What is a near-homeless man to do?

A few weeks ago, I was reacquainted a with a near-homeless guy — let’s call him Thomas — whom I first met about three years ago at Room at the Inn.

He came to Missouri to care for his grandmother, who has since passed away. He has had several low-skill jobs over the years. He reminds me of about a dozen other guys — and a couple of women — I have met who fall through the cracks of Columbia’s social services.

While they may not have “had it all,” they were once independent and had some sort of “home.”

I saw Thomas last May when he called to me from across the street. He ran over and told me about a potential job. I gave him a ride and a few dollars for work clothes so he could go to the job interview.

He got the job. Life was looking up until he was hit by a car that failed to stop at an intersection, for which there is a police report.

He was left with several physical problems that prevent him from working and getting around on a bike. He can’t walk more than 50 feet and looks unable and unkempt.

Thomas was treated at a local hospital for the accident-related injuries and then turned out without warm clothes. “I was quivering like a fish out of water,” he told me.

City buses were not in service — and this is not the first I’ve heard of this problem.

Thomas is now couch surfing. He says, “it’s unsatisfactory, but I’m making the best of it because it’s warm.” He makes a little money cleaning up outside a fast food restaurant.

Thomas has asked me for money so he could eat, and I have given a few dollars each time. I have never seen him flying a sign (i.e. panhandling). I have not detected alcohol or drugs, but I have little experience with that.

Columbia should be grateful for the Turning Point day center, the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, the “housing first” effort and regular beds at Harbor House, the emergency shelter at True North and the seasonal shelter Room at the Inn.

I know former guests of Room at the Inn, formerly homeless men and women, who now have housing. There are many people who have been nourished at Loaves and Fishes through the efforts of hundreds of volunteers.

I vote for expanding all these needed services, but I know that just increasing the number and size of services is not enough.

Thomas hasn’t been able to fully benefit from these services because he hasn’t connected with another human who can do what he needs. What he needs most is transportation and a supportive environment such as a family, a church and perhaps some neighbors.

It’s easy to blame him. Suppose I became concerned that I had developed an addiction of one form or another. Would I know what to do or where to go for treatment?

If you read about me in the newspaper, you would say, “But there is Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. There is the Employee Assistance Program and the Health Department. How didn’t he know? Why didn’t he ask someone?”

Like many, if not most people, I wouldn’t know what to do because of my temperament, my lack of experience and my uncertainty and fear.

Thomas needs a lawyer to settle his injury case and someone to help him through the disability maze. He has visited several plaintiff lawyers, but they tell him they are too busy.

Lawyers and potential employers would have difficulty reaching him because he no longer has a phone or an address.

Thomas told me “they probably can’t make much money helping a poor black man.” I know about the inadequate public defender services in Missouri, but the lack of legal services to allow poor people to get civil justice keeps them poor.

My fear is that the driver who hit Thomas is uninsured or of low income. If so, Thomas will be among the permanently poor.

If his present couch surfing host gets tired of him, or moves, Thomas is back to Room at the Inn in the winter and then back to the streets, still carrying his pain.

Being unsheltered is being unconnected. More than once I have heard homeless adults shout, “I have NO place to go” when a volunteer at Loaves and Fishes or Room at the Inn, such as myself, or a security guard at the public library nudges them at closing time.

Thomas told me, “All I want is peace.” He added, “Maybe it’s an age thing. My grandma used to say that. Back then, I didn’t know what peace she was looking for, but now I do. I need a steady place to stay, a job, my own stuff — then I will have peace.”

Last Sunday I gave Thomas another ride. He had been in so much pain, he called 911 and was treated overnight at a local hospital again. When he was discharged, he was 3.8 miles from his couch. And buses don’t run on Sunday.

When I think back on the hundreds of men and women who have passed through Room at the Inn, my eyes tell me that most are “transitional” like Thomas. A little of the right help, at the right time, would get them back on their feet and on a path of independence.

It will take a lot of caring citizens to keep Thomas and folks like him from falling through the cracks.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

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