For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

Miscellany/Keith Jacobs

Miscellany/Keith JacobsJohn Holmes has made it his mission to fight the negative stereotype of homelessness.

Retired from the U.S. Navy, Holmes is smart, articulate and energetic. He has taken a leadership role in the grassroots movement Homeless Helping Homeless in Columbia.

Holmes is uniquely qualified to talk about the needs of homeless people because he has been one of them, off and on, for about six years now.

“Every situation is different for every homeless person,” he said. “We’re all just people, and there are salvageable people in all categories of life.”

He said it is a misconception to think homeless people are lazy, or that every person on the street is a drug addict or alcoholic. While it’s true that many bottom out because of substance abuse, there are other stories too.

Staff members at outreach centers said they see more and more homeless families.

Some people balance so precariously on the financial edge that even one unexpected expense can push them off, and it’s a quick slide from an eviction notice to the street.

Anita Floyd, vice president of community impact at United Way of the Midlands, said people often have nowhere to turn because their extended family and friends are also on the margins and have already doubled up their living space, or just can’t afford to help.

These are families in crisis, where parents are working two and three minimum-wage jobs and barely surviving, said Steffanie Godsill, director of development at Crisis Ministries in Charleston.

“They are the most impoverished of our society,” she said.

Last year, the housing shelter had 99 children pass through, which is double the normal number, Godsill said.

They also see many veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorders and people with mental health issues who fall through society’s cracks.

Godsill said it can take up to a year for a veteran’s papers to process before they start receiving benefits. Stress disorders go untreated and these men and women who served their country end up on the street. Sometimes, they lose their way.

They are among the chronic homeless that are seen each year during the Homeless Count. This is a national service required by the department of housing and urban development that has thousands of volunteers conduct a one-night census of people living on the street.

Last year, Floyd said they counted 4,664 in South Carolina. That figure includes anyone staying in a shelter or transitional housing. It does not include folks living with friends and family.

She said it is only a representative count because homeless people can be hard to find, especially those in rural areas.

Keith Bourne, from the Moncks Corner area, was one of those invisible men for a long time.

A U.S. Army veteran, he said he slept wherever he could: the woods, an abandoned store porch, a rundown shed.

“I moved from one hole to the next,” Bourne said.

It’s a world where only other homeless know the terrain. In Columbia, Holmes and his group helped other volunteers find the camps and hidden holes used by homeless people. Some took pictures, trying to capture the utter despair of the situation.

“Pitiful doesn’t even begin to convey it,” said Floyd.

Holmes said the groups in camps and abandoned structures are the hardcore homeless, the ones who refuse to go to shelters. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of them.

At 55, Holmes is a recovering drug addict diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. He started off studying for a career in medicine, but ended up working just to support his habit. It was a downward spiral until he ended up with nothing.

Then, about a year ago, he asked God for help and found himself with a flyer for Homeless Helping Homeless. To be part of the group, a homeless person must attend three meetings and participate in a volunteer project. After that, they get first priority for jobs, Holmes said.

After he attended his first rally, he decided to take an active part and said the group has been a huge success. They break stereotypes and even have a representative on the Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless.

“You have to show a commitment to helping yourself,” he explained.

It’s not easy, though. This group of society is so desperate, they want things done yesterday, Holmes said. Keeping them involved is difficult because the dim hope they have fades fast, turning to frustration and despondency.

Especially when so much time is taken up with survival.

Holmes said homelessness may not be a crime, but trespassing is, and so is loitering and vagrancy. Every day is a battle to find a temporary job, food and a place to rest.

For awhile, he lived in a tent in the woods, with just the animals for neighbors, and said it was peaceful. He hated the idea of shelter living, which he described as loud and potentially dangerous.

“Your average young buck won’t quiet down ’til midnight,” Holmes said. “Then you have those with mental issues who talk to themselves.” Sleep is hard to come by, with maybe four or five hours of quiet.

He ended up in a shelter, though, after he went to visit his family for a couple of days and came back to find everything had been stolen – tent, sleeping bags, blankets, tools, clothes – all of it was gone.

It turned out to be a blessing. Holmes has been clean for almost a year, and is hoping to move into transitional housing soon.

Shelter officials said that is their hope for every homeless person. All it takes is one key change and some structured assistance.

Bourne knows all about the importance of change.

Consumed by alcohol, he was letting his life slip away. On the streets in rural Berkeley County, he said there isn’t even a luxury of a soup kitchen serving hot meals.

The churches help feed the poor with bags of groceries, but Bourne said he had no use for things he had to cook, like rice and pasta. So he traded those items for beer and a meal, and lived off potato chips.

He said his survival instincts kept him alive, guiding him to hidden places to sleep. He learned to set bottles of water in the sun so he could take a warm “shower,” noting that keeping clean is one of the hardest parts of being homeless.

It took the death of his sister, also an alcoholic, and the tough love of his family to bring him to the shelter.

Now he’s sober, has a job through the VA hospital, and is following the rules and assistance of the program at Crisis Ministries.

“I’ve never been happier,” he said. “I haven’t beat this thing yet, but I have a positive attitude. I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m going to make my daughter proud of me again.”

Holmes is also determined to make it.

He said the three biggest needs of homeless people trying to get on their feet are housing, jobs and medical care.

“People are quick to feed, but as for putting people to work, it’s not happening,” Holmes said.

He suggested every church enact their social teaching and hire one homeless person to work.

In the meantime, he will keep going to chapel, studying the Bible and praying for the strength to make it work.

Read more in Homelessness: A dangerous world