Falling Through the Cracks | TEXT

The stories behind many people’s homelessness are varied, but similar. Mental illness, trauma and substance abuse might cause them to get to where they are, but falling into the addiction of homelessness is what keeps them there.

Fleet of flyers

Carl Bittner, 51, walks to his tent in the woods off of 15-501 in Durham.

Walk past the car dealership, down some rocks that lead to a run-off drain, along a lightly beaten path through the woods and, eventually, you will see a red tent: the sole occupant of a quiet and lonely wood off of one of Durham’s busiest thoroughfares.

Carl Bittner, 51, says he has been homeless for 23 years. The past eight of those he has spent mostly in the woods of Durham. Like many homeless men in Durham, Carl lives in a tent. He makes petty cash by flying a sign, standing on a median and holding a piece of cardboard with phrases like “Homeless,” “Disabled,” and “God Bless” written in permanent marker.

Sign flyers have become a fixture on the streets of Durham during the past few years. In 2004, Durham passed an ordinance that allows people like Carl to register and pay $20 for a permit to solicit charitable donations from drivers as long as they follow some ground rules. They must wear orange vests, can only accept money from the driver and cannot cross into other lanes. They can begin a half hour after sunrise and must cease solicitation a half hour before sunset. Some are homeless, others are on disability and food stamps, some are trying to get by, others are fueling their addictions. They are all poor.

“Flying a sign is the only thing I know of where I can make money,” says Carl, who receives $200 in food stamps on a monthly basis. He says that he needs to fly a sign to pay for things like cigarettes, beer, laundry, toothpaste and other things that food stamps cannot buy.

Julia Gamble, nurse practitioner, Urban Ministries

However, what is behind the sign is far too often left to assumptions and preconceived notions of why homelessness is so pervasive in Durham and across the country.

According to the 2010 Point-in-Time count, an annual survey conducted simultaneously across the country to count homeless people, 675 people in Durham county are homeless. Out of those, 592 are adults, 269 claim some sort of substance abuse and 91 report that they suffer from some kind of mental illness. (See the data.)

But, the reasons why these men and women live and work on the streets and in the woods, despite the services widely available to them in Durham, are not always as simple as alcoholism or drug addiction. The issue is not even as simple as being mentally ill. For some, it is a combination of all of those things; but for most, it is a complicated and unending battle with themselves.

“I think a lot of folks feel like their former self is gone forever,” says Julia Gamble, the nurse practitioner who runs the clinic at the Urban Ministries homeless shelter in downtown Durham. Julia treats many of the homeless men and women living in the woods and on the street, and says many once led typical lives, had jobs and families. “They feel like those bridges have been burned forever.”

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Burned bridges

“Sure I’m depressed,” says Carl. “I’ve been depressed for years, but I don’t think it’s something that’s gonna go away in no day’s time or with a bottle of pills.”

Carl, who is originally from Pennsylvania, says he began hitchhiking after a bitter divorce with his second wife. He left the woman he calls the “love of his life” and mother of his children, to be with his second wife who he says took him for everything he had.

“I lost my family, I lost my kids,” he says. “I lost everything.” If asked about his children, Carl’s eyes will become glassy with tears. He has not seen his two sons since they were 15 and 16 years old, and they are now in their 30s. He says he recently tried to contact his sons through a friend using the Internet.

Carl Bittner, 51, says he has been homeless for 23 years.

“They said they know who their father is, but they have a dad,” Carl recites from memory. As he says the words, that phrase seems to echo through him, as if it haunts him day and night. The “dad” his sons are referring to is their stepfather who raised them for the majority of their lives.

A lifetime of regret is evident in Carl’s eyes and in the deep creases of his weathered skin, adding at least 20 years to his age.

He says that he supported his kids when he could, when he had a job as a foreman at a metal plant in Texas. Since he began living this transient lifestyle, he has only worked odd jobs, construction and landscaping under the table, on and off for the past 23 years.

Now, he says he is disabled. He has a knee injury, a neck injury, and a seizure disorder that he believes keep him from being employable, in addition to his lack of work history and current living arrangements.

“When you fill out an application and it asks for last employment… 23 years ago,” Carl says with a grimace. “Oh, and what’s your address? I live in a tent in the woods. If you were a hiring manager, would you hire me?” he adds. He also believes he is a liability to employers, that he is too much of risk because of his seizures. He never mentions his mental health when talking about his appeal for disability, for which he has been fighting for three years.

“Disability can provide them with stability,” says Gamble. Much of her work at the shelter clinic deals with advocating on behalf of disability applicants. When they qualify, they are able to access a monthly stipend of usually $674 every month, less if they are living with someone, which can pay for food and housing.

“We all know those are the fundamental things we need to live,” Gamble says. “You’ve got to have some place to live to be healthy.”

Disability benefits, however, are not an option for everyone, even if they are homeless.

“Not everybody who wants to get disability because they’re homeless is eligible or qualified at all,” Gamble adds. She emphasizes that when people are willing to discuss those less tangible disabilities, such as depression or bipolar disorder, they might qualify for disability benefits.

“When it comes to disability, you have to talk about the you that maybe you’re not that happy with,” says Gamble. “That’s the you that unfortunately keeps you from having a job and from working.” Gamble says many of her clients tend to overlook their cognitive deficiencies or mental health when asking to qualify for disability benefits, either out of embarrassment or because they do not realize that they impair them.

Although Carl applies for disability based on his physical problems, what becomes quickly apparent is that his depression is the condition that disables him, made worse with his constant alcohol consumption. This cycle has been going on for 23 years. Now, years of hitchhiking and abusing his body may keep him from ever qualifying for disability benefits and living a stable life.

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A beginning

Mark Sheldon, 50, holds a sign at the intersection of Garrett Road and 15-501.

Many of the homeless people in Durham do not qualify for disability or unemployment benefits. Mark Sheldon, 50, from Statesville, N.C., came to Durham in the summer of 2009. After losing his painting business to the economic downturn and housing crash earlier in the year, Mark drove to Durham in his old Buick, with everything he owned in it. With nowhere to go and no money, he slept in his car.

When Mark arrived in Durham, he met Carl while seeking advice on homeless shelters where he might find refuge. Mark says Carl and the other people who live in the woods along 15-501 accepted him and helped him survive by showing him how to make a little money by flying a sign .

“I didn’t come here to fly a sign,” Mark says. His goal is to put his business back together. But in the mean time, he says he cannot qualify for unemployment because he owned his own business. He waits at paint stores everyday looking for work and odd jobs. He wants to regain some semblance of his previous life, most importantly a place to call home.

Mark has four children: 17-year-old twin boys who live with Mark’s late ex-wife’s parents in Florida, an 18-year-old daughter who is currently in college, and an adult daughter. Mark lost custody of his sons 10 years ago, after his ex-wife’s death, and has not been allowed to see them since, although he recently began speaking with them on the phone.

“I want to have a place where my sons can come visit me, maybe by next Christmas,” Mark says. “They say they will be 18 soon and no one can keep them from seeing me, but they can’t visit me if I’m living in my car or in some motel somewhere.”

Mark also had a fifth child. His oldest son died in July of 2009 from a drug overdose. Mark says the trauma of that experience plays a large role in why he is in his current situation.

“I just gave up,” Mark says. The financial pressures of his crumbling business combined with the traumatic loss of his son was enough to make him withdraw from his family and let go of everything he had.

Mark is also an alcoholic. He has battled with addiction to hard drugs in years past, and now drinks to maintain himself throughout the day. The alcohol often dulls the emotional pain he has yet to fully cope with.

He also uses alcohol to subdue the physical pain of a severe hernia he has been suffering with for several months. Because he has no money, and no health insurance, he can only visit the emergency room. He says when it gets painful enough, he will go to the ER where the doctors run some tests and then tell him they cannot do anything to help him right then.

“They’re going to wait until it’s this close to killing me before they will help me,” Mark says angrily.

That very scenario came close to happening one night as Mark sat on the hood of his car, sobbing, contemplating suicide, and drinking 40-ounce beers to cope with his physical suffering. He did not want to deal with being turned away from the ER again, and if they did admit him, he worried about what he would do with his car, which was full of his possessions.

The next day, he sobered up, resigned his hesitations and was admitted for emergency surgery on the hernia.

Relieved physically, Mark then only met more problems concerning where he would stay and recover, because the car where he lives is not suitable for someone in his condition. For someone in Mark’s situation, one problem, or even a solution, can lead to another problem.

“You fall into this situation, and it’s kind of like falling into a drug addiction,” Mark says of his still-new homeless lifestyle. Mark describes how he finds himself sitting at the BP gas station at Garrett Road and 15-501, where many of the homeless men and women in the area fly signs and hang out, drinking at nine or ten o’clock in the morning. “And it’s totally normal, and I’m saying to myself this is crazy, this is nuts,” he adds.

Mark says that he is basically alone in Durham, except for his homeless friends and the community of people who provide outreach services.

“‘Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future,’ that’s what my mom used to say,” Mark says. He acknowledges that the company he keeps is a factor in his continued homelessness, but the reality of the situation is that he has no one else to turn to for company and support.

Although the experience of being homeless is not healthy or fulfilling for Mark, to a certain extent, he enjoys the freedom of the no-obligation lifestyle he has found in homelessness. He often describes the women he visits at a motel outside of downtown Durham known for crack cocaine use and prostitution that is prevalent on the property. Rumors among his friends hint that he smokes crack cocaine regularly, and he even admits he has smoked crack cocaine on several occasions.

“The homeless thing, it can just take over, especially because of the alcohol. You get to a point where you just don’t give a damn anymore,” Mark says about what he describes as a sort of addiction to homelessness that he has experienced himself and from others. With so many obstacles and problems, it is easier for many people in Mark or Carl’s situation to just let the homelessness overtake them.

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Falling through the cracks, and staying there

With so many organizations and programs in and around Durham that work to combat the pervasive homelessness in the area, people like Carl and Mark still find themselves constantly transitioning from one temporary place to the other or sleeping in a tent, car or on a friend’s couch.

A debate about how to best alleviate homelessness has been ongoing for decades. Some programs believe in the “housing first” model, in which a person is not expected to be sober in order to be placed in housing. Others find it tough to buy into an idea that invests so much trust and money in an unreliable person.

Carolyn Shuldt, chaplain of Open Table Ministry, greets Carl at a weekly lunch.

“The thought is that housing itself is a treatment for homelessness and for some of the social issues that go along with it,” says Gamble, who is an advocate of the housing first model. “Having a steady place to live is the most important piece, and then from there you can work on the substance abuse, the mental health and the physical health,” she adds.

Other programs, such as the Phoenix House, a halfway house operated by Housing for New Hope, require that an individual be sober for two weeks before entering the one-year program. Similarly, TROSA, Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, is an intense program that requires sobriety and work hours at one of its businesses, including a thrift store, frame shop and moving company.

“Many of these programs just don’t work for these guys,” says Carolyn Schuldt, chaplain and executive director of Open Table Ministry. She says that the programs are often not tailored for individuals’ specific needs or issues. If clients of the programs do not follow the rules, something that may very well be a cause or symptom of their homelessness to begin with, they are often abandoned or pushed aside to make room for people who can.

Open Table Ministry, a nonprofit Christian outreach, helps those individuals who have slipped through the cracks survive while they have to live outside. The organization itself does not have the funds to pay for housing for the people they serve, “but we can at least keep them alive while they are out there,” Schuldt adds. The ministry helps to pay for camping supplies such as tents, camp stoves and sleeping bags, in addition to providing food and clothing, for newly homeless people and those who must move back into the woods after losing their housing.

Disagreements among the people who provide services to the homeless are also common. Some programs and outreach workers believe that providing a tent and sleeping bag for a man who has no other choice than to sleep outside, is perpetuating or even encouraging homelessness, while others, such as Schuldt and Open Table Ministry, believe it would be criminal not to provide those items.

Many people who do receive housing from programs like Housing for New Hope, a federally funded organization that employs formerly homeless and substance-addicted people as outreach workers, do not stay there for more than six months or year.

Carl was placed in housing paid for by Housing for New Hope in 2008. His apartment was in East Durham, an area outside of downtown which has widespread drug and alcohol abuse and violence. While he lived there, he was mugged and all of the cash he had was stolen from him. He rarely left his apartment after that.

Housing for New Hope placed him there under the expectation he would pay for the utilities and that his disability benefits would come through after six months. When his disability was denied and he could not make payments with the money he made on the street, Carl says he had to move back into the woods.

“I wish they wouldn’t have thrown me out and I had to come back to this tent,” Carl says of the experience. Without the help of Schuldt and Open Table Ministry, Carl might not have survived his winter in the woods that year. Nn the coldest winter nights in January and February, Carl was even able to stay with a friend he knows through Open Table Ministry who has housing because of his disability benefits.

On top of the trauma and mental illness which often leads to or happens in tandem with severe substance abuse, navigating and encountering obstacles and constant uncertainty in the housing system can prove to be very difficult for many people. Rather than deal with the rejection, confusions and formalities, many will continue to live outside and make it by day-to-day by flying a sign.

If nothing else, one thing Durham continues to provide homeless individuals with, regardless of their housing situation, is a sense of community.

“This is the longest I’ve stayed in one place since I’ve been homeless,” Carl says.

People such as Mark and Carl say that the community they have found in Open Table Ministry and other programs and the comfort in knowing that there are people around them who care if they make it through a cold night in the woods will continue to help them survive through the toughest times in their lives, and maybe even come out on the other side.

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