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, he stayed in highschool and went two years of community college for his trade, tool and die. He also had the opportunity to travel the country for 20 or so years as a result of joining the Hells Angels, a Motorcycle Club in Memphis, Tennessee, at just 16 years old in the 1970’s.
“I was a Hell’s Angel before Elvis died, Elvis died in 77.”
Ace was referred to as “The Enforcer”. He would make his way to the 25+ bars and gentlemans clubs in Memphis to collect money for the Hell’s Angels, armed with two nine millimeters on each shoulder and a twelve gauge shotgun running down his leg under a duster jacket he wore. He assures that there was no blood shed. The agreement was mutual between the motorcycle club and the businesses and he never had a problem collecting. Ace continues to recount the stories from his time with the Hells’ Angels: how he would work night shifts to keep his days open to take care of business. He always carried his Harley in the back of his truck if he ever had a call, he called his lifestyle something like Jekyll and Hyde. Growing up in the Motorcycle Club, he has been a witness to a lot of things. Big toes being severed and grown men being gutted, Ace’s life was not one for the faint hearted.
“It’s crazy what you can put your body through and it still survives. I’m 56, I should’ve been dead a long time ago. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been shot. I’ve been beat half to death with a baseball bat and I still have my head. I’m not insane; I’ve got sense, I still know right from wrong, don’t mean I do it. But, a lot less now than I used to.”
Everything about the Hell’s Angels though wasn’t gruesome or unsettling. Ace recalls letting the children of St. Jude cut off his blonde hair when it hit the creases of his knees. Ace also paints the picture of beautiful dressed up Harleys with Christmas lights during the holidays for Toys for Tots. The Motorcycle Club was able to roll their bikes into the hospital and give the children once in a lifetime to get on the Harleys for pictures.
“It was a tearjerker every time we went. If you didn’t get a tear you weren’t human. It was fun. Very memorable, I’ll never forget it. Might do it some more, never know, I’m not no hippy no more.”
He refers to the Hell’s Angels as his family, after having to bury all of his own immediate family, he feels those are the ones who have his back. Ace speaks the same for the homlessness community. Mentioning Billy Fields he explains how a few others and himself keep to a small group. He expresses it as if someone stepped on one of their toes they all felt it. Ace says when it comes to the public, a lot may not even pick him out as homeless.
“I come in [and] got something going on, I’m still laughing, giggling, doing some- thing, goofing off with the guys. I made good friends in here, there are some good people in here. I wake up with a good attitude take time to embrace the day. To make it change for somebody or me, make it better, that’s my drive is to always improve something, make it better for the next guy.”
Nowadays Ace still keeps to himself but holds his head high. He deals with some health issues including tremors and struggles with equilibrium, both symptoms of Manganese toxicity that he’s sure is a result of his years of welding. At the end of the day Ace just wishes society would take a more gentle approach towards the homeless community.
“We’re all just human beings too. I haven't seen a real bad person yet.”