News and Tribune

November 25, 2012

Event is a chance to 'walk the walk' of homelessness


JEFFERSONVILLE — For more than 25 years, Greg has called the streets of Nashville, Tenn., Southern Indiana and the Louisville area his home. Throughout the years, he’s gone from camp to camp, depending on which ones get broken up by law enforcement, or which ones he’s fled because of violence.

Oddly enough, when Greg has been thrown out of camps, a fine was often placed with the eviction, which is something he could not afford.

A couple times he did live in an apartment, but with paranoid schizophrenia, the streets have just become more comfortable, even when it’s down-right cold. When he thinks about what got him on the streets in the first place, he says it was a lot of things.

“A lot of things I could have changed, but I still might be right here,” said Greg, who currently spends his time in Southern Indiana.

 “I don’t like it so much in Louisville. I lived there for a long time, and it’s better over here,” said Greg, who feels more welcome, thanks to a smaller community and ministries such as Jeffersonville’s Exit 0.    

“Over here, we can pull them from their group and work one on one,” said Paul Stensrud with Exit 0, the Southern Indiana, and Louisville area, outreach group that  provides food, resources, connections to services for the homeless population.

Every Sunday, the volunteers serve lunch and dinner at the Exit 0 area. They also hold a Bible study with a dinner on Wednesday and they offer transportation to church services. The mission also provides supplies and outreach, and the mission builds awareness about the homeless for others to understand.

According to Coalition for the Homeless of Louisville, there are 9,000 children in the Jefferson County School System who are homeless. There are about 300 people homeless in Southern Indiana, but that number doesn’t include children. Also, that could be more considering some people who stay on a friend’s couch, but never seek services.

“When we consider homelessness, we consider it’s someone without a home, whether they sleep on someone else’s couch, street or the shelter. The numbers continue to climb. It’s not always because of drugs or mental illness. Some are working at retail stores for 30 hours, but they can’t afford a place, or they are labor ready for the summer,” said Stensrud.

Perhaps after a recent weekend, people became more aware of the homeless population while also rejecting the typical stereotype. About 30 youth group members and adults, experienced Campout for Homelessness 2012. The two night, three day event was held in partnership with Park Memorial United Methodist Church in Jeffersonville and Exit 0.

Matt Hantelman, youth minister at Park Memorial United Methodist Church, said the church has held the campout for four years with its youth group. However, this was the first year to partner with Exit 0 and open the activity to other churches, the public and several homeless who were invited to share their stories. 

The side yard of the church became a tent city during the weekend, and despite the cold, the campers toughed it out.

A positive attitude seemed to be common among the campers.

“It’s really fun, but odd because this is a big transition from sitting in your house with all of your heating and your food right there. Here, we have to wait to eat, and tomorrow we’re fasting,” said sixth grade student Bethany Johnson. The Sunday fast wasn’t a requirement, but an encouragement because many homeless endure several days without a meal.

During the campout, the organizers arranged activities to simulate what it’s like to be homeless. In fact, just two nights of camping in a cardboard box was a trying experience.

“I know we’re all tired and our minds are out of whack. This is why we wanted two nights because you’re really starting to understand what it is to be homeless,” said Stensrud, who added that it was all part of putting them through the walk.

The walk included boxes that caved in due to the frost on Friday night, listening to Sarge’s [yes, he’s a homeless veteran] stories about violence on the streets, picking up trash at a Louisville homeless camp and returning to an unpleasant surprise.

“I walked to my box and it was ripped up and everything was gone,” recalled Jeffersonville High School student Chelsea Mattingly. She added that her neighbor’s box had been burned to the ground. Luckily, her stuff was hidden inside the church, and her neighbor didn’t lose anything either. The vandalism and “theft” were all part of walking the walk, because those on the street experience such calamities on a regular basis. Greg shared several stories of waking up only to find his backpack and shoes stolen.

Mattingly was pretty sure who took her stuff, and incorrectly placed blame.

“The kids started blaming each other and that’s what happens at the camps on the streets. People get mad at each other [when something is vandalized],” said Amy Melton-Maddox, a volunteer with Exit 0.

Mattingly was aggravated and upset, but she quickly got over it. However, she learned a life-long lesson about having compassion for people who find themselves in a “dog-eat-dog world.”

“This is an experience to have. I thought it was amazing. The people I got to meet are fantastic and amazing,” said Mattingly, who looks forward to volunteering with Exit 0.

Exit 0 volunteer Rick Missi said the entire weekend was a great experience for himself, the homeless and the youth groups.

“The kids got to sit in the camps [where they picked up trash] with these guys homes and have lunch. I thought it was a great experience for them. They were apprehensive at first, but the guys answered their questions,” said Missi, who added the kids saw how fortunate they are to have something as simple as a bathroom.

The weekend concluded with the group visiting the Saturday morning church service for the homeless that is held along the Louisville riverfront. Exit 0, and several other outreach organizations, passed out supplies, food and an open mind to the several hundred people who attend every week.