(On June 27, at the Florence Planning Commission denied a permit for Helping Hands to lease a commercial building at 1790 Highway 101. The decision brought to light some of the complex issues regarding the homeless, businesses and service organizations. This is Part II of a two-part exploration. Find Part I here.)
Five months after becoming homeless, Nomada Lawson was sitting in the Helping Hands dining room at Florence United Methodist Church while finishing her carefully prepared warm meal, talking about her concerns about the community she is a part of.
“The garbage is bad. It’s unbelievable. They have no ability to clean up after themselves. They’re out there panhandling for alcohol and I’m not okay with that,” she said.
Since discussion on the new lease for the Helping Hands Coalition began, strong accusations have been bandied about by both sides of the issue.
Those who live and work around the proposed lease label “the other side” as “heartless” or “uncaring” for not considering their economic and safety concerns for the residential and commercial areas off Highway 101.
Proponents of the lease label the other side as heartless, in turn, because they refuse to help those in need.
“I don’t necessarily disagree that people are heartless,” an employee who works next to the proposed site, and who asked to remain anonymous, said about those who oppose the lease.
She believes they are using their financial concerns as a facade and don’t want to admit they just don’t want “vagrants” around their nice homes.
Those who oppose the relocation strongly disagree with that characterization. In fact, some feel they went through the same thing.
Kristi Unruh, who lives down the street from Helping Hands’ proposed site, used to have a thriving motel in Washington and a successful contracting business. Then the recession hit and they almost lost everything. Banks would not help them.
“It just sucked the wind out of everybody,” Unruh said.
During her difficult period, Unruh believed she worked hard to climb her way out to a better circumstance. She feels others should do the same. In fact, in her opinion, it’s the only humane — and permanent — solution to the problem.
“Are we helping them? I mean yes, we need to give them food. But they smoke and they have pets. We need to get them in a home, get them working somewhere back on their feet,” Unruh said. “How many young people are we just going to watch go down this path? It’s hard. What are they going to do for the rest of their lives? It scares me.”
Jim Erwin, a Helping Hands volunteer, believes reality is more complex. Sudden economic downturns aren’t the only catalysts for homelessness and poverty:
“I know this physicist who had been all over the world. At the time she was making about $72 an hour. Then she got bit by a mosquito which gave her some kind of disease. There was no cure for it and it’s slowly killing her.
“She’ll eventually go to a blank look and pass away.”
Erwin said the woman lost her job because she could not do it anymore. In addition, because the lady worked all over the world, she only qualified for $720 a month in Social Security.
“Your heart just breaks sometimes,” said Erwin.
While the physicist’s descent into poverty was slow and painful, Lawson’s came as a quick shot to the gut.
“I’m homeless because of one hole in the wall,” she said, explaining how her son had a fit and punched a hole in the wall. It caught the attention of the managers.
“They threatened to call 911 because he was just throwing a fit. People want you to paint a rosy picture, but no family is perfect,” she said.
Lawson said, as a result, she and her son were evicted. Lawson’s financial situation was dire. She was living off of social security, which was tight.
The job market was even tighter.
She had savings but lost them prior to the eviction.
“I never thought we’d be in this situation. I never thought for a moment that I’d be homeless. Did I ever think I would ever be using Helping Hands? No. In the blink of an eye, things can change,” she said.
Despite all of this, Lawson was able to catch a break, finding a home for her and her son.
“Because of the house, I feel like a weight was lifted. I want my son to focus on school. He’s going to be 17 and we want to make it all better.”
Children needing the care of Helping Hands is not a rare occurrence.
On the day of Lawson’s interview, two families with three children each dined at the church — impeccably dressed and smiling while they finished the last bite of their frosted chocolate cake.
But other children don’t come in.
“Kids who come through here, they don’t go to school,” said Lawson. “They’re in crisis and the parents can’t get them to come in here. And they need it the most. But they’re so scared to come in here because someone will see them.”
The fears about this are visceral. Lawson said she feels that if the children are recognized, the parents could be blamed for neglect, and the children could be sent off to foster care.
“I got a kid and I’m scared to tell anybody I’m homeless because they can take him away. As a parent I feel like such a dirtbag,” she said.
Children are at the heart of why so many residents oppose the relocation to Highway 101, or any other neighborhood for that matter.
“They say they’re not going to be around except for certain hours to feed them, but they’re going to be hanging around,” Unruh said. “The school buses come. They drop the kids off twice a day. At lunch time, and again at 3 and 3:30 p.m.”
Lawson has a different view.
While she worked hard to protect her son during her trials, she believes others don’t. She has witnessed poverty-stricken parents with drug addictions neglecting their children.
“Their kids have soiled clothes. They’re out there hunting for drugs, leaving their kids in the car. I’m sorry but I have no empathy for them,” she said.
The fear is, if these individuals cannot keep their own children protected, how are they going to treat those of others?
The statistics don’t back up these fears, however. In fact, those who are homeless generally end up being the victim, not the perpetrator, in crimes.
A 2012 study performed by the National Coalition for the Homeless stated that between the years of 1999 and 2010, there have been 1,200 reported acts of violence committed by housed individuals against the homeless, ranging from beatings, rapes and even a reported case of decapitation.
As for families, a 2016 study from the Family & Youth Services Bureau found that in just one day in 2015, more than 31,5000 adults and children were forced into temporary housing because of domestic violence in the home.
The causes of homelessness, drug addiction and poverty are vast and incalculable. Helping Hands sees a vision for themselves that would work to combat this.
They have already worked to provide hundreds of clients help with Social Security benefits, clothing and temporary housing. This assistance has been given to anyone who asks, whether they live in a permanent home or not.
For the future, Helping Hands sees itself growing its capabilities to include tutoring and mentoring — working hand-in-hand with other local organizations to build a robust network to help those in need.
Poverty and homelessness will always be a part of Florence, whether there is a Helping Hands or not.
The question for many in the community is whether striving to build up those who are are in need could simultaneously tear down other aspects the community has worked so hard to build.
While the community of Florence decides the fate of Helping Hands and continues to struggle with the larger ramifications of these issues, Lawson sits in the eating area.
She has a smile across her face, talking of the day after when she will again have a roof over her head.
She pauses and looks outside the window to others in her situation; sitting on the front steps, smoking cigarettes, conversing, laughing.
She’ll always come to Helping Hands, she says.
To eat. To volunteer. To give away blankets. To help any way she can because, she feels, the program saved her life.
“I understand where [the businesses] are coming from,” she said. “I just don’t know what the answer is.”
Florence City Council will hear an appeal from Helping Hands Coalition during the July 31 Florence City Council meeting, 5:30 p.m. at Florence City Hall, 250 Highway 101.
Note: This is part 2 of a 2 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.