A Place of Their Own

"No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter/Sometimes that's just the most comfortable place." --Bright Eyes, "Road to Joy"

Sporty is a natural leader, the kind of person others follow instinctively. He's a who-where-when-what-why-how guy, an answer man. A few twists and turns aside, he could be someone's boss. In fact, he is the boss out here, in a way.

That's merely another problem for him, and he has enough of those. He doesn't want to be the boss. Not to Uncle Willie, Eight Ball, Carlos or Arnold or any of the others who live here under a bridge just off Industrial Boulevard. Sporty doesn't have the answers. Just more questions. Just like everyone else.

"It's kinda hard for me, because everybody looks up to me," Sporty says. He's sitting on a dirty blue Rubbermaid cooler, surrounded by empty 40s. His skin is ashy, and his clothes have seen better days. Cleaner ones, anyway. "How am I supposed to know what to do? I don't know. I'm not no psychologist. I have my own problems. How can I fix yours? I can't even fix mine."

Sporty won't blame his problems on anyone else. He's the one who went to jail for two years (he won't say why), losing everything he had in the process. He's the one who moved here from Gary, Indiana, without a job or a place to live. He got here alone, but he knows he can't leave that way.

"It's not that a person don't wanna do anything with his life out here, man," Sporty says, rubbing his hand over the gray stubble on his face, staring off in the distance at the panoramic view of the downtown skyline. "But being homeless like this, sometimes you get stuck, you know, and get complacent. And it's hard to come out that rut, man, you know? And once you get out of there, you can [go] from there, but..." He pauses and considers his words. "You need that first step, man, and once you get that first step, you go from there."

He's not talking about a bed in a shelter. He doesn't want to hear about the new homeless assistance center the city is planning to build near downtown. The one for which the city needs between $9 million and $18 million for land acquisition, design and construction and, so far, has $3 million to spend. The one that won't open until December 2007 at the earliest.

To Sporty, a shelter is like going back to prison, and two years in the joint was enough. Having someone tell him when to go to sleep, when to get up, when to go to the bathroom--screw that noise. He'd rather be out here, where at least he can be a man. Sleep when he's tired, wake up when he's not, take a piss without permission. "You got more peace of mind," he says.

But Sporty is tired of hustling for enough change to buy a beer to make the day go by quicker. Tired of wondering what, if anything, he's going to eat that day. Tired of losing friends, like Hubcap, who was shot to death a few weeks ago behind a convenience store. Tired of wondering if he's going to be next.

Most of the people around this camp figure that's the only way they'll ever get off the street, going from sleeping bag to body bag. The city hasn't done much to dissuade them of the opinion, outlawing their lifestyle without providing them an alternative. They all want that first step out of here, but no one is showing them where to put their feet.

They have no reason to believe Tom Dunning can help them do it. He looks like every other gray-haired, gray-suited big shot they've seen, with empty promises about helping the homeless and an emptier wallet when it comes time to pay the bill. But Sporty and everyone else under the bridge might be surprised to learn that Dunning, the city's homeless czar since September, agrees with them. Another homeless shelter isn't the answer. Or, at least, it's not the only answer.

Dunning knows that while a shelter will get people off the streets, it won't keep them off. His task force has studied other cities, looking for anything that works, and it keeps coming back to one thing, a form of supportive housing called single-room occupancies, or SROs.

SROs are pretty much exactly what their name implies. They're more or less what you'd expect in a hotel room. Nothing fancy--a bed and (usually) a bathroom, maybe a kitchenette. Instead of a concierge, you get a social worker. Rent is 30 percent of the tenant's income, and public housing agencies cover the difference.