Various major media

Washington Times: Death among homeless inspires soul-searching

Page 1-A. Published Oct. 29, 2009.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For The Washington Times

EDMOND, Okla. | Sunlight through a tall stained-glass window reflected off a donated casket as 350 people came to pay tribute to Dwite Morgan’s 54 years on earth.

To hear First Christian Church senior pastor Chris Shorow tell it, Mr. Morgan was a fixture in this affluent Oklahoma City suburb — a man with a life worth celebrating. Even if he was homeless and frequented the church’s free-breakfast program.

Better known in this community of 80,000 as “Bicycle Bob,” Mr. Morgan spent much of the last 25 years sleeping under the stars — the same place where police found him stabbed and beaten to death Oct. 18.

Across the nation, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless people whose faces and names are well-known to church leaders — yet those people, like Mr. Morgan, remain on the streets.

“The church is like a billboard, advertising compassion and loving service. So often, they are the ones whose doorbells ring for help,” said Charles Strobel, founding director of Room in the Inn, a Nashville, Tenn., program that feeds and houses the homeless in churches and synagogues during the winter.

“Most of the time, if help is given, it’s direct emergency services of food, clothing, perhaps shelter and some transportation,” said Mr. Strobel, a former Catholic priest.

However, many churches and religious groups seem less eager to confront the more difficult challenge, he said: Social action to bring about real changes and create affordable housing for the poor.

“Until those changes occur,” Mr. Strobel said, “people remain on the streets, even to the point of becoming a familiar part of the church family.”

A similar situation confronted Jeannette Smith, 66, a homeless woman who slept outside an Atlanta church for more than a year — the same place where police found her fatally shot Oct. 12.

The West End Church of Christ in Atlanta helped organize a funeral service and offered a $1,000 reward for information about Ms. Smith’s death.

“She didn’t bother anybody, just kept to herself,” church secretary Gayron Johnson said of Ms. Smith, who went from church to church for more than four years and kept her blankets and sparse belongings in a buggy the size of a grocery cart. “What I saw in her was a meek and quiet spirit.”

Members at the West End church frequently gave Ms. Smith food and money and encouraged her to go to a shelter, but she wouldn’t do it, Mrs. Johnson said. Ms. Smith preferred to sleep on her own. She told members that people were mean to her at the shelter.

“We all wanted to see her off the street and somewhere warm and inside,” Mrs. Johnson said. “But she’d be right there the next morning when I came to the church.”

But advocates for the homeless say no one really chooses to live on the streets.

Typically, those homeless for more than a year suffer from an untreated mental illness, a substance-abuse problem or a combination of the two, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

A homeless man who “chooses” to live on the street may really be saying that he’s addicted to drinking and can’t accept another living arrangement if he can’t have his booze, Mr. Donovan said. Or a homeless woman who refuses to go to a shelter may be saying that she got robbed, raped or assaulted there and is afraid to go back.

In a number of cities, a “housing first” approach to caring for the homeless has seen positive results in recent years, Mr. Donovan said.

Rather than ask a homeless person to get clean and sober — or receive mental health treatment — before receiving a permanent home, this approach offers housing first and deals with the underlying personal issues later.

“What we have found is, if you’re interested in getting someone to leave homelessness, then you have to do it on their terms,” said Sam Tsemberis, founder of Pathways to Housing, which has helped find homes for more than 1,000 chronically homeless people in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

“It’s a slow road to recovery, but it’s a quick road to ending homelessness,” Mr. Tsemberis said of finding homes first and dealing with the mental health and substance-abuse issues afterward.

Earlier this month, a study released by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles indicated that the city could save $20,000 a year per homeless person by placing those on the streets into permanent supportive housing.

University of Southern California researchers studied the costs of caring for four Los Angeles men before and after they got homes. Expenses calculated included emergency-room visits, jail time, alcohol- and drug-abuse services and mental health treatment.

Here in Edmond, at Mr. Morgan’s funeral, a well-dressed congregation — most of whom did not know the real name of “Bicycle Bob” — sang “Amazing Grace.” Women dabbed their eyes with tissues. A few autumn-colored floral arrangements and a battered, beige bicycle painted a picture few had studied for long until this day.

In the days since Mr. Morgan’s death, his life circumstances and violent death have prompted a mix of sadness and self-awareness in a suburban community known for its super-sized churches, grocery stores and youth sports complexes.

Church and community leaders paint a portrait of a friendly, mentally ill man who liked riding his bike all over town and sleeping outdoors — from a chicken coop at his late grandmother’s house to an alley behind a feed and garden store where his body was found.

“I bought him a meal or two, a few cups of coffee. I like to think I did my part,” said David Hartman, one of hundreds of residents who helped Mr. Morgan in one way or another.

“And yet at the end of Dwite’s day, he still died a homeless, familyless man,” Mr. Hartman added. “Lots of people did something. No one did enough.”

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