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Cell to Shelter

Story: Karli Mehrle

Research: Karli Mehrle + Issa Buck

Photography by Madison Green


Imagine being kept in a small six-by-eight cell, paying your debt to society, only to be released to feel like you are just being placed into another cell. Except this is a cell you share with 50 other people and your new space is a small blue cot. This is the reality for individuals coming out of prison and facing homelessness on the streets.


Homelessness is an epidemic that is steadily growing, but it’s rarely advertised or acknowledged. To be homeless means to be lacking fixed, regular and adequate housing. This can be anywhere from living in shelters, motels, cars, abandoned buildings, public spaces, or temporarily living with others. According to Demos roughly 1 in 7 people will face or have faced homelessness in their lifetime. However, people who have been incarcerated more than once, are almost twice as likely to experience homelessness as the general public. In the drastic winter months in Columbia, shelter is necessary for survival. 


Room at the Inn is a program where churches set shelters for the homeless on the unbearable winter nights. Broadway Christian Life Center, in particular, has a different approach to housing the homeless. Each night they house up to 50 adults, including sex offenders as well as individuals who are under the influence. Everyone staying there knows there’s no fighting, no leaving, smoke break at nine-fifteen and lights out at ten. Behind the tables where people can grab a hot meal and watch a movie, the fluorescent lights contrast with the bright blue cots that are scattered across the gym floor. As the doors open on the cold nights, the people start filing in, each greeted by their name. Many of the homeless joke around with the volunteers and tell them about their day and their jobs as they enter the building. The scene is not what the typical outsider may imagine a homeless shelter to be; smiles, laughter, and good people fill the room.




“I could build a miniature house in no time. I’m a good architect, I’d draw it up and build it and it would great.” This is what 60-year-old homeless man, Billy Fields, reminds himself each morning when he wakes up. These are the thoughts that keep him going. Fields found himself in Columbia less than a year ago when he was released from prison. Originally from Kansas City, Fields now finds Columbia to be his home after being disconnected from his family.  He replays his prison experiences over and over in his head, and compares them to his experience in society, outside of those walls. The mass amount of the homeless commu- nity that are ex-convicts face even more discrimination against them than their fellow peers. This discrimination keeps these people down and will continue to hold them accountable for mistakes made 15+ years ago leading to a never ending cycle of failure. A five-time loser Fields refers to himself as recounting all of his missed job opportunities. He adds his years up counting 6 years no parole, then 14, then 9, then 7, so on and so forth. Society doesn’t show much tolerance either.


“Oh they treat me like shit,” he says.


He goes back to when he first got out and how it was a struggle to adjust, he’d always be fighting, he remembers even fighting two young men up at McDonalds.


Now his “daily routine” consists of doing whatever he wants, he works for no one and no one tells him what to do. Fields clarifies that he stays away from criminal activity and does not steal.

Instead, Fields takes pride in and speaks of his education, uplifting books as if they are a safe haven for him. He reminisces of his semester of college after one of his sentences.


 “I went to college for a little while, I got a $5000 scholarship before I got out, then I got a $10,000 loan. I  got out two weeks early to start a semester down in Springfield.  I kinda liked it, it was okay, they were giving me money to go. And I’ve learned quite a bit of stuff, I've learned stuff that isn’t in the books. That’s the hardest part, it takes a life.”


Fields confesses how he suffered a head injury in ‘81 that led to amnesia and his current loss of smell along with the times he was shot stabbed and beaten. He keeps a cool composure and ensures that although his life has been rough there is not much he would change. But even those with so little, yet so much on their shoulders, may still be more humane than most.


“I never feel safe. I feel secure sometimes but not safe you know.” Fields says, “I help a lot of people [though]. I give people the shirt off my back, you ever heard of that? I’ve done that, literally give someone the shirt off my back, He was freezing. I didn’t need it that bad.. I was warm enough.”


He continues to elaborate, “I don’t think it has anything to do with generosity. It has to do more with society, building society. People should help each other, they used to do it all the time. Money hasn’t been around forever.”


Fields sees himself on his feet in a years time, he’s sure to make it happen. With a flip of the bird and a big smile he concludes his story. 




I held on to her apron strings for a while, I learned how to cook, I’m an excellent cook. Like I don’t buy BBQ sauce, I make my own. I got some good stuff I don’t let anybody watch me make it. It’s good. There’s a lot of things I do that I’ve never seen anyone else do as far as culinary goes. I had a good teacher, my mom, and I was a good listener. So I learned, I cooked some meals that could surprise the crap out of anybody. Like that guy cooked this, that dude did that?” Anthony Chaney reminisces on his childhood with his saint of a mother before once again snapping back to the reality of his current situation. “I mean [now] I’ll even go as low as eating out of the garbage can. Eating out of the dumpster behind McDonald’s, you know all the food places around here, I mean when they throw it away it’s still hot, it’ll fill your belly.


Like Billy Fields, Anthony Chaney, or as his peers refer to him as Ace, ended up in Columbia less than a year ago in July of 2018 after coming out of prison. Chaney explains how he has been doing time on and off in prison since 1989. He recalls the violence killings he saw in prison and even the experience of watching the lights flicker when they used “sparky”, the electric chair in the Cummins Penitentiary in Arkansas where he was kept during his first ten-year sentence. After getting out in July of 2018, the 56-year-old went into a sober home that seemed to be doing the opposite of its given purpose. He describes more drinking was going on there than on the streets or any local bar. From there he packed up and instead planted himself in a motel, holding a steady job for seven months at Beyond Meats in Columbia. Ace remembers fighting for full time after being promised such thing in a contract stating that temps would receive full time after 90-120 days of work.


“I had enough I told them to bite you-know-what and I hit the door.”  He admits after that is when it really hit him that he was homeless, he couldn’t afford his hotel or groceries anymore after losing his job.


He is grateful for the funding of the city of Columbia that he relies on now, and appreciates every drop of generosity and hospitality that they offer. Before finding his way to Columbia, Ace paints a picture of his childhood with his mother, father, and three older brothers. He was born in Memphis but was raised in Mississippi. His mother was a loving, hardworking nurse that was the backbone of his family. Unfortunately, enough those Ace along with his other siblings suffered physical abuse at the hands of his father, explaining how there is a difference between discipline and going completely overboard. Despite the downfalls, Ace says his parents provided a good child- hood, kept food in the house and a roof over himself and his siblings. Being the youngest of his families, it was a surprise when he left his house at 15, but he ex- pressed the beatings just got to be too much to handle. He remained driven, h