(Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series exploring the worsening plight of homelessness in the Cleveland and Bradley County community. Today's installment takes a look at the challenges faced …
(Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series exploring the worsening plight of homelessness in the Cleveland and Bradley County community. Today's installment takes a look at the challenges faced by many to overcome their homelessness."
While there are many individuals and groups aiming to help Cleveland’s homeless population, people who are homeless still face many challenges as they try to find stability again.
One of the main challenges several who have been homeless described is how the general public tends to view the homeless. This can make tasks like finding employment and housing even harder.
“When you’re homeless, people look at you totally differently. They’d rather cross the street than talk to you,” said Detrick Sizemore, who currently lives on the streets of downtown Cleveland. “That makes every day harder, but it really doesn’t help with jobs either.”
Karen Cross, director of the New Life Community Kitchen in downtown Cleveland, said she has heard similar stories from others who are homeless. She said feeling others are avoiding them can add insult to injury at a time when they need encouragement to help them overcome homelessness.
Cross told the story of a homeless single mother who was “in tears” one day. She had been walking downtown with her child when she noticed another mother and child were walking from the opposite direction. The other mother immediately grabbed her child’s hand and crossed the street to avoid her.
Stories like this are not uncommon. Cross said she understands that some people might cross the street to avoid panhandling, but this can be hard for homeless people who crave the kind of friendly human interaction others get to experience.
“I wish people would realize they’re human beings, too, and there is trauma that comes with being homeless,” Cross said. “They are still human. They still feel, they cry, and they notice when you try to avoid them.”
Donald Garner, a single father who was once homeless for 21 consecutive years, happily shared he is now in a stable living situation with his 10-year-old son. He said positive relationships are what helped him overcome homelessness. Things like food pantries helped him survive, but people taking the time to get to know him and help him learn valuable life and job skills made the biggest difference.
Homeless people “a lot of times get looked over and blackballed,” Garner said. A lot of that has to do with them sometimes having a dirty or disheveled appearance; they may not always have access to showers or laundry facilties.
However, Garner argued people who are homeless usually have as much potential as anyone else. They just have more to overcome as they search for jobs, housing and more.
Sizemore pointed out many people find new job opportunities through networking, but networking can be difficult for the homeless. Because they may lack nice, clean clothes and other resources, many are not able to display the clean-cut appearance — and confidence — they need to network for jobs.
Diana Whittle, who has been homeless several times in the past, said people who are homeless “feel a real sense of isolation.” They may try to hide their homelessness as they search for work and other opportunities, but they are often struggling to find food and shelter each day.
Sizemore said another one of his biggest challenges has been securing the government-issued identification he needs to stay in the Cleveland Emergency Shelter and to begin working at a new job. Chris Hood, who also lives on the streets of Cleveland, said he has also faced the challenge of losing his identification.
Sizemore noted it is fairly common for people who are homeless to lose important documents, because it is common for people on the streets to have their belongings stolen. Getting a replacement driver’s license or identification-only license in Tennessee requires original documents proving U.S. citizenship and Tennessee residency.
Hood said it can also be difficult to know where to sleep if one cannot stay in the Cleveland Emergency Shelter, which requires people staying there to show IDs. Most public parks in Cleveland have operating hours which prohibit use after 10 p.m., and sleeping on private property is not a legal option unless the owner gives permission.
“Everyone basically walks around all night,” Hood said. “What else are we gonna do?”
Hood said it can also be hard to find a place to spend time during the day. The Cleveland Emergency Shelter expects people to leave before it closes at 8 a.m. daily. Other than places like the public library, he said homeless people have few places they feel welcome.
Many who have been homeless, as well as leaders of local charitable organizations, have said the local homeless community could benefit from a “day center” where they could spend their time and perhaps work on things like job applications.
Leaders of local charitable organizations note that perhaps the biggest problem of all is something which leads many to become homeless in the first place — high housing costs.
Eva VanHook, executive director of Family Promise of Bradley County, said many new apartments and houses have been built in Cleveland in recent years, but their costs are out of reach for many on low incomes. VanHook added the Cleveland Housing Authority, which oversees public housing facilities, has a waiting list right now.
Corinne Freeman, executive director of The Caring Place, said many individuals and families have found themselves in precarious financial positions thanks to rising housing costs. Some struggle to pay the rent on a good day, and when situations like job layoffs or health emergencies happen, they are at risk of homelessness.
“We are growing as a community, and because of the demand for and lack of housing, landlords can charge a really high, competitive rate,” Freeman said. “That’s how the market works, but it is challenging for our neighbors who are struggling.”
Freeman said the pay offered by many local employers simply is not increasing at the same pace as local housing costs. That fact, when paired with the fact one must cover other expenses as well, is putting some individuals and families in a financially precarious position.
For example, Freeman said she knows of a single mother with two kids who makes $12 an hour, which is a full $4.75 above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Still, she struggles to pay for housing, food, clothing, health care, transportation, childcare and everything else her family needs.
Freeman said those trying to support themselves on jobs which are at, or close to, minimum wage tend to struggle even more. While housing costs have increased steadily in recent years, the federal minimum wage has remained the same since 2009. Some states have chosen to instate higher minimum wages, but Tennessee is not among them.
Other challenges mentioned included limited health care, mental health services and addiction rehab services for low-income individuals, as well as limited public transportation options.
Garner said a homeless person having to figure out where to get necessities like food, shelter and transportation, while also trying to find work and other opportunities, can be quite difficult — especially if one has children.
However, he believes that if more people would build positive relationships with the homeless, more would overcome homelessness. They would ideally receive encouragement and help learning about things like budgeting and the unspoken social rules "you don't learn on the street."
“If they want to really help homeless people, they’ve got to give their time,” said Garner. “Money’s not anything. They’ve got to get out here in this community and help the ones that want to be helped, and they’ve got to get to know them.”
(Next: A look at the impact of homelessness on a community, especially the downtown district and how it is being handled by the Cleveland Police Department.)
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