[Hpn] Rescue mission directors get taste of homeless life
Morgan W. Brown
Mon, 26 Nov 2001 10:51:06 -0500
Sunday, November 25, 2001
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer <http://www.l-e-o.com>
Local News section
Rescue mission directors get taste of homeless life
BY LARRY GIERER
As a tired Jay Kurtz stood in the mission line awaiting word of where he'd
be sleeping that evening he made the mistake of getting too close to the
fellow in front of him.
"Hey, give me some room," the man barked at Kurtz. "I'll knock your head
off." Nervously, Kurtz stepped back as expletives spewed from the stranger's
"You know," Kurtz said, recalling the incident a few days later, "he wasn't
really such a bad guy."
Like so many in his situation, Kurtz explained, the man had a victim's
mentality. He thought everyone was against him. He told Kurtz he was
scheduled to go to prison the next week for something he didn't do.
Kurtz has worked with such men every day for almost two years as the
director of the Howard Mott Men's Center at the Valley Rescue Mission in
Columbus. It was in Louisville, Ky., last week, however, that he saw mission
life from a different perspective.
That's when he and Gary Hartman, the executive director of the Valley Rescue
Mission, pretended to be homeless men looking for a place to spend the
"When I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary there many years
ago, there was a course that offered students the opportunity to live out on
the streets for a couple of weeks," Hartman said. "I mentioned it to Jay,
and he said, 'Why don't we do that?' And since it's always been a dream of
mine to experience the life of a homeless person, we did."
They chose a place far away where nobody would know them. Hartman, 49, let
his beard grow longer and a little scraggly. Kurtz, 37, took a month to grow
one. Old clothes were borrowed from the mission's bargain center. All
personal belongings besides a driver's license were left behind.
The two then made a 10-hour drive to the home of a pastor friend of
Hartman's in North Vernon, Ind. After the two spent time helping the pastor
hang drywall at his home - "many homeless men work at such day jobs,"
Hartman said - the pastor drove the pair to a corner in Louisville a little
less than a mile from the Wayside Christian Mission.
Upon arriving at the mission, they spent time in an adjacent fenced-off
alley where they rested by some picnic tables. "I sat with my back to the
wall," Hartman said, adding that he never felt fear, just some apprehension.
The pair talked with a few others, striking up a conversation, in
particular, with a fellow named "Cowboy." Most of the other men kept to
"We just asked about dinner, about sleeping arrangements," Kurtz said.
Hartman and Kurtz said they could pick out the drug dealers in the crowd,
the guys swapping medications. They heard a lot of cussing, something they
don't hear at home.
"The men were completely different when an authority figure was around,"
Kurtz said. "The attitude was much more negative when they were alone."
The next day was spent walking the streets. "We got a lot of stares. Some
people crossed to the other side when they saw us," Kurtz said. While
crossing a mile-long bridge they came face-to-face with a jogger who "looked
scared to death."
Learning from experience
While in just a short time both experienced the loneliness that comes with
being in a strange place, the pair knew they could never experience
completely what it was like to be a homeless person since they could always
pick up the telephone and go back to the comforts they were used to. Still,
Hartman said, some homeless people have a way out as well.
"Some have homes, families to go to, but they stay on the street. With many,
it's an authority issue, a pride issue. They've just broken off the
relationships they have."
At night, the beds in the mission were close to each other, just a few
inches separating head from toe. "This guy next to me snored - loudly - all
night. When I told him the next day, he told me, 'Get over it. It's a
mission,' Kurtz said, laughing.
Another purpose of the trip for Hartman and Kurtz, who also spent a night at
a mission in Knoxville, Tenn., was to see how they could better serve the
community here by seeing how others run their programs.
At the Valley Rescue Mission, for example, residents are asked to take a
shower and are given fresh linens upon arrival. Kurtz said many don't take
the shower they so badly need. Where they visited, men were made to leave if
they refused to take a shower. "Some haven't washed for weeks," Kurtz said.
"I stood by a man who had gone to the bathroom in his clothes. It can cause
The two came away feeling good about the way they do things at their
mission, which is home to more than 80 men and serves 10,000 meals a month.
"We had the old clothes, were dirty and stinky, but we could never produce
the stares of emptiness that are in the eyes of so many of these men,"
Hartman said. "That's because we have something inside they didn't. At the
Valley Rescue Mission, every man is given the opportunity to become
acquainted with Jesus Christ. We take no government money so we're allowed
to operate like that."
Michelle Mullen, a coordinator with the Columbus Task Force for the
Homeless, is glad to have places such as the Valley Rescue Mission and the
Salvation Army, saying it'd be a "mess" without them.
"We have about 1,500 homeless people a day in Columbus," Mullen said, "and
only about two-thirds of them are with the missions. The rest are sleeping
under bridges, in the woods, on some friend's basement floor. The numbers
are growing. More people are coming off the welfare rolls, and a decent job
is hard to find right now."
"One of the big myths is that these men just sit around and do nothing,"
Kurtz said. "The men who are in our residents program either work at the
mission or out in the community. We're not here to enable them but to give
them the tools to go out and become a success."
Hartman said the people in Columbus have been very generous to the Valley
Rescue Mission, but if they spent some time in the shoes of a homeless
person for a couple of days such as he and Kurtz did, they'd be even more
Hartman has noticed a change since returning.
"I'd get so busy sometimes that there are times when I've unintentionally
walked by somebody here and not said hello," he said. "The adventure made me
more cognizant of a person's existence."
As for Kurtz, it gave him "a greater love for the work I do, a greater
Contact Larry Gierer
at (706) 571-8581 or
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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