Under the corrugated tin awning behind the homeless shelter, in the darkness illuminated only by the dim reflection of streetlights and porch lights, Donna and her sometimes- boyfriend, Delaney, wait to learn where they’ll be sleeping tonight.
“I can’t go back in those woods tonight,” Donna says. “I just can’t do it.”
Huddled in a drab winter coat with a hood pulled tight around her head, Donna deeply inhales a cigarette and coughs the wet, bottomless cough of a chronic smoker and asthmatic.
Every night, the city’s homeless who want to stay at the Lawrence Community Shelter have to arrive before 6 p.m. to add their names to the daily lottery. About 6:30, 31 names are drawn and the rest are turned away. On this wet night when the temperature will drop below 40 degrees, Delaney makes the list. Donna does not.
As Delaney and Donna discuss the relative merits of bringing a lawsuit against the shelter, Diane Elder, a shelter case manager, begins making her rounds. Everyone knows Diane drew the lottery numbers tonight, and their demeanor toward her seems largely based on their individual fates.
“Every individual population thinks they should take priority,” Elder says. “It’s exhausting.”
The physically ill. The mentally ill. Disabilities of every flavor. Those with a job. Those with two jobs. The newly sober. The recently paroled.
“I could fill the shelter with any of those groups alone,” Elder says.
The tension surrounding the lottery dissipates for some when their names are called — they’ll have a hot meal in a few hours and warm shelter through the next morning. Others must proceed to “plan B,” and Donna is growing increasingly anxious.
Delaney offers Donna his spot, but it isn’t necessary. Someone who made it onto the list doesn’t return to the shelter.
Shaking her head, speaking as though there’s still some chance she might have to fend for herself after all, Donna declares again: “I’m not going into those woods. I can’t.”
While Donna’s fate is decided as darkness falls, hundreds of other homeless in Lawrence face a similar dilemma about where to sleep.
Among them are a KU student scrambling to recover from the sudden loss of a job and the apartment it once paid for; the weather-beaten husband and wife who spend their days in the limbo of an ongoing disability claim; the recovering drug addict who insists he must stay penniless just to remain sober; and the man who’s spent his life riding the rails, convinced his life is wrong, but unable to live it any other way.
These are the stories of the homeless who try to survive in the shelters, beneath the bridges and beyond the woods.
“The woods,” shorthand for the nature preserve along the banks of the Kansas River near the Amtrak station at Seventh and New York streets, is one of a few options for Lawrence’s homeless who do not find — and sometimes do not seek — shelter in one of the city’s emergency facilities. The land, declared a restoration preserve by the City Commission, is covered with a thick canopy of trees, impervious to aerial photography. The area has always been a magnet for the homeless.
But when Lawrence police were dispatched to the woods in October to collect the bodies of Bronson Stanley, 18, of Oklahoma, and Corey O’Connor, 29, of Indiana, who were found dead in a tent, what they found was no longer a campground. They found what could be described only as a growing River City.
Using scrap lumber, homeless residents of the encampment had constructed two semi- permanent structures. According to authorities, the 12-by-20-foot buildings had insulation and battery-powered lights.
Michael Tanner, a street musician who lived in the encampment and who later complained about the site’s destruction to the City Commission, said the buildings could house as many as 50 people.
One week later, after posting 24 hours notice in the preserve, city crews destroyed the camp. They hauled out enough building materials, bicycles and other possessions to fill a dump truck. The camp’s residents scattered.
In the week between the camp’s discovery and its destruction, a third man, John Walters, 59, was found dead about a quarter-mile west of the restoration preserve beneath the Kansas River bridge.
Walters had apparently died of natural causes, in the sense that a 59-year-old man dying under a bridge on a night when the temperature dipped to 27 degrees is natural.
In November, the City Commission discussed ordinances to further restrict both panhandling downtown and overnight camping in public areas such as the restoration preserve, the signature behaviors of the homeless in Lawrence.
As the Midwestern weather turned colder, the three deaths, the destruction of the homeless city and the commission debate gave Lawrence’s homeless something they rarely had: visibility.
According to a 2007 survey, Lawrence has a homeless population of about 300, which includes at least 100 children. The “point-in-time” survey is a bi-annual requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gathering data through interviews conducted in a single 24-hour period.
Privately, some put the city’s homeless population closer to 400 — about half of which are families with children.
Two weaknesses of the HUD survey method is that it counts only individuals who can be directly contacted within a single period of time, and they must be willing to be interviewed.
Against the backdrop of Lawrence’s total population, currently estimated at more than 88,500 by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of homeless seems insignificant.
But when measured against the census population data for the downtown 66044 zip code, where most of the city’s homeless congregate, approximately one out of every 100 downtowners is homeless.
The National Coalition for the Homeless describes the primary cause of homelessness as “a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty.” Beyond poverty and rent, the coalition lists four contributing causes of homelessness: lack of affordable health care, domestic violence, mental illness and addiction disorders.
Beyond these factors are the people themselves. ***
Five days a week, Catherine’s day begins at 4:30 a.m. when the shelter’s night monitor rises from his desk and nudges Catherine awake. Later, he’ll do it again for others needing wakeup calls. Some are day laborers at construction sites. Others do lawn maintenance or repetitive assembly-line labor. For Catherine, it’s custodial work at a hotel — and classes at the University of Kansas.
Catherine, 48, unfurls her blankets and rises from the vinyl on the linoleum floor. The goal is to get up, get coffee, get showered and get out the door without disturbing any of the 30 other people sleeping in the homeless shelter.
Because time management is key, she already has her books with her. At shift’s end, she catches a bus from downtown and onto campus, where she lives out the other half of her
life, as a KU student enrolled in six hours of undergraduate study. Catherine usually spends the remainder of the day in one of the KU libraries before returning to the shelter.
“By eight o’clock, I’m just ready to be done,” Catherine says. “I study as late as I can, but then it’s lights-out at 10 around here, so that’s pretty much that.”
Catherine, who’s been staying at the shelter since early August, was the proverbial American one paycheck away from disaster. When she lost her job in May, Catherine ended up losing both her apartment and most of her possessions by the end of the summer. Friends offered what they could — $50 here, $50 there — but with rent at more than $500 plus utilities, it wasn’t enough.
“Like anyone would, I was pretty much scrambling,” Catherine says.
Although she has two sisters in other states and a brother in Kansas, all of whom are aware of her situation, no one has thus far offered to lend a hand.
“I’m 48 years old. I’m an adult. I’m on my own,” Catherine says.
“My daughter offered to help with $100,” Catherine says. Her daughter, a teenager who lives with Catherine’s ex-husband, was working the concession stand at a public swimming pool at the time.
“She said she’d give me her paycheck to help pay the rent. I told her no. I appreciated it, and of course I cried, but I told her to keep it.”
When she enrolled at the University in the middle of her personal housing crisis, Catherine tried to qualify for student housing.
But between the recently approved four-year tuition compact, an Orange Bowl victory and a men’s basketball national title, the University got a record-breaking fall enrollment this year at 30,102 students, including 4,438 first-time freshmen.
Nontraditional students such as Catherine didn’t stand a chance at getting a spot in the residence halls.
Although she initially enrolled in 12 credit hours, Catherine has since dropped to six to accommodate her work schedule. A bachelor’s degree is part of her long-term plan to get a better job, but the short-term goal is to get out of the shelter by the end of the year.
“It’s hard, once you get here, to dig yourself out of it,” Catherine says. “But it can be done, and I plan on doing it.”
Situations like Catherine’s have become increasingly common over the last decade, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, and are likely to get worse — soon, says Michael Stoops, acting Executive Director.
“How do I say this? There’s a tidal wave coming,” Stoops says. “Over 900,000 Americans have had their homes foreclosed upon. The unemployment rate is the highest it’s been in the last 20 years. Whenever the economy is weak, it causes more people to become homeless.”
For Mark and Leila, life in Lawrence is a waiting game.
Bracing against the chilly wind, glancing up at the black clouds about to dump a near- freezing rain on downtown, Mark spreads a pinch of tobacco along the length of a rolling paper, his fingers yellow with nicotine.
“Some people choose this lifestyle,” Mark says, careful to shepherd any loose tobacco back into a Bugler pouch in his lap. “Other people are just out here on a temporary basis. I’m out here on a disability claim, and I’m gonna buy me a trailer. I’m not going to make this the rest of my life.”
Once a well-known carpenter in Douglas County, Mark, 51, injured his back in 2001. After surgery, Mark couldn’t work and found himself on the streets within a year.
Leila, 38, was once employed as a certified nurse’s assistant but left her job to care for a boyfriend injured in a construction accident. When the relationship turned abusive, Leila says, she left him and her only residence, joining the estimated 10,000 adults who find themselves homeless because of domestic violence each month, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Leila met Mark her second day on the street.
“We just clicked,” Leila says. “We kind of read each other’s thoughts, know what each other is thinking all the time, pretty much. Seemed like the perfect fit.”
On Feb. 9, Mark and Leila were married at the homeless shelter.
“I wasn’t lookin’ for nobody when I found her,” Mark says. “I been divorced for, I don’t know, ten years. She’s my fourth wife.”
“He loves bringing that up,” Leila says.
Five years after filing a Social Security disability claim, Mark is still waiting. His claim is currently on its second appeal.
For Mark and Leila, who often choose to camp near the river rather than endure the crowding and noise of the shelters and anxiety exacerbated by post-traumatic stress disorders, the approaching winter is a reminder of what they’re missing.
“We’re satisfied with our camp — we’re happy there,” Leila says. “But we’d much rather have a house, you know. A place with heat and a refrigerator and a way to cook food where you don’t have to worry about the rain putting your fire out.”
“I could have a job right now if I had a place to live,” she continues. “But I don’t. It’s really hard to work as a nurse’s assistant when you can’t shower every day, and you’ve got dirty fingernails ’cause you live at a campsite — they don’t like to hire people who are dirty like that. They kind of frown on it.”
Mark, who says he has experienced his share of winters outdoors in Lawrence, looks to the future with a stoicism utterly lacking in self-pity.
“You just... deal with it, you know?” Mark says. “Gear up. Nothing else to do. Once you’ve been out here a little while, you come to that realization. I mean, that’s the bottom line.”
Mike can remember the first time he smoked crack as though it were yesterday.
“I was working at AT&T, and I’d just cashed my check,” Mike says. “I went to the bank, took out $1,000, and blew it.”
Mike, 41, arrived in Lawrence from the Kansas City area in 2007. After 10 years of crack addiction, it seemed like the sanest place to go.
“I was to the point in my addiction where I was pawning everything,” Mike says. “Jewelry, flat-screen, pictures, just anything and everything. My ex-wife and I had a long conversation and decided it would be best if I moved out.”
A veteran of the U.S. Army, Mike first left Olathe and went to a veteran’s shelter in Leavenworth, but he was kicked out when administrators caught him using narcotics. When he was later released from a Johnson County detox center, staff members recommended a pair of men’s halfway houses in Lawrence. Kansas City was out of the question, because Mike still had too many viable drug connections there.
“I guess I thought that if I got away from Kansas City, I’d have a better chance,” Mike says. “Which fooled me.”
With the suggested recovery centers full, Mike began staying at the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter. Mike says he prefers it to the community shelter, primarily because it maintains a zero-tolerance stance toward inebriation and even administers Breathalyzer tests to individuals wanting to stay in the facility.
But a short time after his arrival, Mike, who owns a car, gave a ride to two individuals also staying in the shelter, who offered him crack.
“That led to smoking crack, and it just escalated from there,” he says.
During the course of a year, Mike gradually identified his Achilles’ heel: money.
“I don’t have a problem until I get money in my pocket,” Mike says. “Right now, you could probably offer me crack, and I could probably tell you no. But money has always been a trigger for me to go use.”
Which puts Mike in a delicate situation. If the key to escaping homelessness is a job and steady income, and money means a return to drug abuse for Mike, what is the long-term solution?
The short-term solution, apparently, is total garnishment. Currently, Mike works for the Salvation Army, helping to coordinate the local holiday bell-ringing charity campaign, processing applications and driving ringers to their stops.
He says he’s reached an agreement with two of the shelter captains to withhold his paychecks from him for the time being.
“It’s what I wanted, not what they wanted,” Mike says, noting that he’s not too comfortable with the prospect of a looming payday.
Captain Wesley Dalberg, the Salvation Army Corps Officer in charge of Lawrence’s shelter, isn’t particularly surprised that Mike and other homeless individuals eventually make their way here.
“At some point, Lawrence definitely put out the welcome mat for homeless people, there’s no doubt about that,” Dalberg says. “I don’t say that as a negative, but if you build it, they will come.”
Brad Cook, a social worker at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and member of the city’s Homeless Outreach team, says the conventional wisdom of the homeless seeking out Lawrence of their own accord may be missing an ongoing trend.
“The argument is always that there’s an ongoing increase in the homeless population because we have such great services, that it’s a problem that we’re offering services here,” Cook says. “I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe what is happening is that other cities are dumping their clients on us.”
Cook cites clients he is currently treating who were sent directly by institutions such as the Osawatomie State Hospital, the Topeka Rescue Mission, and authorities in Johnson County, where homelessness has been effectively outlawed.
Soon, those other cities will have one fewer Lawrence shelter to rely on. The local Salvation Army has announced it will cease providing an emergency shelter to homeless people — including families with children — sometime in 2009 to focus on transitional housing for families trying to progress to a more stable arrangement.
Their shift from emergency shelter to transitional housing service is in keeping with the position of the Community Commission on Homelessness. They say Lawrence would be better served by a larger version of the community shelter providing all emergency shelter services for the city, freeing the Salvation Army and other providers to focus on other aspects of housing.
“It’s really not possible for any one entity or agency to serve all the needs of all the people in any shelter,” Dalberg says. “You’ll find that although they do have some similarities, each individual has individual needs — they have baggage they carry with them, and I’m not talking about a suitcase.”
Dan glances over his shoulder for cops before slipping between the large aluminum doors that conceal three large dumpsters behind a downtown bookstore.
“You would not believe some of the great shit I find out here sometimes,” Dan says, leaning over the edge of one of the dumpsters, rifling through the discarded magazines on top of the pile.
Three days a week, when the store dumps magazines that have failed to sell, Dan sifts through the dumpsters in search of software magazines. The employees tear off the cover, presumably so that no one tries to later resell them, but Dan isn’t interested in that — he just wants the CD-ROMs often packaged with the magazines.
“Lots of times, they’ll have a complete version of Linux, which is a big find for me,” Dan says. He trades the disks among a small network of local computer enthusiasts for other discards, eventually trading up to something he actually wants, like a USB wireless Internet device for the five-year-old Apple laptop he recently acquired.
But Dan strikes out today. No software. Just a bunch of desecrated fashion magazines that are of no use to anyone now, if they ever were. Not even a sandwich.
“Sometimes you’ll find wrapped up sandwiches, perfectly good,” Dan says. “The gourmet kind.”
Dan’s days are filled with such routines. Not dumpster diving, per se — but a series of tasks designed to occupy his time. The shelter, the free clothing store, the church lunch. They don’t necessarily lead anywhere — they are intentionally ends unto themselves.
“Two or three times a day, I go over to the community center — it’s a free gym,” Dan says. “I go in and ride the elliptical at least twice a day. That’s a cure for the blues right there. If I start feeling blue, I’ll go jump on the elliptical and just ride the hell out of it.”
Between visits to the gym, Dan spends time in the public library, surfing the Web.
“I was a big reader until 1998, when I discovered the Internet,” Dan says. “Now all I read is the CNN Web page. And I listen to a lot of talk radio. Everything I learned about politics, I learned by listening to talk radio.”
At 47, Dan finds himself midway through what is best described as a homeless career. He says he began traveling the country, living off what public resources he could find, when he was 19.
“I’ve been to 45 other states, and lots of towns in each state,” Dan says. “I don’t travel so much anymore. I’m turning into a homebody, probably because of age.”
Dan can’t explain why he’s avoided settling down with a job or a home.
“I wonder myself sometimes,” he says. “I attribute it to weakness of character or bad character — keeps me from doing the right thing. I don’t like it, I just can’t do the other thing: get a job and keep it. I’ve tried it lots of times, too.”
Dan is the contradictory mix of motivation and disinterest that infuriates critics of the homeless. He’s active, cogent and sober — but has no interest in work, in the traditional sense, and though he chastises himself for his self-serving ethics, he doesn’t mind exploiting available resources.
“Trouble is, I agree with almost everything they say,” Dan says of right-wing talk radio hosts. He says he thinks places such as the Lawrence Community Shelter should be shut down. “It would force me to do something else. My heart’s on the right, but I use the left. That’s the way it is. I absolutely know it’s wrong, that they’re enabling us.”
“I’ve become numb to the shame,” he continues. “I remember when I first got started at this, back in my 20s, I was more ashamed of it than I am now. That’s why I like being out on the road — there’s no shame involved. Nobody knows me, and they’re never gonna see me again.”
Dan’s political views lean to the right, but he has no problem with Lawrence’s reputation as a liberal, homeless-friendly city.
“People are civil,” Dan says. “Free clothes, no way to go hungry. Crime’s low, cops are nice. Some place like Tulsa or Oklahoma City, the cops will really beat the shit out of you.”
How Lawrence treats its homeless is actually a topic of some debate. The moment Dan says how gracious Lawrence Police are to the homeless, Fern, a middle-aged woman who frequents the local homeless facilities, says, “I never knew how rough Lawrence was on the homeless until I read it in the paper.”
Fern is likely referring to a 2006 Associated Press article, syndicated in papers across the country, in which the National Coalition for the Homeless described Lawrence as the second-meanest city to homeless in the country.
The criteria for this honor was primarily based on city ordinances such as those banning overnight camping in public spaces and aggressive panhandling. Though Sarasota, Fla., was No. 1, it’s worth noting that Lawrence topped such notable mean competitors as Atlanta, Chicago and New York City.
“Is it legal,” Michael Tanner asked, “for me, or any other homeless person, to protect myself from freezing to death?”
When Tanner posed this question to the Lawrence City Commission in November, the mayor’s chair must have been among the most uncomfortable in the room.
Tanner, who claimed responsibility for the buildup of the homeless encampment near the river, was not asking a hypothetical question. He said he built the campsite as a buttress against the coming cold winter, and now it was gone.
Mayor Mike Dever was at a loss for words. Although news of the Parks and Recreation Department’s dismantling the site was common knowledge by this time, Dever was only then coming to the realization that the city had acted on a standing order from the commission he now led as mayor.
“I don’t consider what we did to be wrong by the law, but I question the action just a little bit,” Dever says. “Not that I’m not supportive of staff, but me, personally, I question it. I didn’t realize the extent of what occurred, and I feel like the timing was poor.”
“I feel for Michael,” Dever says about Tanner. “And I understand that this was an outrage for him.”
For Brad Cook, the social worker at Bert Nash, the mentality behind destroying the campsite is emblematic of the frustration many people working within the social welfare system feel.
“You always hear people criticizing the homeless, saying you have to pick up your bootstraps, and do this, do that,” Cook says. “So you have a group of people here who are living by their own means, taking care of themselves — everything everyone who’s
critical of them wants them to do, and in the ultimate act of hypocrisy, they go in and destroy it.”
Despite the destruction of the homeless encampment near the river, Mayor Dever says it’s important for the city to embrace the homeless population as part of the community.
“There’s an age-old adage that says you can judge a community by how it treats the least among them,” Dever says.
Dever says he’s not swayed by the argument that improving Lawrence’s homeless services will exacerbate the situation by attracting more homeless.
“I think there’s a simple concept of doing what’s in the best interest of the community,” Dever says. “You can’t put in a larger shelter without also putting in place plans to move people from homelessness to a viable society where they’re productive and able to provide for their families and themselves. I think as part of a comprehensive program, we can’t just focus on the shelters. We have to focus on the programs to move people out of homelessness.”
Originally published Dec. 10, 2008, University Daily Kansan (Lawrence, Kan.)