Homeless by Choice: Is Tulsa OK?

The nice man at the JOHN 3:16 shelter for homeless men told me all their beds were full. He then suggested I try the Salvation Army and gave me directions. “It’s a few blocks from here” he said. “They may have a bed open.” It was close to 12:00 midnight and cold for Tulsa, Oklahoma. The streets were all dark and as I ventured the fifteen minute walk to find a bed for the night, I was suddenly approached by a man who mumbled something to me which I could not quite understand. I stopped (which could have been a bad move on my part) and asked “What?” responding to him as he walked toward me at the intersection of Denver St. My heart started speeding up a bit as I wondered if I was going to experience an unwanted adventure. He replied that he didn’t want to walk with anyone and would prefer that I left him alone. Relieved, I said “fine” and smiled to myself as I walked across the street hoping he wouldn’t follow me. My pace soon moved into a jog and as I found my distance from him increasing, my heart slowed down.

On my journey to find Tulsa’s Salvation Army, I discovered I was very under-dressed for the cold weather. I later learned the temperature went down to 32 that night (which for Tulsa, was very cold). I had only put on a T-shirt and a light sweat shirt. I wondered if I was going to bring back a cold from this journey to the streets. I had been invited to Tulsa by an old friend, who was a youth pastor at the Asbury United Methodist Church. The Church was having a series of special meetings to emphasize missions and had asked me to be the key speaker for the youth. Their theme was “Heart to God, Hand to Man”. My talk “RISK YOUR LIFE FOR A CHANGE” was to be given after I returned from a night with the homeless on the streets of the city.

This is actually my 7th trip down to the subculture of streets. It had been almost 2 years since my last journey which took me back again to Lexington, Kentucky where I re-visited the homeless who were in a new city/county “Hope” shelter. The residents called that place ‘the prison.’ I remember being greeting that cold October 1993, not by people but by a metal detector and a set of written rules the first of which clearly stated that we should turn in our fire-arms before being admitted to the shelter. How uninviting. I hoped that this new experience in Tulsa would be a little less threatening.

As I see through a glass dimly, the urban homeless have become much more aggressive and much more violent. Despair has risen to a new response as desperate people do more desperate things. I believe it is this growing sense of desperation combined with the mission statement of SURVIVAL that creates an atmosphere of aggression, intimidation and violence. The shelter providers where I have stayed have become much more ‘response-ready.’ The metal detectors and full-time security guards with their guns serve notice that violence will be met with violence.

After searching in the dark for the Salvation Army shelter, I located a very large complex and eventually found the door to the shelter section.

I asked the nice man who answered if they had any beds open to which he replied “No.”

Puzzled, I asked, “Do you have any suggestions for someone like myself who is looking for a place to stay?”

He suggested that I come back tomorrow around 5:00 p.m. He indicated that I would be likely to get help then.

As he began to shut the door, I attempted to make further conversation. “Where does someone go when there are no beds open?” I asked. “The man from the JOHN 3:16 Shelter sent me here.”

The desk-man repeated that they were full. Then he stated that there were only three shelters in town and there was no place else to go.

I asked if there were any stores or places open all night close by and he indicated he knew of none.

I then asked if he would call the police and have me arrested if I slept by the window right next to the door.

He said no.

Many people believe there are more homeless in the winter. Actually, there are no more homeless in the winter than any other time. But it seems that way because the homeless who usually stay outside in warm weather choose to go inside in the winter rather than get sick or possibly freeze to death. I suspect this is what was happening in Tulsa. The cold weather brought everyone in and all the beds were filled.

Immediately, I laid down on the outside next to the large lobby picture window . As I hit the hard dirt, I discovered the large quantity of cigarette butts that were in my face. I closed my eyes and began to pray. “Lord, what now?”

Without question, it is in moments like these that I feel most insecure about my decision to go and live on the streets. I experience real conflict within myself. While I really want to ‘re-connect’ to what the homeless experience on a given night in a particular city, I also don’t look forward to getting sick or possibly taken advantage of by being out in the cold all night. I realized that if I had arrived at either shelter earlier, I might have had a bed. The reason I arrived so late was because I didn’t get a chance to speak to the high school kids (the first purpose of my Tulsa visit) until almost 11:00 p.m. The Pastor wanted to wait until the football games were over and kids had a chance to come to the special meeting that night.

A few minutes passed as I laid in the hard dirt praying, “What next Lord?” Suddenly, the desk-man opened the door and invited me inside. On my way in he asked me if I had any identification and then told me he would provide me with a mat and a blanket. He explained that I would be allowed to sleep in the lobby next to another man who was also in the “overflow.” Within a few minutes, I picked up my mat and carried it to a stretch of the lobby between two sets of chairs. The room was cold but the blanket helped a lot. I slept with my shoes on.

Before I closed my eyes, I gazed at the clock on the wall . It was past midnight. I felt restless but energized. The noises in the lobby made it difficult to fall asleep. The night seemed very long and the many noises made it difficult for me to get much sleep. I kept hearing people talking and doors opening. Around 5:00 a.m., I woke to find a large number of people in the lobby. I think they were all going to work. I never did actually fall back asleep but wavered into periods of unconsciousness.

It’s times like these that I regret my decision to give a speech the day after I stay in a homeless shelter. For some reason, I seem to forget that I don’t usually sleep well during these experiences. This time, I had to give a talk to youth the very next day before I spent the afternoon helping them with a work project somewhere downtown.

At 6:30 a.m. I decided to get up and turn in my mat and blanket. It finally hit me that I am used to sleeping with a pillow on something much softer and this may account for another reason why I didn’t sleep well. After using the bathroom (which looked really disgusting), I went back into the lobby to wait for breakfast. As I returned, I observed both a discussion and a debate about the nature of breakfast. It seemed obvious to everyone that the cooks got a late start and breakfast would not be at the usual time of 7:30 a.m. There were a lot of staff workers present and they entered into the discussion of breakfast as well.

As I sat in the lobby, a woman came in to get her things from the locked room. Her son (probably between 3-4 years old) looked at me and kept saying over and over again, “I’m gonna bust your face.” I felt like saying, “And good morning to you too!” but realized that this might have provoked someone. I felt sad thinking of the mental and emotional diet this child had been receiving.

Food is the centerpiece of the day for most of the folks who live on the streets. It is immediate gratification to numb the pain of reality. In fact, most of the folks I have hung out with make food the matter around which they revolved their whole schedule. On the streets, food is a small form of power and sometimes, the keepers of the food wield power towards the homeless with food being the weapon.

Several of the homeless men came into the lobby before breakfast and asked for their personal belongings. Most received their plastic bags; a few had backpacks. Mike, the guy who slept in the lobby next to me was very talkative. He asked about breakfast, talked about problems in the local jails and had quite a variety of opinions about many items for such an early hour of the day.

Soon, the breakfast doors were opened and I watched as the night staff watched on their TV monitor the men and women moving from the upper floors on to the elevator. There were some comments about one of the resident’s weight of 300 pounds and being in high school. I asked permission to get in line for breakfast. Upon entering the cafeteria, I took in the following observations:

  • The seating capacity was for about 75 or so. There were more people than seats.
  • The food provided was sugar. White sugar to be exact. Each resident could take up to several boxes of pre-sweetened cereal and a donut. Most everyone took their pre-sweetened cereal over to the table and put spoons of white sugar in their coffee and onto their cereal. There must have been one container of 10 pounds of sugar. The sugar combined with the donuts made the children pretty wired.
  • The combination of very old men people and very young people was striking. One woman sat at the table feeding her baby with a bottle while another very old man moved very slowly and painfully around her.
  • Most of the folks did not clean up after themselves.
  • For so early in the morning, I was surprised at how talkative everyone was.

I got up from my seat to get a napkin and when I returned someone had taken my spot. It didn’t seem appropriate to discuss the matter. I just stood. Within twenty minutes, everyone had eaten and most people had left the building. I followed. It seem like everyone was going out the door and across the way to what I thought was the women’s shelter. I was soon to learn that some women were housed on the second floor but that the larger complex everyone was gathering around was the new October 1994 edition of the Homeless Day Center.

The local response to homelessness had emerged from local citizens responding to the desperation of the poor. Concerned citizens had designed a pro-active, architecturally modern center for homeless people to stay during the day. No sooner had I walked in than I was asked to leave again. I learned that the center doesn’t open until 8:00 am. Apparently, all the people inside had special permission because they stayed in the shelter in that building during the night.

As I left the front doors, I was immediately handed a broom and asked to help sweep up the sidewalk area–mostly of the cigarette butts. ‘No problem,’ I thought. ‘I’m glad to make myself useful. Anyway, I’m really very cold and moving around may help me to warm up.’ Next to the signs posted on the side of the building which read “DO NOT SLEEP NEAR OUTSIDE ON THE SIDE OF THE BUILDING” lay several people in sleeping bags bundled up. Out near the parking lot lay several more people in sleeping bags next to cars on the concrete and on the dirt. In total, I estimate that there were 75 people outside waiting to get into the Day Center.

Eight o’clock came and people began lining up to get into the building. There was frost on the grass and rooftops and many people were under-dressed for the weather. Several of the folks appeared mentally and physically ill. Lots of people lacked adequate foot-wear and their exposed toes revealed their need to see a doctor. One man who was probably in his 50s walked aggressively around the parking lot shouting violent threats to an imaginary person right in front of him. Others kept to themselves and showed the ‘don’t even think about talking to me’ look as I passed by.

At 8:10, the folks in the line were upset. Questions were being passed around concerning the time the doors open. “I thought they open at 8:00,” one man said. It soon became apparent that something was wrong: everyone was in line but the line was not moving. As I looked inside the front door, I observed the women in charge in her position of power. I was reminded that power is on the side of those in control and in this case, on the side of the staff behind the desk. I began to share the frustration of the folks in line. We were cold. We weren’t being let in. We were not being told why. Grumbling and attitudes surfaced. I saw the homeless waver between respect for authority and the confusion of the moment. I thought of Good Works. I began to examine myself. I prayed.

About 8:20, the doors were opened and we later learned that the reason we were not allowed in at the usual time was because security had not yet arrived. They let us inside in groups of 3 and after we provided our names and where we slept last night, we were free to roam around the large room and do whatever we wanted to do. I immediately went to the bathroom.

For a building less than a year old, I was surprised at how beat up everything looked. Most of the paint had peeled off the inside of the showers and the toilets and bath area looked like it had experienced years of abuse.

I asked for and received a toothbrush and some toothpaste. I noticed that there were several washers and dryers available as well as a host of over-the-counter medication. Volunteers sat behind the desk dispensing these while they visited with the residents.
I finally sat down and observed what was happening:

  • A few of the folks had gone to watch TV. It was Championship Wrestling and the wrestlers/actors were displaying their art.
  • One man comes on to one of the women trying to start a conversation. I got the impression from observing him in a few different situations that he was a business man looking for female clients who were interested in earning some money.
  • As I sat at one table, a young women came up and asked the man sitting across from me for some money. He didn’t provide any. I got the sense that they knew each other but not well. It was obvious to me that he had provided money to her on some previous occasions.

Nine o’clock came faster than I expected. I had to leave in order to make the walk back to the shelter called JOHN 3:16. This was the place I had been dropped off and the place I was to be picked up. My new friend Bill was right on time and I left the streets with him to return to the Asbury Church to share my talk “RISK YOUR LIFE FOR A CHANGE.”

—Keith Wasserman