My article earlier this week about panhandling elicited more comments than any article I’ve written in over a year, and perhaps ever. For the most part, I think the conversation was really good. Panhandling is a tough problem and the related topic of homelessness, into which we inevitably slipped, is even more confounding. I’d like to continue the conversation on the assumption that none of us want people to be without a home and that we’d all like to see a solution to an intractable problem.
During our discussion one person who joined in was “Ex-Homeless Person.” His comments caught my attention and probably yours, as well. He contacted me later and we began an online conversation that culminated with the two of us meeting for coffee. He agreed to tell his story, not that his is representative of everyone who becomes homeless and not because he claims to have answers anymore than the rest of us, but because the telling of it might help us all gain greater insight into how homelessness can happen to good people.
He is clearly bright and articulate, though he says he suffers from serious social anxiety. Some of the details may be inconsistent – he has a hard time remembering some of the specifics. He agreed to the use of his first name and his last initial: Michael T. Here’s his story.
Born in Morristown in 1974, his alcoholic father abused his mother, but she stayed too long. Eventually she left him, but had a mental break and was institutionalized at Lakeshore Mental Hospital. Michael was two years old when his grandmother took him briefly, but was unable to care for him and he entered state’s custody. After a series of three foster homes, of which he says he was abused in two, he was taken in by an aunt and uncle in Texas.
He was three-years-old when he arrived there and he considers his aunt and uncle good parents, though while he was with them he reports being molested and raped by cousins. At an early age he thought they were his biological parents. That myth was shattered at Christmas in 1985 when his grandmother traveled to Texas with the word that his biological mother was dying of cancer. He chose to move back to Morristown to live with her and assumes she wanted to make amends, though her continuing mental health issues made that impossible.
He recalls arriving in Tennessee in March of 1986 in the middle of a snow storm. It was the beginning of a mental storm of questions: “Why did my mother let me go?” “Why didn’t my grandmother keep me?” He describes his years from eleven to fifteen as, “drifting.”
He became depressed and at fifteen tried to kill himself – the first of two suicide attempts he mentioned. Placed in an in-patient facility in Morristown, he refused to participate and was released after thirty days. Life continued to be difficult. The only financial support for the family came from state programs. No one worked and he was often hungry.
He got a job as soon as possible, working as a cook at McDonald’s and that was when he began to acknowledge his bi-polar disorder. He found his thoughts constantly scattered and fixated on the worst things in his life. He missed large amounts of school but says he did well when he was there and remembers with some pride doing, “three weeks work in two hours,” to pass a class.
The aunt and uncle from Texas moved to Virginia and he began to shift regularly between them, his mother and his grandmother through his late teens and into his early twenties. In 1994 his mother died and almost exactly three years later, so did his grandmother. He often felt he was a burden, though he continued to work. A McDonald’s job in Virginia gave him enough money to buy a car.
He moved back to Tennessee and says, “Everything was chaotic.” He was not medicated and, “most jobs didn’t last more than about three months.” He says he’s had over fifty-five jobs that he can remember. He moved in with his sister and her husband. His brother-in-law got him a job at a heat treatment plant where he worked as a temp worker for three months before he got on as a regular employee. He says he made good money – about twice minimum wage – and kept the job for a year, which is easily the longest he’s ever worked at one place.
He married and had four children, though he couldn’t remember with certainty when they got married. Those years, he says, were marked with paranoia. He would miss a day of work, internally abuse himself for doing so and become paranoid others were talking about it. He became depressed and moved back to Virginia. Their life was difficult and they were sporadically homeless, though not on the street. They found places to crash with friends and relatives. He returned to Tennessee and in 2011 his wife asked for a divorce and he packed a garbage bag of clothes and walked out.
He stayed for a time in two different homeless shelters in Morristown, then moved in with another sister and her husband in Rogersville. He soon learned the two were hooked on pain pills and after the third time they accused him of stealing their pills, he moved out, first onto the back porch in the middle of winter and, by mid 2014, he moved in with a woman in Morristown, though he says that didn’t last long.
An old friend took him to Kingsport where he stayed in the Salvation Army shelter for six months before being asked to leave. He moved into a Christian homeless center in Kingsport, then lived with a friend on his couch until there was trouble and he moved to another friend’s couch. He realized this wasn’t the life he wanted to live and decided to come to Knoxville when another homeless person told him that was a place where they’d help a person “get on their feet.”
While he considered it, he says life was difficult in Kingsport. He said the police are “hard core,” and will, “arrest people for being on the street.” He had to sleep out of sight and hide. He said often people in the homeless community would get drunk or high and become violent. He’d had one arrest and it scared him. He was being recruited for the KKK and he feared going to prison.
He put an ad on Craigslist asking for a ride to Knoxville and offering his only money – twenty dollars – for gas. He arrived and began the Launch Point program through KARM which he says, “shows homeless people how to use support services” with the goal of getting off the street. He signed a lease for subsidized housing and moved into Flenniken Landing, one of the supportive homes built by the city.
He’s been there since October of 2014 and reports he is seeing the doctor and therapists. Diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, depression, high blood pressure, ADHD and COPD, he can’t hold a regular job. Work or volunteer hours are required to maintain food stamps, so he does light cleaning around the apartment complex.
When asked his opinion about the topic that drew him into the conversation earlier this week, he struggles as much as the rest of us to find solutions. He mentioned more patrols and enforcement. He also said he, “hates to say it,” but the homeless shelters should be moved farther out of downtown. He says giving money to panhandlers, “enables them to continue their current lifestyle.” He says vouchers would replace money as currency on the street if that idea was implemented.
While saying not to enable people in their own self-destruction, he says it is important to “see the person who is there,” saying the act of recognition matters. “If you enable, you are not helping, but be compassionate.”