Homelessness in Columbia: the faces

USC’s Kloos: Housing is ‘cruel game of musical chairs’

This story is the second in a three-part series featuring homelessness in Columbia.

George Cook has a lot on his plate right now.

This morning, he’s giving a presentation at a public city forum. Saturday morning, he’ll be supervising a car wash fundraiser. After that, he’s been invited to a cookout at a friend’s house. Sunday, he’ll be in church almost all day, as usual. Next month, he’ll start pastoring a church of his own.

Cook, 45, spends his nights at Oliver Gospel Mission. Within the next few weeks, he plans to move into a place of his own for the first time in two years.

Cook is one of the more than 1,000 people in Richland County who do not have permanent, secure housing.

The issue of homelessness in Columbia has risen to some prominence in public discussion in recent weeks since the halt of Ebenezer Lutheran Church’s nightly meal service due to a conflict between city leaders and service providers.

But finding a meal in Columbia is not the biggest problem facing the city’s homeless.

“Even people that have homes — they run out of food and they’ve got to go out and try to find food, too. If someone goes hungry in Columbia, it’s pretty much because they want to,” Cook said.

Instead, his biggest concerns for himself and the rest of Columbia’s homeless population are finding affordable places to live. He also wants to see more places for the homeless to go during the day so they don’t have to be on the streets, and he’d like for the city to invest in more portable bathrooms.

Cook will share his ideas for solutions to the problems facing the homeless on behalf of Homeless Helping the Homeless (HHH), an advocacy group with both homeless and non-homeless members, at today’s public forum at Earlewood Park Community Center.

“It’s hard on a person when you know you need something and can’t get it,” Cook said.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

Causes of homelessness stem from the interaction of multiple personal and environmental or structural conditions, varying by each individual case, according to Bret Kloos, a USC psychology professor who has worked with supportive housing programs and homeless outreach and currently teaches a South Carolina Honors College class on homelessness.

“If you think about homelessness as this cruel game of musical chairs, who gets into the chair?” Kloos said.

It could be losing a job, a health issue, a natural disaster, low wages, high housing costs and any combination of any number of other intertwining conditions that lead to homelessness, Kloos said.

But regardless of the cause, the effect is the same:

“At the most basic level, people don’t have a place to live,” Kloos said.

Cook found himself without a place to live about two years ago as a result of trying to give someone else a place to live. He let someone move in with him, and that person ended up stealing money from him and not contributing to rent costs, he said.

“So that made me get behind,” Cook said. “I got so far behind I couldn’t get caught up. So that’s how I became homeless.

“I’m learning that you can’t really be nice to everybody. There’s some people you can be (nice to), and some people you can’t. You’ve got some people that will take advantage of your niceness. Some people won’t.”

Since then Cook has spent periods of time at Transitions homeless shelter, the city’s winter emergency shelter and Oliver Gospel Mission. He’s spent some nights on the streets, too.

Cook said he has some disabilities, which he did not want to specify, that make it difficult for him to hold a job. He lives off a $710 Social Security check each month, he said. But that check is about to get bigger next month, Cook said, and he’s almost certain he will be able to move into a permanent place of his own very soon.

“It’s not my intention to be homeless the rest of my life. I prefer having my own place,” Cook said.

‘WHY WORRY WHEN YOU CAN PRAY?’

Cook tries to stay busy these days. He’s an active member of HHH, which meets every Monday night at the Richland County Public Library. Founded in 2010, HHH engages in political discussions, community service projects and public appearances all designed to raise awareness and change perceptions of the homeless.

“We do these projects to show the community and the public, ‘Hey, homeless people are not all bad.’ You’ve got homeless guys that will get out and work. If you give them half a chance, they’ll get out there. They’ll work. They’ll do what they can,” Cook said.

Cook is also preparing to take over the pastorship of A Voice in the Wilderness Church early next month, and he always carries a Bible with him — “I always keep the sword close to me,” he said.

He never makes a decision without taking it to God first, he said, and prayer is one of the biggest ways anyone can offer to help him.

“I try not to worry. I try to stay prayed up,” Cook said. “Why worry when you can pray?”

Editor’s note: The author is a student in Bret Kloos’ South Carolina Honors College class, “Homelessness in South Carolina: Research and Action.” Research and reporting was done for this series as part of a final research/advocacy project.


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