POSTED ON JANUARY 18, 2012:
Homeless on Cherry St.
One afternoon a week, midtown Tulsa homeless can come in out of the cold
"My name is Fred, I come from the south, owe me money it's a gun in your mouth."
"Oh! You can't be that way," one of Fred Stewart's friends says.
"I'll do better," he says.
"You want to start over?" I ask.
"Yeah, I wanna start over."
Fred and about a dozen others are clustered by the back door of St. Paul's United Methodist Church on Cherry St. It's a bright, cold Friday afternoon, and the homeless and hungry who reside on midtown streets know St. Paul's offers up a free hot lunch every Friday.
I press record on my cell phone recording app, and say, "OK, let's go again."
Fred tries to sum up his life story, himself, his life on the streets in one short soliloquy. Again. But he's easily distracted, jittery and drooling a little.
Fred is not even 30. He bounces around town, sleeping on friends' and family members' couches. He points to a brick apartment building across the street from St. Paul's and says he's staying there right now. But he also rattled off several other places he stays from time to time -- his dad's house in east Tulsa, another friend's house off 11th St. And on and on.
He attended college at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and worked toward a degree in graphic design before ... Well, he doesn't want to talk about what's led him -- a boyish, brown-haired, slight Oklahoma boy in his late 20s -- to the streets.
After a few more false starts, Fred starts again.
"My name is Frederick. I want to hang out and be friends with everybody," he starts. He looks out at the dozen or so people gathered in a loose knot, their grocery carts filled with precious belongings. He pulls at his green oversized coat, too big for his thin 5'7" frame, which he's put on upside-down today.
"I love God, tomorrow and to the day that I die. I love you Lord, just bless us," he says, veering off into prayer territory.
He tries again to tell his story.
"My name is Frederick. I'm the biggest, baddest mother*****r around. I hate life and I wanna die."
Fred flies into easy rages, and sports some bumps and bruises on his face and arms from recent scuffles.
He wants to try one last time to tell me his story. "One more try and then I gotta go eat," he says. The call of St. Paul's heaping plates of stuffing, gravy, turkey, rolls, butter and an array of desserts are calling to him.
Another man, who's stood watching Fred talk all this time, suddenly gets up and walks to a little patch of grass nearby. He retches violently, over and over, then flips his long, black hair back, wipes his mouth and apologizes sheepishly. "I ate too much," he says. "I'm OK now."
St. Paul's doesn't give out just one plate of food to each person who walks through their door. Every Friday afternoon (and holidays), the stone church that anchors Cherry St. becomes a place where even those who have nothing can come and eat as much as they want. And for years, they have.
Fred gives storytelling one last try. "Hi, my name is Frederick ... I love Fridays. God loves me and Satan hates me."
I sigh. He is intoxicated on cheap, plastic bottle vodka and probably starving. He continues. "Put that one on eBay! We'll make fifty bucks!"
He asks me if I want to eat lunch with him inside, and holds the door open. Once inside, we make our ways through the crowded back hallway, a warm crush of people and voices.
A smiling man helps us with our hot plates piled high and heavy with comfort foods. He says he's the man the Tulsa World wrote about, the man who lived under a bridge.
In August, social services reporter Mike Averill wrote about the summer heat driving homeless Tulsans into shelters. He kicked off the story with three sentences about Jason Davis, who was forced to ditch his crashpad under a downtown bridge because the thick, sun-bleached concrete added a whopping five to 10 extra degrees of smothering heat.
Now, Davis says he's doing well, and lives with his family in a rental house. He also volunteers time each week to help lunchtime go smoothly at St. Paul's. His bashful smile glows as he talks about how he's gotten his life together since summer.
Davis, a white apron tied around his thin hips, represents a wan, crooked-smile hope for the future. As he works, dozens and dozens of hungry, hard-luck Tulsans mill about and chat, ask for more lemonade or tea, and stuff rolls and desserts in their pockets for later.
Fred hasn't touched his food. Another St. Paul's volunteer tries to coax him into eating.
"Eat! Eat!" she says. "Why do you have your jacket upside-down?"
"Eat! Eat!" she says again.
"Stop it!" Fred snaps.
He begins to push the stuffing and turkey around on his plate. A trio of gray-haired fellows in black zip-up coats and trucker caps pull me into their conversation.
Not Many Complaints but the Scorched Beans
"The food is good here," one says. The other two echo him, "It is, it is."
"The only thing I've ever had a complaint with here is that once in awhile they scorch the beans," one man says. He has a long white beard and twinkling blue eyes, like a weary Santa.
"My mother used to do it," he laughs. "Because she'd be doing something else in the house, and she'd put the beans on to cook ... then she'd come running when the water boiled over. And the instant I'd get to the front door, I'd smell it.
"I'd smell scorched beans and go, 'Mama!' And she'd go, 'I know, I was doing something else.'"
The man is only briefly lost in his reverie of childhood in Oklahoma. "I love my beans," he concludes.
Growing up, he says his family had 20 acres of land behind an old church. They grew peanuts and corn. His family ate a lot of beans and vegetables, but never had much meat. Later on, his father decided to trade for some pigs and set them loose on the peanut and corn crops to grow fat.
Once they got fat, the price for pork plummeted. They smoked a lot of pork meat in those days. A neighborhood butcher eventually bought up all their pigs. The weary Santa said he's never been able to stomach much pork.
"How long we been comin' out here?" another of Santa's friends asks.
"Forever," another one says.
"Since they started," weary Santa says. "You think we should give 'em a donation?"
"Yeah," one says. "Just cut 'em a check."
The trio of Santas floats into their own chit-chat again, gentle riffs on the federal government, TV evangelists and digging holes to find the end of the rainbow.
Fred has picked over his plate and eaten most of it. He shouts to a dark-haired, wiry man, "Jim!"
Jim comes over and says, "How you doin' brother?"
Jim says he's out of work and looking for anything. "I'm a carpenter and cabinet maker by trade," he says.
He's also done maintenance, "clean-up," dishwashing, janitorial work, anything he can get. "My middle name is 'Can I help you?'" Jim says.
His last job was at Sam's Club, where he worked as a cart attendant. When anyone called for help over the walkie-talkie, Jim says he'd be the first one there. "God gave me a helpful heart."
Jim says his goodbyes and quickly heads off again into the crowd. The meal has sobered Fred up, and he's turned moody. He contemplates his hands, marked with dark red slashes. He says he punched somebody, and was later beat up.
"I sowed what I reaped, I mean I reaped what I sowed," he says, probably unaware of his Freudian slip.
A volunteer with round wire-rimmed glasses and short dark hair comes over. She introduces herself as Beverly Stites, a volunteer of St. Paul's since 2003, and asks me how long I've been chatting with Fred. "I think Fred's interesting because he's so young," she says. "And I don't understand why he's on the streets, and he's definitely on the streets."
Stites looks across the crowded room. "We love these people," she says. "It's a calling for us."
Fred stops watching his hands, and picks a fight. He tells another man he'd better pray. "Are you getting into trouble?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says.
"Be good," I respond.
"OK, I'll be good."
And miraculously, he drops the trash talk. "What do you normally do now?" I ask.
"Go swimmin' on top of Liberty Towers in the summer," he says.
"But it's winter," I say.
"Life's boring right now," he says.
Fred sticks some food in his upside-down pockets and heads outside behind the church, where about seven people are clustered near a parking lot dumpster.
They share a little bottle of vodka, and each person gets a deep pull from the bottle before it's empty. Fred throws the empty bottle over the fence, and asks for a ride to a friend's house.
I give him all the change in my wallet (admittedly not much), and don't respond. Together, we walk along Cherry St. and talk about life. He says he's been arrested multiple times for vagrancy, but the subject is a touchy one for Fred.
"How would you feel if you were homeless?" he asks.
"Sh*tty," I say.
"Exactly. How do you think I feel?"
As we stroll past the chic and trendy shops on Cherry St., a shopkeeper comes out and gives Fred a look of open disdain.
When he asks again for a ride, I say yes.
In my beat-up silver Corolla, Fred plays with the radio, and settles on a classic rock station. After a few miles, he directs me to a shabby midtown house near 11th and Peoria with blankets in the windows. He asks for my number then promises to call before heading into the house.
Some people like Stites jump in to help, while the vast majority of us do little or nothing. Some people like Davis pull themselves up out of homelessness, while Fred remains.
Fred never called. I spotted him once since our afternoon on Cherry St., in his dark-green Starter jacket, frowning and alone on a bus stop bench along 11th St.
Many Problems, Few Solutions
About 35 out of every 10,000 veterans are homeless, and 76,000 veterans are homeless on any given night in the U.S., according to statistics published by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
A first-ever report called the State of Homelessness in America investigated indicators and demographic drivers of homelessness and was released in 2011. The report found that the nation's homeless population increased by approximately three percent from 2008 to 2009.
Nearly three-quarters of all U.S. households with incomes below the federal poverty line spent more than half of their monthly income on rent through 2009, the report found.
"These findings project what depressed wages, stagnant unemployment, unrelenting housing cost burden and the lagging pace of economic recovery really means: increases in homelessness and heightened risk of homelessness for more and more Americans," said Nan Roman, president of the national alliance in a 2011 release.
However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported a slight decrease (about 2.1 percent) in the number of people who were homeless in Jan. 2011. Overall, homelessness did not increase or decrease much in 2010.
The Alliance suggested that a federal three-year stimulus program, enacted by President Barack Obama, kept many people afloat through added funding for local homeless assistance programs. The stimulus program ends this year, and the Alliance predicts a rise in homelessness in coming years.
In 2006, a city of Tulsa Mayor's Chronic Homeless Strategy Task Group committed to ending "chronic" homelessness in Tulsa by 2012. The group involved almost all of Tulsa's non-profit and faith-based organizations, state and local government agencies, federal agencies and local and regional planning agencies that provide housing or other services to homeless people and families in Tulsa County.
The group's 2006 initial report indicated that on Jan. 26, 2005, a one-night count showed there were 559 totally homeless adults, a 20 percent reduction since 1990. When they included people in transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, the number rose to 805 on that chilly January night.
More recent statistics show that Tulsa's homeless population may have grown since 2006. A one-night homeless count of Tulsa County showed 954 people were without a place to call their own on a January night in 2009.
But for one afternoon a week on Cherry St., the hungry and homeless in Tulsa have a place to sit and chat, to eat until their bellies are full, to be treated with respect and care and to come in off the cold streets of midtown Tulsa.
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