The Face of the Homeless

Sandra Wilson, Executive Director of the Arkansas Supportive Housing Network
Sandra Wilson, Executive Director of the Arkansas Supportive Housing Network

Sandra R. Wilson, Executive Director of the Arkansas Supportive Housing Network, shares her recent experience working on a project to count the number of homeless:

I've been asked, what was it like out there doing that homeless count - were you afraid? I really had to process what it was like for a couple of days before I could even answer. I had so many emotions to sort through that I couldn't immediately answer that question.

I went to places that I would have avoided in my everyday life, and I stretched my comfort level far beyond usual limits. I know that my most uncomfortable moment was when I was told that we were in the "red zone" in North Little Rock. My homeless guide explained the area was so named because the blocks were gang territory of the Crips, or the Bloods. All that sank in was "gang territory" and "red zone". However, the homeless also stayed in the abandoned houses that made up those blocks. Apparently the city really doesn't care what goes on in that little piece of hell, so the homeless weren't bothered by the police inside the Red Zone.

I'm sure that the other teams all had similar moments when you asked yourself why you were putting yourself in such precarious positions when normal people would not come near those neighborhoods. I felt fairly safe with Eugene Meyer and our guide, Scott.

We found most of our homeless walking the streets, standing around stores, and hiding under bridges. The homeless guided us to places where they slept behind dumpsters with only a piece of cardboard to protect them from the cold. We were told that at a certain church you could sit up beside a wall and sleep, and the pastor allowed the homeless to be there on church property, so the police don't run them off.

In the darkness, we almost missed the guys that were way up in the corner at the top underneath a bridge. One prostitute yelled at us from a block away. We turned and went back to her to ask if she was homeless. She was, but she refused the sack of food that we offered. She had a different mission for the evening.

We stopped to talk with another woman on the street. She was 26-years-old and had AIDS. She looked so tiny and helpless out there alone, like a vulnerable child. I asked her to let me help her with the programs that we have to offer at ASHN. She said maybe later on; she said everything was just to messed up for her right now.

When I asked myself why I was out there, all I could answer was, I was there because people just should not have to live like animals. We talk about how charitable we are as we send another $100 check off to benefit people in a third world country where we have never been. We try so hard to dehumanize and pretend that we don't have those kind of people in our country, that they don't exist; that our country would never allow such civil rights violations against our citizens - so we try to send money to help somewhere else.

But they do exist right here in our communities. From our warm homes and comfortable beds, we don't see the human beings shivering and cold behind a dumpster in an alley, or the women who are raped repeatedly because "it's just part of being homeless". It is just so much easier to send money to a different country where we imagine people are in a much worse state than anyone could possibly be here at home.

We filled and emptied Eugene's truck twice during the evening, and stopped looking for homeless around 2:30 a.m. Actually, that is when I stopped. Eugene told me that he had stopped to give food to three more homeless that he saw as he drove home. One of them was a woman that he saw huddled in the doorway of a business as he crossed town. I suppose the business owner would have run her out of the little protection that she had found as the night turned colder.

On Friday, I saw an article that had been forwarded to me about the count. People were posting their opinions of the people who were homeless. One person was a business owner who was angry because the homeless hang around his business, stating that one man even talks to himself and scares the customers. How scary it must be in his world!

Others made the usual statements: The homeless are homeless because they want to be; they are all mentally ill and drug addicts; they are homeless because they are too lazy to work. All I can say to those people is do not judge until you have walked a mile in their shoes, in their dirty socks that rub their feet into a bloody mess, and in their donated shoes that are at least three sizes too little. This is really the life that people think homeless people want to stay in.

Eugene went to the temporary labor site at 6 a.m. Thursday. The line was long and not everyone got a job for the day, but they lined up in the early morning hours because they did want to work. These people are often screamed at and told to get a job. One woman told me that when someone screams at her to get a job, she yells back, "Give me a job!" No one has. Eugene talked with the people in the line and gave food bags to the ones who had not been seen the night before. Many refused the bags stating that they had gotten one on the previous evening, and they didn't want to take two.

I went to Robert Johnston's breakfast site in the city garage at 7:45 a.m. The volunteers serve breakfast at 7:30. When I arrived, there were only five men and Malta Willits at the garage. I asked where all the people were. They told me that they had run out of food, and the volunteers and the homeless had gone when they had nothing left to provide.

One of the homeless men still there was griping because we had not found him the night before and he wanted a sleeping bag. Malta had a sleeping bag in her car and gave it to him. Two more homeless men walked up looking for breakfast and were told that the group had run out of food. They had been trying to find work earlier in the temporary labor line, and told us that a man had given them food bags over there.

One of the men was coughing and talked about having slept on the concrete with just a piece of cardboard. The griper handed over the sleeping bag to him. We asked why he had given it away after creating such a fuss to get it. He said he did it because the other man only had cardboard and a thin coat, and he had several layers of clothing on to keep him warm. He said the homeless have to take care of each other.

Scott, my guide from the night before, was there. He told me that he has a pacemaker and cannot walk very far because he has problems with his legs. He said that he misses out on some of the services because he can't get to them. He sleeps behind one of the alley dumpsters downtown. He said that the police don't bother him any more.

He showed them all of the bottles of medicine that he has to take, and he said that now the police come by at night to ask him if he is okay. When I asked Scott what medicine he takes, he told me that he doesn't know because he can't read or write. He said that he often asks God why he is here like this, because he can't do anything. He said that he can't find anyone to help him fill out papers, and he has no one to ask but the other homeless. Scott said that God should take him away because he isn't able to help himself.

So, what was it like?

I saw people who were drug addicts, people who were mentally ill, prostitutes, and disabled persons. I didn't meet anyone who said they were homeless because they wanted to live like an animal, and be treated worse by society than we treat our pets.

I did meet people who had lost hope and believed that the world could never be any better for them. I met people who believed that they were to blame for their situation, just as we Christians do, and that they were getting what they deserved. I saw the same people that Jesus saw and gave his time to when he was here. I just can't remember Jesus turning away from any of these people in need. I don't remember Jesus walking by these people as if they don't exist, and being annoyed because he had to look at them.

Our first compilation of all of the team sheets showed that we counted over 500 people outdoors in the Little Rock and North Little Rock area. I don't know how many were counted in the shelters. We didn't find all of the homeless who were hidden in their camps trying not to be seen.

I had 26 people searching the two cities. Every person that my team handed a bag to said God Bless you and thank you for what you are doing. No one threatened us or was in any way negative toward us. They were just trying to survive in a place that prefers they don't exist.

Content Archived: July 14, 2011