SPECIAL REPORT PART 1 - 'It's easy to be homeless here'

DeWayne Bartels

San Diego may beat Peoria in the category of climate, but one homeless man said he would much rather face Peoria’s bitter cold than San Diego’s warmth.

The man, who refers to himself as “Snake,” said he has experienced homelessness in both cities and prefers Peoria because there is a climate of generosity here that San Diego does not have. In fact, he said, it is “easy” to be homeless in Peoria.

An easy city

“I’ve been homeless in San Diego. It was tough,” Snake, 29, a San Francisco native, said.

“I slept on cardboard over a heating grate in front of an Office Max.”

He said help for the homeless in San Diego was “dismal” compared to Peoria.

“Peoria’s set up so it’s easy to be homeless here,” Snake said.

“Here you have food pantries, places for the homeless to get clothes, a shower, a warm place to sleep and regular medical care.”

Snake specifically cited the Salvation Army’s generosity. He looked around the Safety Net Shelter in the Sylvia Fites Center, which he calls home. More than 20 men were roaming around the large room, watching TV, talking and reading.

“I’d say 80 percent of the men here  right now want this lifestyle,” he said.

Another man seated at the table with him nodded in agreement.

“A lot of these men want this lifestyle. They want a free ride, I guess,” Snake said.

“They have free food and lodging. That’s all most of them here feel they need.”

Difference of opinion

Several representatives of organizations that provide services to the homeless said while Peoria does have an abundance of services for the homeless, they do not believe the majority of the city’s homeless population are abusing them.

But, most conceded there is a fine line between generosity and enabling the homeless.

“There is a fine line,” Glenavary Lucas, director of family services for the Salvation Army, said.

“Our goal is not to be enablers. Our goal is to help every client to become self-sufficient.”

Lucas dismissed the assessment of how many homeless choose the lifestyle.

“No one wants to be homeless, maybe 5 percent,” she said.

There is little agreement on the percentage of who want to be homeless.

Dustin Swigart, homeless management information system manager for the YWCA Peoria, said he believes the number is more like 20 to 30 percent of Peoria’s homeless have chosen it as a lifestyle.

“Homelessness is not easy. What these people do to stay warm, get fed and clothed is almost a full-time job,” Swigart said.

Swigart said he personally knows 10 to 15 people who have been chronically homeless over the past seven years by their own choice.

“This is their lifestyle, to stay on the street. But, there is nothing easy about it,” he said.

Pam Swigart, executive director of the YWCA Peoria, said, “We are enabling people not to freeze on the streets.

“We are enabling these people to have a place to go other than public places. Some have chosen this as their way of life. There are some folks you just can’t help.”

She said Peoria is a generous community, but it is not as if the city has a reputation that is attracting transients to move here.   

Patty Bash, founder and coordinator of the Loves and Fishes program at First United Methodist Church,  said she does not believe any of the homeless people they serve are just freeloaders.    

“That’s a real interesting question. I believe if they were able, all of them would chose to be self-sufficient,” Bash said.

“A lot of these people we serve are not able to work because of chemical dependency and being down on their luck.”

Bash said she can understand how some might feel the city’s generosity is being taken advantage of, but said it is not a Christian’s duty to judge, but provide.

“I don’t want to be that judge,” Bash said.

She conceded there probably is a “very low” population of Peoria’s homeless that take advantage of the services offered here. 

“I am sure there are some people who fall into that category, but I’m the eternal optimist. The people I see are very grateful for what is provided,” Bash said.

“It shouldn’t matter to those who come from a faith-based perspective. Snake is living this life. I’m not, but I think his numbers should be flipped the other way.”

Bash said Snake does make one valid point in that generosity that is not tempered with providing a sense of self-responsibility can create undesired results.

“A lot of times our country,” she said, “gives people a fish instead of a fishing pole.”