Paul is schizophrenic. Nearly six decades into his hard life, his words come out fast, interrupted by the occasional screeching laugh.
He didn’t want his picture used in this article, so there is no picture.
As for his name, it’s not really Paul. See, this short, bearded, haggard man is a little embarrassed about how his life has turned out. When The Frontier interviewed him last week, at the terminus of a highway off-ramp, he was out doing what he does — betting on the benevolence of passersby.
A dollar here, $5 there. It adds up.
But, he says, he would work if he could.
“I’d try anything. This is humiliating,” he says. “Don’t put my name in the paper.”
Paul had never heard of the city’s “A Better Way” initiative. Once in place later this year, it will put panhandlers and others down on their luck to work cleaning up the city. The workers will be paid in cash and provided with references to social service agencies.
“I will try it, I guarantee you,” Paul says. “Maybe I would get in better shape than sitting here.”
Steve Whitaker, senior pastor and president of John 3:16 Mission, is a big fan of the initiative. But he’s also grounded in years of experience dealing with the disadvantaged and understands that the city will need more than good intentions.
“I think we (the city) need to work hard to get the right provider or providers to operate the program,” he said.
Only experienced and knowledgeable social service providers will be able to do the work required to identify and address the needs of those individuals who choose to participate in A Better Way, Whitaker said.
And part of that job will be to separate the truly needy from those people for whom panhandling is a choice rather than a necessity.
“I think that getting to know the people, doing the casework, finding out who they really are is really important as a community,” Whitaker said.
Tulsa has about 50 “chronic panhandling” sites, Whitaker said, and his staff has been to each and every one handing out compassion cards — a free ticket, if you well, to a meal, lodging and other assistance.
“Fourteen people in the last 36 months have come into the shelter (with those cards), and we have given out thousands of them,” he said.
The unanswered question, then, is this: Will there be enough people willing to answer A Better Way’s call to work?
Tulsa police made 483 arrests – or issued citations – for panhandling in 2016, according to Police Department records.
Meanwhile, figures compiled by John 3:16 Mission show about 100 panhandlers in the city, Whitaker said. The number does not include those people who frequent the chronic panhandling sites.
The latest point-in-time homeless count, conducted in January by the Tulsa City and County Continuum of Care, puts Tulsa’s homeless population at 824, including 99 children.
Those populations overlap, of course, but Whitaker is cautiously optimistic A Better Way can work. And he firmly believes the city is heading in the right direction in supporting programs that promote the dignity of work.
“I value this project because I see it as at least a small step that we value the dignity of work,” he said. “If you are picking up trash or doing landscaping, we are saying that that matters to us. You should work for what you get.”
So what do people living on Tulsa’s streets or in homeless shelters think of the idea? We already know what Paul thinks, and if the rest of The Frontier’s small sampling is any indication, A Better Way may indeed be a good way to both beautify Tulsa and improve the lives of its most vulnerable population.
Here are their stories as told to The Frontier.
Eric has been living on the streets off and on for eight years.
He grew up in north Tulsa, the son of a carpenter. Dad is gone. So are many other people he once loved.
“I really need to be seeing a social worker because I lost a lot of people out of my life,” he says. “It knocked a big piece out of me, you know, and made me not able to know myself anymore.”
Eric says he would go to work for A Better Way; he’d even pass out cards promoting the program.
“I will be able to achieve more goals in life, more referrals to other jobs,” he says. “Maybe start up my own business.”
Donald sleeps on a rock in a downtown park.
“On” a rock?
“Yes,” he says, a wry smile inching across his weathered face.
“Back when I was young, you could go quit a job and go get another one. You can’t do that anymore,” he says. “Plus, I’m getting old and wore out. Shoulders are all messed up and everything. High blood pressure.”
A native of Arkansas, Donald has been “doing the junking thing” in Tulsa for years, making $5 on a good day. He would welcome A Better Way.
“I would walk around picking trash. That is what I am doing anyway,” he says. “It would be a win-win, too. Nobody likes to see junk floating around.”
A day’s wage – say $50 or $60 – would be a windfall for Donald. The first thing he’d do with that kind of money is buy some food.
And, he says, “If I got enough, I would probably go to a motel for a night. A bed, you know, a bathroom where you could clean up, watch TV … umm, I haven’t had one of them in a while.”
Chaslie doesn’t always know where she’ll sleep come nightfall, but she can tell you where she gets her food. The list of shelters and food banks roll off her tongue like she’s reciting the alphabet.
She says she’s trying “to get up” and do better with her life, maybe even get a house someday.
If the city offered her A Better Way, Chaslie would take it.
“And actually move on someday,” she says.
In the meantime, after four years on the streets, what she would most like to see the city provide is more transitional living facilities.
“Help the homeless,” she says. “Do something like invest in the homeless.”
“My neck was broken back in ’95. That was the first major injury that I have had, and it damn sure put a damper on everything.”
Wes has filed for disability, so he’s not even sure he could work for A Better Way. But he thinks it’s the best way the city can help the homeless.
“The most they (the city) can do is offer them work, and if they don’t want it, I don’t think they deserve benefits.”
Maybe, the longtime mechanic says, he could work in the program part time.
“I don’t mind working, I really don’t,” he says. “But I do have some disabilities. I can’t do mechanic work because I can’t feel my fingers.
“It’s been a loooong, hard road for being 46.”
Wes grew up in Adair but has lived in Tulsa for years – on and off the streets. His most recent stint without a place to stay began about six weeks ago.
He says he’d save half his earnings from A Better Way to rent a place somewhere.
“(With) the other half, I would eat or whatever had to be done. It’s not enough to rent a motel room, that’s for sure – and eat.”
Janet’s heard of A Better Way. She saw something about it on TV.
“I thought it was a good deal,” she says. “It would keep a lot of us from panhandling, being out on the streets.”
She has a nasty habit – smoking. That’s how a lot of the money she would earn from A Better Way would be spent, she says. But it would also pay for shampoo and heath-care products.
“I would do it,” she says. “I could go around (and) pick up trash, make it look nice. Yes, I sure would.”
It beats begging.
“You know, this day and time, people are a little bit leery about you walking up to them for something,” she says.
Janet, who is from Sapulpa, has been staying in a shelter the last couple of weeks. It’s not the first time she’s been homeless.
So she did not hesitate when asked what would be the best thing the city could do to help people like herself?
“Housing and apartments. That too much to ask?
“Sounds like a pretty good idea,” Drew says of A Better Way.
He could use a job. He’s been out of prison just a couple of weeks. Drugs put him in. And now potential employers look at him like he’s crazy when he says he needs a job.
“I don’t do drugs anymore,” he says. “Four years of my live there (in prison). I am done with that.”
Drew’s mom and dad are dead, he says, and his sister’s off somewhere living her life. So he has no plans to return home to Oklahoma City.
“I knew I would get back into the drug scene” there, he says.
He’s living in a shelter, but he would love to see the city provide more transitional living someday. When he got out of prison, he was given $50 and dropped off at the bus station.
So the chance to make about that much in one day in the A Better Way program sounds pretty good to him. He even knows how he’d spend the money.
“First and foremost, food. I am a big guy. I eat a lot. I look skinny, but I am a fat boy on the inside.”