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FLASHBACK: A lesson in homelessness - Odessa American: Celinda Hawkins

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FLASHBACK: A lesson in homelessness

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Posted: Sunday, December 8, 2013 5:15 am

For many of the growing population of homeless people in Odessa and Midland, the freezing weather brings more hardship and more urgency for folks to get warm, get a hot meal and find a place to sleep.

The population in the Permian Basin always swells with the booms and shrinks with the busts. This time with the long endurance of the boom — the homeless numbers continue to grow. One of my coworkers spoke to a man during Thanksgiving lunch last week and, like many other folks, he came here to work but could not find housing once he got here. Fortunately, he has been able to break the cycle, has a job and is no longer homeless.

But when the weather turns cold, it presents a problem, especially for the folks who try to offer help. Last week, the good folks at Jesus House were handing out blankets and food to homeless folks during the Arctic freeze that hit the area. The Salvation Army opened their doors early to allow folks to come in from the weather, warm up and have a hot meal.

 According to the most recent survey there were about 530 homeless in Ector County, according to Erika Chavez, executive director of Odessa Links. Statewide in 2012, the count revealed there were 633,782 people identified as homeless. Of that, about 99,894 or about 15 percent were identified as chronically homeless, meaning they live with a disability and are staying in shelters or on the street for long periods of time. The other 85 percent are either first-timers, victims of domestic violence or dealing with alcohol and drug problems, to name a few of the reasons.

No matter what the circumstances or when, being homeless is not a state anyone wants to find themselves in — but, it happens. And it can happen to anyone as I discovered a few years back in Austin when I did a story on the state of homelessness there. As I delved deeper and deeper in to the story, I met several individuals and groups and followed them to see what a typical day was like for a homeless person.

It would be one Izod-clad, preppie looking fellow named Jack, whom I met through a friend who introduced me to several of the individuals who peppered the streets and alleys of downtown Austin, near the University of Texas campus. He was a student, but he was also homeless, which I found intriguing. He knew how to get by on the streets — it was all about knowing the hierarchy.

First he introduced me to Jim, whom he referred to as “The King,” who had a specific purpose. Jim who was obviously the leader, seemed like a normal enough guy and had kind of an angelic look about him — slight build with blonde hair and blue eyes. His job was to make money to buy food for all of the homeless folks in his “tribe,” which numbered 100 or so.

Every day, he would go to pool halls on the drag and hustle games for cash. And he won every time — you didn’t want to get roped into a game with him — and he was serious about his job. I had to cough up a $20 spot that day he roped me into a game, but it was for a story.

His other job was to find shelter and a shower for his people — and he did that almost daily. At that time, he had discovered a basement in an abandoned building just off the 24th and Guadalupe streets. The place had a bathroom and running water, so at certain times, one by one, folks would go bathe upstairs. 

Then it was off to another interview with a guy I’ll call Don. When we walked up to his place, Jack cautioned me not to stand “on his front door.” So I stepped away, bent over and knocked on his door — a manhole cover. Jack set this interview up, too, and stayed there as the guy emerged from beneath the streets. We sat on a park bench just a few feet from his front door. Don said he liked where he lived — he preferred to be away from humanity. In a few minutes, I noticed (and Jack did, too) that he was spiraling into some sort of episode, so we ended the interview. But it was definitely one of the most unusual/disturbing

Then it was off to a neighborhood park where, at the time, officials with the city allowed folks to park and stay. This was a large group of what I’ve heard referred to on recent reality shows as “Gypsies,” or “Travelers.” They were a happy bunch of 20 or so adults and children, seemingly unscathed and used to the life they chose. There was music, dancing and food. During an interview the leader of this family told me they move often, from town to town. And they appeared to be happy with their lifestyle.

It was to say the least a very diverse mix of people — all with the label of homelessness.

While I’m not sure if we have such a diverse homeless population here in Odessa today, we do have a large population simply due to the lack of housing. And I am almost certain there are more than 530 homeless persons in Ector County. Odessa Links will be conducting the survey on Jan. 23 and results will be tallied a few months later.

But if you want to help, pick up some socks, underwear blankets and toiletries and donate them to Jesus House. And you can also make a donation to the Salvation Army.

It’s the spirit of the season.

Odessa, TX

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