In a sense, Emmanuel Fellowship was homeless. The church began in Johnston Park and for about five years, the congregation met Saturday evenings at Keith Street Ministries before moving to its current location in 2012. For that reason, and the fact that two homeless men began attending services, the church began looking for ways to help.
“We started having homeless people come by the church because of Greg Culp, really,” said church member Ron Gilbert. “His ministry has been bringing people in, so we asked ourselves what we could do.”
One of the two homeless men, Roy, is in Bradley County Jail for parole violation.
The church does not have the resources to feed others on a regular basis and neither Gilbert nor Father Mitch Baker wanted to start something they could not continue. Estimates place the homeless population in Cleveland from 300 to 500 to as high as 1,500 people.
“I know there are 500 and probably more because some of them stay hid, they don’t want you to know where they’re at and there are others staying with friends. They’re not in the elements, but they are still technically homeless,” he said.
Some of Gilbert’s acquaintances say it is a waste to try to help where help is unwanted. A post on Facebook stated, "Don't help these homeless they are drunks or on drugs and when they get hungry enough and cold, they can get a job."
But, Gilbert said the blankets are free. Receiving a blanket has nothing to do with the receiver’s spirituality or their intentions to remain homeless or rejoin mainstream society.
“We decided to give away blankets because it was tangible. We could do it out of the church and we felt like it was something nobody else was doing,” Gilbert said. “The difference is, we’re trying to do them one-on-one rather than telling people to come to the church and get your blanket.”
The gray blankets are a 30 percent wool polyester blend embroidered with “The Lord Most High covers me like a blanket under the shelter of his wings” taken from Psalm 91.
Gilbert depends on Culp to show him where homeless people are and to act as an intermediary.
“They trust Greg where they don’t trust me,” he said. “And, he knows where the people are.”
Culp, 54, is homeless in his own hometown where he has lived all his life with the exception of about 14 months where he worked in Middle Tennessee.
“I’ve got a two-year degree in architecture but I can’t use it because everything is done on computers and I’d have to go back to school for awhile,” he said in a recent interview. “I can draw a set of house plans by hand. It might take me a week, but I can.”
But, he says he cannot get a drafting job because he does not know Computer Aided Drafting. Asked if he would like to know CAD, “Oh yeah, that way I’d have a good job and I’d be off the streets in a heartbeat. I do odd jobs now when I can, but nothing steady.”
The main reason Culp became homeless was, “I was an alcoholic for 30 years. I worked. I’ve got a good work record but my attendance record wasn’t so good. I was a good worker. You can ask anybody I ever worked for and they’ll tell you I worked.”
Culp has worked in a chair factory, stove factory, about 12 different restaurants and at Labor Ready as a day laborer where he was paid at the end of the day.
“When they shut that down, that’s what made it really hard on me because that was almost like having a regular job. I had an apartment and everything,” he said. “If someone would go ahead, even if they paid me less to start with and either teach me themselves so I don’t have to go back to school or help me go to school out at Cleveland State, then I could get a job anywhere.”
But, he said, employers fear he will start drinking again though Culp insisted he has learned his lesson but no one will give him a chance. He said he is still “technically” an alcoholic because there is always a chance of a relapse, “but if you’ve got the will power, you won’t.”
He dresses well because he does not want to look homeless.
“I am the best dressed homeless man in town so maybe someone will give me a job,” he said.
He attended Alcoholics Anonymous until he tired of hearing the same things repeatedly. He attends two churches “so that’s a little extra support there.”
But, his will power diminished recently and he fell off the wagon a few weeks ago.
When asked why, he said, “They say it’s hereditary.”
Culp says he does not like being homeless and living on the streets, but he has adapted. On a daily basis, his main priority is shelter. For now, he has a small tent on the edge of a parking lot at an apartment complex.
“You can get food,” he said. “There are churches that might give you a box full of food once a month.”