are a few sidewalk-sleeping people around town, but you can probably count them on one hand.
The homeless who do get here (or who become homeless while living here) generally have a vehicle that runs, and either think they want to find work or seek to escape what they consider the negative culture of the sidewalk homeless of the urban metropolitan area (crime, drugs, alcohol, disrespect). That most of them have a vehicle is key to why we don’t have an overnight shelter – they stay in their vehicles (and many of them have dogs that would be difficult to accommodate in a shelter). With a vehicle, they can get to a central food distribution center on occasion, can store several days’ worth of food, and do not need each meal served individually. I tried to explain to the man I encountered this morning that most of the “homeless” here have some type of shelter, which is why he doesn’t see people sleeping on the sidewalks, and that there really isn’t much demand for a Salvation Army type overnight shelter, though I don’t think he believed me. I did not find out how or why he got here. Did he hitch a ride with a trucker who stopped at one of the truck stops? Did he come on the Greyhound bus that stops at the Pilot truck stop? He wasn’t carrying luggage. Did he leave luggage somewhere? I didn’t pry, but I wasn’t able to give him much real help. He was quite articulate. And as I said, I admire his logical thinking.
We have five major truck stops along the interstate highway that runs across the south end of town. So the homeless with vehicles have places to park their vehicles, to use the toilets, and to shower (if they pay). The truck stops have varying levels of tolerance for the vehicle-based homeless. Some of the homeless don’t always look or behave all that different from some of the truck drivers who also may stay several days while waiting for a load. One of the truck stops has been known to employ a few homeless for odd jobs like sweeping the lot, picking up trash, and emptying trash cans in exchange for lodging in the attached motel. I met a lot with a woman who had such a job. She was completely bonkers, but could pull it together enough to do the work the truck stop wanted. She really appreciated the motel room she got in exchange. And she was extremely determined to stay away from the crime, drugs, and alcohol of the urban homelessness that she escaped to come out here.
Some of the homeless who do get out here are delusional that they have the capabilities to become employed. But that they have employment as a goal seems to keep them away from much of the self-destructive behavior we see the sidewalk-sleeping urban homeless. I met many times with a group of men who lived together in an ancient motorhome that they moved from place to place around town as they wore out their welcome. None of them had the wits to be able to hold regular employment, but they did find enough odd jobs to survive together. Another man thought the owner of the shopping center in which he parked his truck should be more appreciative of the unsolicited work that the man did around the shopping center. The shopping center owner did not agree that the unsolicited work was a net positive for his shopping center, and so there was some conflict about the homeless man continuing to park his truck there. But at least the homeless man grasped the concept of earning his keep.
But the largest category of people needing housing help here is the “marginally housed.” As a semi-rural area, we have a lot of marginal housing – cabins, travel trailers that are no longer mobile, or manufactured houses, built decades ago with no or inadequate plumbing, electricity, heating, or cooking facilities, that may be literally falling apart. “Affordable,” but often a long distance from prospective employment. Which, especially with today’s gasoline prices, puts staying on a budget that was already marginal, almost impossible. The landlords almost universally agree that they should be upgraded, but everyone also agrees that such upgrades cost money, and so the rents would need to increase. So, a major part of the work of the organization for the “homeless” is actually trying to find appropriate affordable housing for these marginally housed people. Shelter or housing for an individual who can find only intermittent employment for limited hours per week but who is otherwise more or less together is different from shelter or housing for a drug-addicted or mentally ill person who will not or cannot take care of even his most basic needs.
So, the “homeless” issue in my semi-rural county is very different from the homeless issue in the urban metropolitan area 25 miles to our east. The answers that might work in one place may not work in the other. My experience here is why I get really irritated when politicians and advocates talk as though “homelessness” were some monolithic problem with a single universal solution. Well, that’s true for a lot of problems, but after this morning’s encounter with the man on my bicycle ride, that is the problem at front of mind.Published in