NO SHELTER is a new series from MLK50 housing reporter Jacob Steimer, interviewing Memphians who have no access to housing. Although the numbers are difficult to track, the Community Alliance for the Homeless estimates that on a given night in 2021, about 200 people were unsheltered in Memphis/Shelby County. The monthly Q&As will introduce readers to neighbors they may not talk to otherwise and, perhaps, create a path to improving the way the city cares for these vulnerable people. It is written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way. The conversations are edited for brevity and clarity.
Mark Skomburg’s walk to pick up his monthly Social Security check wasn’t going to be an easy one.
The pain from his arthritic hip has been excruciating recently, and the rain was falling steadily that Thursday morning.
But Skomburg seemed unfazed. He joked about how it always rains on the days he has to pick up his $500 check, and he wore a smile bigger than his beard through much of the conversation.
Skomburg, 60, had stable housing for most of his life before being sent to prison in 2007.
That path to homelessness is one many have walked. When the Community Alliance for the Homeless surveyed unhoused Memphians last year, 68% reported having been to jail — twice as many as reported mental health conditions. And people who have been incarcerated even once are almost seven times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Skomburg, though, has largely defied the odds since being released from prison in 2018: He hasn’t been back, despite an ongoing battle with alcoholism.
In late December, Skomburg spoke to MLK50 about his past and present troubles and why he expects to sleep outside for much of the winter.
MLK50: When was the last time you had stable housing?
Last winter, for five months. I had saved $3,000 since I quit doing drugs. But my Social Security checks aren’t enough for rent.
Are you going to be able to stay in an apartment at all this winter?
No, I’m going to be at the Memphis Union Mission — in and out.
How long have you been experiencing homelessness?
Four years. I used to be married, for 13 years. We kept jobs. I worked for a man that had 55 houses, and he moved me around. When I got one cleaned up and painted, he’d move me to another one and I’d do the same thing over again. He paid me good, housed me, paid my utility bill. I had air conditioning in the summertime and heat in the winter. He took care of me. But he died of leukemia 25 years ago. Then, I went to prison in 2007 and got out in 2018. It was drug related. I’ve been homeless ever since I got out, except for those five months.
And when you got out of prison, you started drinking a fair amount?
Ten beers a day and a fifth of vodka. Then I quit for a little while. But I got this arthritis and I started drinking again. I went to the hospital and dried out last week.
The arthritis hurts pretty bad?
It feels like my hip is broken. I can barely walk. I wish there was a place to sit down besides the bus stop. I go to the Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Midtown and sit out in the parking lot.
Do you think you’ll be able to get back into housing anytime soon?
Not this winter. I’ll try to save some money.
Besides your SSI check, is there a way to get some more money?
I can’t see past the end of my nose. I can’t work. It’s not safe; I’d hurt myself. I can’t walk. I can’t bend over.
It feels like the government should be giving you more than $500 a month then.
I worked under the table for 13 years, so my retirement ain’t much.
Do you feel like there are enough services in Memphis for homeless people?
No, they’re too scattered apart and there are too many people. There are (hundreds of) homeless people. You have to get on a list for apartments. And I can’t afford the apartment they put me in — $500 a month. If I paid for it, I couldn’t even ride the bus.
If the city was trying to help homeless people more, what’s the main thing you would like to see them do?
Get some cheap housing in Midtown or Downtown.
The Prison Policy Initiative recommends these actions for policymakers to solve the housing crisis for formerly incarcerated people:
- Create clear-cut systems to help recently-released individuals find homes.
- Ban the box on housing applications; a criminal record is not a good proxy for one’s suitability as a tenant.
- End the criminalization of homelessness. Cities should end the aggressive enforcement of quality-of-life ordinances.
- Expand social services for the homeless, focusing on “Housing First.” Stable homes are often necessary before people can address unemployment, illness, substance use disorder, and other problems.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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