By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Winter’s a hard time to be homeless. Greg, age 43, and Tim, age 27, sat in the Food & Shelter cafeteria on Friday enjoying lunch and the warmth of the downtown shelter. They were in a jovial mood, grateful to have something to eat and a warm place to sleep.
For Tim, the warm place to sleep was the Food & Shelter temporary, overnight shelter started with the help of city funds during winter months because the numbers of homeless in Norman exceeded shelter beds. The winter weather program is about three years old.
“I got a phone call from one of my constituents who told me about a woman who got released from Cleveland County Detention Center and almost froze because she had no where to go,” said Norman City Council member Tom Kovach. “She was wearing shorts. She was released in the evening and in the morning the Food and Shelter folks found her outside nearly frozen to death.”
Food & Shelter Executive Director April Doshier came up with the idea to open the shelter at night with a paid monitor to oversee the crowds. The city helps pay for the monitor.
“Lord knows how many lives we’ve saved,” Kovach said. “The measure of a society is how it treats the least fortunate of its members. Norman isn’t about to let people freeze to death on the streets.”
With freezing temperatures and wintry weather, the temporary shelter was crowded Thursday night.
“It was one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen here,” Tim said. “It was packed in here.”
Greg, who normally camps said he came in out of the cold as well.
“I got lucky,” Greg said. “I crashed with a friend.”
For a time, Greg lived in hotels but that was costly. He started living outside in mid-July. It’s not his first experience with homelessness, he said. In years past, he learned survival skills from a World War II veteran. One year, he dug a trench, used a tarp as a cover and cut a hole to let the smoke from a fire out. He said he was warm as toast that year.
He hasn’t always been so lucky. Greg remembers one frigid night when he dug into the wood chips under a big play toy at one of the city’s parks in an effort to stay warm.
“I played gopher,” he said.
Tim said his worst night was in a large culvert long enough to allow someone to get out of sight. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing the wrong direction and the culvert became a very cold wind tunnel.
There are dangers beside inclement weather when you live on the streets, the men said. The homeless have been attacked by “college-aged kids” recently. These young adults jump homeless people and steal their backpacks and duffel bags — essentially all of their belongings — and often beat them badly.
“They literally take everything they can from us,” said Tim. “Just because they can.”
“It’s a game to them,” Greg said.
He said an older, very nice man known in the homeless population as Squirrel was badly beaten and hospitalized recently.
The campsites of the homeless also get raided. The police are sympathetic but say there’s not much they can do. Greg has been robbed and lost everything and was disappointed the police wouldn’t come to his camping spot and do a police report.
“The best thing I can say is ‘get off the street’” a policeman told Greg.
Greg said when the homeless are victims of crime, it’s hard to prove.
“Who’s going to believe the homeless guy?” he said.
Greg said he camps with permission from the property owner.
“As long as we have permission they can’t make us leave,” Tim said. “That’s one thing in our favor.”
Beat officers who recognize the homeless are usually friendly enough, but others keep a watchful eye and that can be troubling for people who just want to survive, the men said. They understand and don’t blame police for watching them, but it doesn’t feel good all the same.
Both Greg and Tim have hope for the future but know it won’t be easy. Greg said he is working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and saving every penny so that he can join his wife and daughter in Indiana.
“Nobody would rent me an apartment right now,” Greg said. “My credit is shot. It’s almost impossible to get off the streets if you’ve been on them for awhile.”
Once you’ve been evicted and with no recent rent history, it’s hard to get an apartment, Greg said. He said his homelessness is based on a “series of unfortunate events” and that he doesn’t do drugs or have a drinking problem. He’s not eligible for assistance.
“DHS said I made too much money — I’m trying to figure out how minimum wage at 15 hours a week is too much money,” Greg said.
He is hoping to eventually open a blacksmith shop in Indiana. Working with steel is what he loves.
Tim said he’s been staying at Food and Shelter “off and on” for three weeks and every night for the last week and a half. At the shelter, there’s a lot of friendly support.
“Being homeless is one of those situations if we don’t look out for each other, who will?” Tim said.
There are programs for housing now, but a lot of those programs require the recipient have a job.
“They don’t want to send anybody back to the streets,” Tim said. “Their goal is to get us all off the streets.”
Tim is currently looking for a job. He doesn’t have a vehicle, but that doesn’t have to hold him back.
“They give bus passes here,” he said
Still, an employment application requires an address, and many employers have become familiar with the Food and Shelter address. Tim and Greg said the homeless are often distrusted and turned away because of stereotypes.
“I can do about anything,” Tim said. “I grew up on a farm. The majority of people in here, you give us a shot and we’ll be the hardest workers.”
In addition to overcoming stereotypes, the homeless have to compete with teens for minimum wage jobs, they said.
“One of the things I really want to do is go back to school and get a degree in business,” Tim said.
He said he is drug free and has no criminal history.
Tim and Greg are clean, well-mannered, and have a good vocabulary. Greg has a GED and a higher ed degree. Tim has a high school diploma, an associates degree and a few hours toward a bachelors degree.
“If someone would have told me a year ago I’d end up homeless, I’d have laughed,” Tim said.
He said he was making $400 a week and had a good job and a vehicle, but bad choices landed him where he is. The primary bad choice was that he spent all of his money instead of saving some. When hard times came and he lost his job, there was nothing to fall back on.
“Everybody lumps the homeless into you’re a drunk or a druggie or a convict,” Tim said. “There are the drunk homeless but the majority of us are very respectable and respectful.”
At Food and Shelter the homeless and others struggling with hunger can get two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. Salvation Army serves dinner and, in severe weather, Food & Shelter also provides dinner.
While many dining at Food & Shelter on Friday were witty and charming like Greg and Tim, there were those who appeared to be dealing with mental health issues. One man sat quietly alone at the cafeteria table, sorting and rearranging a small collection of items over and over. Those treasures included tin cans, a twig with pine needles and other eclectic items with value only he seemed privy to.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe metal illness.
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