The Mission

Let me take a moment to give you a general layout of the mission where I spent 6 months.  It was built in 1999 and replaced an older building that once stood in what is now the parking lot of the current mission.  The mission is in West Greenville near some rather poor neighborhoods.  Gentrification is slowly taking bits of that area of the city but it has not overcome most of the blocks of poverty yet.  The old mission used to be next door to an old rooming house that was apparently a location for just about any kind of vice one can imagine.  That building was knocked down a while back but long time residents still remember things like drugs being passed to men in the mission by tennis balls thrown over the wall.

The homeless mill back and forth between this area and the revitalized downtown of Greenville.  A walk around downtown takes visitors past many wonderful shops, coffee houses, restaurants and scenic parks.  As one follows the paths that sometimes go under bridges that carry busy roads it is easy to miss what I came to think of as the “hardcore” homeless living in the dark corners.  While I don’t meant to suggest that there is currently enough space in the homeless shelters of Greenville to accommodate everyone who needs a place to stay on any given day, most people could find a place in one of the shelters within a few days if they wanted to.  However, there is a contingent of the homeless that for one reason or another do not want to live at shelters.  Some simply do not want to follow the rules against alcohol and drug use or some of the other policies.  Others cannot be safely housed with others because of their behavioral or mental problems.

On cold nights (below 40) the Greenville Rescue Mission opens its “Cold Weather Shelter” where anyone can come to stay warm(er) for the night at least.  Security is a prime consideration that most people don’t think about when society wonders why there aren’t more places that can be open to shelter the homeless.  One cannot simply open the doors to the gym of the mission and let people come in without searching for weapons or having security present all through the night.

I had a chance to meet many of the men who stayed in the mission on the “homeless” side during my time there.  The “whys” that bring a man to live in a mission are many.  I met men that were homeless following an extended prison stay.  I knew of men who were professionals whose every possession was taken away as a result of judgments against them for “white collar crime”.  One man was apparently a professional airline pilot at one time and was now reduced to picking up cargo runs following his prison stay and loss of his license to pilot passenger craft.  Another man told me that over 20 years ago he had simply decided that he had enough of married life, left his wife and daughter and began travelling.  For the past couple of decades he had drifted from one location to another, never living anywhere more than a few months.  He estimated that in all that time he had spent perhaps 6 months in a dwelling of his own provision.  Otherwise he was under the sky or in a shelter.  I met a man who had multiple campsites hidden all around Greenville.  When he was tired he simply went to his closest temporary home.  As far as he knew his tents and possessions were still right where he left them in the midst of the town in unnoticed locations.

Often young men would come through the mission.  They were perhaps just over 18 or in their early 20’s.  Usually they had run away or simply decided that they didn’t want to live by their parent’s rules any longer.  The scary part was to sit in the mission library and see the two ends of the spectrum.  In one chair one might see a man in his 50’s arguing loudly over a game of checkers with another man who had seen decades drift away with absolutely nothing to show for the spent years.  A few feet away an 18 year old boy would be talking some nonsense about a video game they could no longer even afford or indeed had a place to play if they could.  It was the same person really, just with half a century or so between them.

I’d say the most notable thing about many of the men in the mission is their unwillingness or inability to grow up.  I do not speak of simply retaining the joys of youth that can be retained into maturity.  The men there who seem unable to break the cycles that keep them in missions are the ones who simply never obtain the willingness to take on any long term responsibility.  I saw inarguable evidence that a man who chooses to be idle and carefree can easily do so for the entirety of a very long life.  I’m sure that there are many who never make it that far but that lifestyle is quite survivable with a little cunning, luck and by means of a few services provided by both private and public organizations.

My contact with the homeless up to this point was minimal.  Now that I think of it, minimal to the point of none.  To borrow from Spinal Tap, how much more minimal could it be and I think, “None, none more minimal.”  I don’t suppose that is all that uncommon though.  Though on reflection, I (and you indeed) might have met, talked with, known a homeless person without ever realizing it.  The obvious ones: the ones in dirty clothes, long greasy hair carrying battered packs or bags are one group, but there are others I know who you might strike up a conversation with in downtown Greenville at the park, library or a coffee shop and you would most likely never know they were “one of those homeless people” unless they volunteered the information.

Were you to visit your local mission you would doubtlessly find many interesting people.  They have amazing stories to tell and you will learn a lot.  Your temptation may well be to help them in some way because many of them will seem to just be missing an only an “opportunity” to get themselves straightened out.  I wouldn’t advise anyone who feels led to help someone else to not do it however I do think that if you want to reach out to people in this situation one should do so with eyes wide open.  Be prepared for your generosity to show little apparent fruit.  Keep in mind that if someone seems intelligent, well spoken, talented, gifted and otherwise personable and still finds themselves chronically in a rescue mission or homeless then there is an often hidden piece of the puzzle that may not be readily apparent.  It could be something as profound as a mental illness or even simple laziness or even that that person simply doesn’t place a high value on the kind of home and job stability that most of us hold so dear.

That being said, nothing you ever do for someone else is ever truly wasted.  I learned that some of the homeless were exactly who I thought they were but I learned that many of them were somewhat surprising.  Missions and shelters are amazing places.  There are good ones and bad ones.  Some truly want to help others.  Some are little more than scams that keep their residents under their control by demanding amazingly high “rent” or percentages of their wages for jobs that the facilities help them get.  Some are safer than others.  Some tolerate no drugs, alcohol or dangerous behavior and others are little more than subsidized crack houses.

My friends and family were somewhat concerned for my safety while in the program.  In the case of the Greenville Rescue Mission I had little to fear.  Clients who are belligerent or dangerous are not admitted at all if their behavior is known and nobody who refuses to follow the rules is retained as a client.  An unfortunate yet necessary part of the safe operation of a mission like GRM is that they do not take severely disturbed or mentally unstable people.  On the one hand I often saw profoundly troubled people who had no place to go.  Some people just seemed to shuffle between state and county services, the police and what few services they were eligible for.  Frankly, the mission side and the Overcomers were filled with convicted criminals.  Some of them had done some truly horrible and violent things.  I met many men whose lives have been changed and were it not for that change they would have been dangerous to be around them at all.  I met men who had killed, knifed, shot, stabbed, beaten, robbed, home invaded, and worse.  I found myself in a situation once that I was told quite frankly by one man had it happened in prison I’d have found myself laying on the floor of a shower with multiple leaks having sprung forth from my person.

There is something in the make-up of the chronically homeless that keeps them there.  There were several men that I met during my time at GRM who had considerable skill in valuable areas.  Some were truly amazing cooks.  Others were skilled tradesmen.  It was not uncommon for these men to find a good job and move out and seemingly get their lives together and then within a few weeks be back again.  Some men had cycled in and out of the mission in Greenville or in surrounding cities or counties for years.

The cliché would be that “people are the same all over” and while my experience is that yes, these men are very much like you and me in many ways, there is also, in the case of many of them, something different.  There is a wanderlust.  There is a profound disregard for the stability that we cherish.  Some, as I said earlier, simply have never had their character mature though their bodies have grown old.

Let me close out this part by finishing out a description of the facility.  The mission houses about 150 at any given time including the Overcomers.  There are several small “family apartments” for in-tact married families with children who are homeless.  There is a common dining area and kitchen where all meals are prepared.  There is a gymnasium with a basketball court taken from a long since demolished local facility and a small chapel.  The common meeting area is the “Library” which serves as a game room and general hangout.  It is frequently too noisy for study or quiet contemplation but I found it fine for journal writing and frankly it gave me quite a bit of inspiration.

It is not technically “free” to live in the mission.  I believe the actual charge was something like $9 a day but men usually worked a small job outside the mission or in the kitchen or house crew or at one of the Miracle Hill warehouses to pay their boarding.  Stays are supposed to be limited to 90 days but under certain circumstances some men have stayed much longer.  The goal of the mission is to transition men to living on their own and even while I was there programs were being improved so as to make these transitions more likely and more successful.

So this is where I was for the last few months and who I was with.  I learned at least as much as I did in my years of college and grad school in only a few short months.  You can’t buy perspective like that nor can one get it from a documentary or a book.  Growing up white and middle class does indeed shelter one from a good deal of things.  Some of what I now know I could well have gone the rest of my life without ever learning.  Some of it I wish I didn’t know.  But after all was said and done my eyes are open to a side of life that I had no experience with.  I can’t recommend the path I’ve taken to learn these things and to be here but I do treasure it for myself and hope to find the words to share some of what I’ve learned in the future.

    • Marissa
    • March 11th, 2010

    I very much enjoyed reading this, Joel. Thanks.

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