ex-homeless person on Norfolk, VA Task Force on Homelessness FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 21 May 1998 12:40:23 -0700 (PDT)


http://www.pilotonline.com/news/nw0519hom.html
FWD  The Virginian-Pilot  May 19, 1998


     NORFOLK TASK FORCE ON HOMELESSNESS HAS ONE MEMBER WHO SPEAKS FROM
EXPERIENCE

     By John-Henry Doucette, The Virginian-Pilot


NORFOLK -- The members of the Norfolk Task Force on Homelessness are
business people, care providers, civic league representatives and church
leaders.

Then there's David Gungle.

>From the camouflage garb to the long gray hair pulled behind his head,
Gungle stands out. The Newport News native has spent more than 10 years on
the street, three of them in Norfolk.

Last fall, the task force members invited Gungle to help them examine the
homeless problem here and recommend to City Council what should be done to
manage it.

With this guidance, Norfolk must answer such questions as:

How does a city balance the need to care for vulnerable citizens with the
need to remain sensitive to the impact on its communities?

Since joining the task force in October, the 49-year-old Gungle has watched
the task force struggle to reach a consensus. Gungle said he doesn't have
concrete answers, but he knows the street and the system of services local
homeless people use to stay alive.

A few days in the company of Gungle and other homeless men gives a picture
of Norfolk's street life and the system the task force must evaluate.

Gungle knows this system from a ground's eye view. The recommendations his
insights will flavor are still in the draft stages, but the task force
plans to urge the city to count Norfolk's homeless, tell the public about
the problem, support a care program and create an advisory committee to
oversee it.

Gungle worries these recommendations, due originally to City Council this
month but delayed indefinitely, will not push the city to significantly
improve its ``continuum of care'' from the current system of emergency care.

The system now, in the view of many homeless people and care providers,
keeps the homeless alive yet stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Gungle says the city seems to be afraid beefing up its services might
attract more homeless people.

``It's almost like they want to sweep it under the rug,'' he said. ``But
it's a problem they're really going to have to face seriously.''

Homeless people have become increasingly visible in Norfolk, as in most
American urban areas, since the early 1980s. Informal estimates have said
there are as many as 3,000 homeless within the city, yet most local service
providers agree there are about 500 people physically on the city's streets.

When Gungle first came to Norfolk three years ago from Newport News, he
memorized the local ``Street Sheet,'' a list of places offering shelter,
showers and food.

St. Columba Ecumenical Ministries, a day center for the needy, was a stop
on the list.

Gungle won't give his entire history, but said his homeless life started in
Los Angeles.

He was drinking and his marriage fell apart. He moved through Las Vegas and
Salt Lake City, then returned to Newport News to see his hometown. His
parents were then dead, and the sister who had been a young child when he
left home had grown up without knowing him. He went back to the streets and
a life he was familiar with.

At St. Columba on Lafayette Boulevard, Gungle is trying to work his way off
the street. He cleans showers, passes out sandwiches, helps people with no
more money than he has.

In this environment, the first where Gungle felt supported past the
immediate, three things happened:

A couple he met at a fast-food restaurant allowed him to move into their
garage; St. Columba director Alice Taylor asked him to join the day
center's board; and the nonprofit Planning Council, which assembled the
task force last fall for the city, made Gungle one of two ``homeless''
members.

Taylor recommended him.

`It didn't happen overnight,'' she said. ``David was like everyone else,
but David decided he wanted to help. When he offered, as many people do,
he's the one who stuck to the job.''

Food, shelter, maybe work. These are the priorities of those on the street,
according to Gungle. But the current system of Norfolk services makes it
hard for homeless people to stick with a job, Gungle said.

When you work during the day, you often miss meals at soup kitchens. When
you work late or early hours, you have trouble getting into shelters with
curfews. If you work a night shift, there is no place to sleep during the
day. So you sleep on the street and get rousted.

For many homeless people, Gungle maintained, unemployment is the only way
to get to meals and shelters.

Of the 373 beds and floor mats available in Norfolk, 156 are at shelters
for families, battered women and children or teen-agers. About 85 disappear
when the Norfolk Emergency Shelter Team closes down each spring.

The two Norfolk emergency shelters, Union Mission and the Salvation Army,
limit ``clients'' to three nights per month. During winter months, NEST has
rotating shelter sites with the help of area churches, synagogues and
community groups. On a good night, NEST may take in 90 people, the Mission
50 and the Salvation Army 26.

Many homeless people, such as Gungle, stay with friends who are poor, kind
or both. Others stay in abandoned buildings away from downtown. Several
homeless men and women said they always seem end up ``camping out'' back on
the street.

For Gungle, those days may be over. This summer, St. Columba is scheduled
to open the first of four transitional homes, which will house four people
each. He may have a spot in one of the houses.

Transitional housing, considered a step up from emergency housing, is
temporary housing from 45 days to 18 months, or even more. Such housing
offers stability to the homeless individual or family who spends much of
its time searching for shelter.

Because of the scarcity of such housing -- there is enough in Norfolk for
about 30 families and 45 individuals -- Gungle's chance is one most
homeless people will never have here.

In his role on the task force, Gungle believes he can make the rest of
Norfolk understand that homeless people are more than walking blight.

Care providers have recommended more resources for homeless women,
substance abusers, families and those with mental problems.

Gungle, like many of the care providers on the committee, backs a better
network of services and transitional housing units.

With the task force, Gungle committed most of his commentary to answering
specific questions about the street, and has had limited contact with many
of his fellow members.

Thomas A. Hall, president of the Ocean View Civic League in West Ocean
View, served with Gungle on a committee within the task force. Hall said he
valued the information Gungle brought to the table, but the homeless man
hasn't said much.

Though working toward a common goal, there are clear factions within the
task force, with neighborhood organizations and business leaders often
clashing with caregivers and, philosophically, with Gungle.

Susanne Williams, a representative from Ghent who is tired of homeless
people walking through her neighborhood, last week said the task force is
``stacked'' with care providers. She said there are shelter programs and
soup kitchens in her neighborhood, and that services there are out of
proportion with other areas of Norfolk.

Cathy Coleman, head of the Downtown Norfolk Council, a coalition of
downtown business people, is concerned that services offered by NEST and
Union Mission (though she noted the Mission ``is certainly needed here'')
make the homeless a much more prevalent population downtown. Business
people, she said, are concerned about how this affects Norfolk's image.

Task force chairwoman Mary Louis Campbell said through such discussion the
group is forming a consensus, and added that Gungle's perspectives, when
offered, have been ``a wealth of information.'' David Gungle is not
Norfolk's average single homeless person. In the first place, he's white.

According to care providers, the average homeless person in Norfolk is a
young, black, single man -- locally born and the product of low-income
neighborhood -- like Phillip Hendricks, a 33-year-old regular at St.
Columba.

He has had minor scrapes with the law and recently went back on the street.
Whereas Gungle is reserved, Hendricks is admittedly `hot-headed.'' Last
month, after mouthing off a few times, Hendricks was banned from one local
shelter program.

He still uses the system.

``You get caught up,'' Hendricks said as he and a ``running buddy,'' Otha
Bowman Jr., walked up Granby Street.

With steady lodging, Hendricks said, a guy on the street can look for more
than cleaning local places in exchange for food or cash. That is why steady
housing is so important, he said. When you have a place to live, you can
focus on the other things in life. Such as food and work.

Without shelter, your support network is what you find on the street.
Bowman admitted to getting himself arrested just so he'd have a place to
stay.

Hendricks said he has a job in the works and will have a home before any
task force recommendation matters to him.

The men crossed the street near the Granby Theater, its marque ever
proclaiming: ``Watch Norfolk Grow.''

The attitude people have toward the homeless is nearly as dangerous as cold
and hunger, Gungle said.

On an April night before NEST shut down for the summer, Norfolk's
well-heeled and the homeless nearly collided not far from Chrysler Hall
where ``Miss Saigon'' was about to begin. The theater crowd stayed on the
other side of the street; the homeless stayed on theirs.

Phillip Hendricks was at the bus stop. He was going to the Mission if he
could -- the difference between a bed and a mat on the floor of a NEST
church. He watched an unmarked police car join a blue and white in a lot
across the street. Officer Dale Stacey sat in the unmarked car, aiming a
video camera at the homeless people.

A homeless man wandered across Charlotte Street toward the unmarked car and
asked: ``You with the TV news?''

``Nope,'' Stacey told him. ``With the Police News, I guess.''

Disappointed, the homeless man walked back to the bus stop.

Stacey said he normally uses the video camera to record gang graffiti, but
explained he had been sent out to see how many people use NEST. He guessed
100, perhaps 200, people were at the stop. Actually, 76 homeless people
stood at the bus stop. NEST had room for only 60. The rest would go to the
Mission.

``It's kind of like they're waiting for Elton John tickets, huh?'' Stacey
observed.

When the buses pulled up, Stacey got out of his car and kept taping.

Hendricks waited for Dale Gauding, a television news reporter who runs the
NEST program with his wife, Lee Green. Gauding wrote him a referral which
would allow him to stay at the Mission and then walked toward the cruisers.

With crisp, broadcast-quality pipes, he let the NPD know what he thought of
police videographers.

``Outrageous,'' he called it.

Two weeks later, David Gungle smoked a hand-rolled cigarette, tossed a
backpack over his camouflage-clad shoulder and made a rare trip into Ghent.

A stone's throw from Colley Cantina, its outside patio packed with the
$2.95 afternoon margarita-crowd, Gungle crossed Colley Avenue and walked
along the side of First Lutheran Church location of a recent meeting of the
Norfolk Task Force on Homelessness.

``I used to come here on Wednesdays and grab lunch,'' he said, recalling
the soup kitchen meal at the church. ``They serve a nice lunch.''

The task force debated how to present what they have learned to City
Council. Gungle spoke up once, when the topic turned to ``the panhandling
homeless.''

``It's been my experience,'' he said, ``that most panhandlers are not
homeless.''

The last action Gungle took was to raise an eyebrow when Susanne Williams
played ``devil's advocate'' and questioned the very nature of Norfolkians
and homeownership.

``A homeless person technically is not a citizen of Norfolk,'' she said.

Mary Louis Campbell, head of the task force, dismissed the notion. Gungle's
eyebrow went down.

After the meeting, Williams and Gungle spoke over cigarettes outside.

``You have a little bit of a unique problem here,'' Gungle offered.

``You mean in Ghent?'' Williams asked.

``With all of the churches and soup kitchens and shelters,'' Gungle replied.

``Yes.''

``Services are spread all over the place.''

``I still see a lot of homeless all over the place,'' Williams said.

The two, who have been working together for months, exchanged a few more
words and went their separate ways, with Gungle walking back toward Colley
Avenue.

`That's the first time I ever had a conversation with her one on one,'' he
said. ``Sometimes when you can talk to someone one on one, you come to an
understanding.''

Have you reached an understanding?

``No,'' he said.

END FORWARD

HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/>  Home Page
ARCHIVES  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/archives.html>  read posts to HPN
TO JOIN  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/join.html> or email Tom <wgcp@earthlink.net>