God on the Streets

By staff July 1, 2006

This month, we take you somewhere glossy lifestyle magazines like ours rarely go-into the haunting world of the homeless. And your guide may be as unexpected as the journey: comic novelist Robert Plunket. A noted author whose cultural commentary often appears in the New York Times and other national publications, Plunket is best known in Sarasota as Mr. Chatterbox, the gossip columnist whose ironic observations about socialites and the black-tie circuit have been entertaining our readers for more than 15 years.

But for this story, instead of donning his usual dinner jacket and droll expression, Plunket put on an old plaid flannel shirt and a baseball cap, then walked onto the streets of Sarasota posing as a homeless man. For a day and night, he followed "Rick," a lively, 27-year-old crack addict who introduced him to other street people, showed him how to find food and places to rest, and helped him snag a good sleeping mat at the Salvation Army. When Plunket limped into the office early the next morning-his feet were blistered from all the walking-he was exhausted and totally unable to stop talking about his experience.

Before Bob wrote his story, I knew little about Sarasota's homeless men and women, although I had read that in January we were named "meanest city in the nation" by the National Coalition for the Homeless because of our laws forbidding sleeping outside overnight. (That designation is disputed by many local homeless advocates, who say it overlooks all the agencies and volunteers who provide care, shelter and services.) Like most people, when I thought about the homeless at all, I pictured the occasional scary character I've seen lurching along Main Street-someone with the disheveled beard and burning eyes of a Biblical prophet, mumbling to himself and reeking of days on the streets.

But in fact, such people (the "chronically homeless," experts call them), who suffer from a lethal combination of severe mental illness and addictions, account for only about 10 percent of the 1,200 or so people who find themselves with nowhere to call home on any given day in Sarasota. About a quarter of those 1,200 are children-indeed, the average homeless person in the United States right now is a nine-year-old child, says Bryan Pope, manager of Sarasota's Salvation Army shelter-and about 10 percent are elderly (an especially heartbreaking segment, and one that's on the rise). While perhaps as many as a third of Sarasota's homeless people do have some mental and addiction issues, most don't; and quite a few of those in local shelters get up and go to work every day.

"They look like everybody else," says Pope. "They are everybody else."

Why are they homeless? The reasons are legion: an abusive spouse; a chronic illness; a layoff at work; depression or other emotional problems (after the state closed many mental hospitals a few years ago, droves of patients, without shelter or medications, took to the streets); no marketable skills; and-this is a big one in Sarasota, where real estate prices are exploding and so many apartments have converted to condos-no housing they can afford. Even those who do manage to find a place are often just one crisis away from eviction-an injury, a missed electricity bill, a car repair or a jump in the cost of prescriptions can send them over the brink.

Local experts are vehement about one thing: They're not here because of the balmy weather or because they've heard this is a cushy place to be homeless. "Can you imagine a homeless person traveling across the country, sleeping outside every night, making their way to Sarasota?" scoffs Robert Kyllonen, executive director of Resurrection House, a day shelter for the homeless.

At a recent business dinner, a woman asked Ann McArdle, executive director of the two-county Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, "Most of these people want to be homeless, don't they?" McArdle had to resist the urge to reach over the table and shake her. Almost all homeless people are devastated and ashamed at what's happened to them-you can see the relief in their faces when they're greeted with warmth and respect when they walk into a place like Resurrection House-and for most, homelessness is a temporary state. Some do refuse to help themselves, and as a result, are eventually refused services by agencies such as Resurrection House. But most will regroup and start over.

"Come by our shelter and I'll show you 150 people today," says Pope. "Come by in a year, and they won't be the same 150 people."

Yes, they do need help, from counseling and medical treatment to training in job and life skills, to re-enter the mainstream. But in the meantime, says Pope, "They need a roof over their heads and someone who cares if they live or die." That caring is what hundreds of people in Sarasota provide every day. Watch a 91-year-old retired chemist folding a homeless man's laundry in the back of Resurrection House, nodding as he listens to the man's story, or Major Burt Tanner walking around the Salvation Army at night, laying his hand on one young man's shoulder, sitting down to ask a gray-haired woman about her day, and you're seeing something more than social services being delivered-you're seeing the highest form of spirituality on earth.

Out on the streets and in the shelters, Plunket got a rare-and sometimes harrowing-look at the everyday lives of the homeless in our city. And the experience, he says, was "transformative." He struggles to explain. "It's easier to see God in the homeless than in the average middle-class person," he says. "If Jesus were around today, I have no doubt he'd be hanging out with the homeless. They have no fa├žade, no clothes, no makeup, no job, no place to live-all they have is their wrecked humanity. You look at them, and you realize, That's what God looks like."

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