JOPLIN, Mo. – Director of H.E.A.T., the Homeless Emergency Action Team, Joe Johnson spent one week living on the streets of Joplin to build relationships with the homeless community in order to better understand and assist them.
Incomparable to living full time as a homeless individual, Johnson spent June 7-14 navigating the streets with $30 in his pocket, a tent, a sleeping bag and a backpack filled with a few items.
“I had a lot of advantages out there and I tried to make it a level playing field as much as I could,” he said.
One advantage was that he was familiar with the area, so he already had planned where he wanted to camp. Another advantage Johnson had was, unlike many others who live on the streets, he had hope.
Johnson explains that he is trying to be a spokesperson for the homeless community.
“This isn’t about me,” he said. “Their voice is going to get heard loud and clear. And at some point, they’re just going to want to shut us up.”
Throughout the week
Monday, Johnson got settled in and pitched his tent. He walked to the park and flew a sign that read “will work for equality.” By that, he means he is willing to work for indigent people to be treated equally and represented by the tax dollars they spend.
Johnson flew other signs during the week to create dialogue. Another read “solidarity not charity.”
“Giving charity means your reaching down to give someone something, solidarity means we all consider ourselves on the same, equal playing field and we’re just sharing with one another,” explained Johnson.
The most common thing Johnson did was visit parks and other areas to converse with and get to know Joplin’s homeless community.
“Just having people share their stories,” said Johnson. “Anytime I saw anybody sitting around or trying to get out of the heat, I’d sit and chat with them.”
Johnson says the days started blending together and that he was scattered. He lost some of his items during the week.
He also continued to attend his meetings regarding H.E.A.T.
On Thursday, Johnson, who is a former EMT, encountered a man at the park.
“As I approached him, I could tell that he was suffering from heat exhaustion,” said Johnson, overcome with emotion. “I gave him some water… I gave him a little bit in a cap because I didn’t want to shock him.”
Johnson asked if he could call the man an ambulance, but the man was adamant that he did not want one. The man let Johnson contact someone to give him a ride to the hospital.
Johnson explains that although he was trying to immerse himself in that world, he wasn’t going to see people struggling and not help because of what he was doing that week.
But he mentions that safety and situational awareness are very important when helping others.
On Friday, Johnson met a young man who he rented a motel room for. On Saturday morning, he visited the motel to take the man to a park where a local mutual aid group was serving a meal. The man did not want to go. Johnson ended up in a dangerous situation but carefully got himself out of it.
“I’ve changed a couple personal policies and I’m also advising people on some things not to do anymore,” he said. “A lot of good hearted people sometimes put themselves in vicarious situations unintentionally.”
Johnson spent the rest of Saturday at the park conversing with the community around him.
“I met a bunch of great people and then went about the rest of my day,” he said.
On Sunday, Johnson was searching for a place to cool off. He found himself in an alley behind a church he used to serve in.
“I saw three people come out and I knew every one of them, I served next to them. And they just looked at me, got in their cars and left… They probably didn’t recognize me for one thing,” he said. “What bothered me more… they behaved exactly how I expected… That was kind of heartbreaking.”
But the worst event Johnson experienced was being looked at “like a monster” by a mother and her two children who passed him by downtown.
“I saw her grip her children’s hands and kind of pull them away… I looked in those children’s eyes, they looked at me like I was a monster or something and I just about lost it right then and there… I just broke down,” he cried. “I was a monster because they didn’t know me, all they knew was what they were looking at.”
“That was the hard part, the way people looked at me,” said Johnson. “It’s changed me. I think that I’m going to level out, but right now…”
“It’s changed my faith in my fellow man, not for the better,” Johnson said. “When I see somebody being mean to a homeless person, a homeless friend, neighbor, somebody who’s going through something right now… I’m becoming extremely protective of those folks… It’s my family.”
He says that he is more determined now, and that the unfortunate parts of what he experienced and witnessed are just fuel.
Johnson explains that we have made strides toward non-discrimination in many areas, although there is still a lot of work to be done, but not with the homeless population. He says they are openly discriminated against and not represented by our city.
“We’re going to do what we have to do to help these people and people need to get used to it and get used to the fact that they’re here. So they can sit around and complain about it or they can help do something about it. We have a plan,” said Johnson. “If everyone would just help a little bit, there’s so much we could get done. “
Johnson says that many current programs for the homeless community discriminate, but he also recognizes the help they do provide.
“There’s programs that won’t accept you if you’re gay, shelters that turn you away if you’ve had anything that drink that day. Some go as far as insisting that you have to at least attend classes to be indoctrinated into their belief system. I can’t support that. Now I do know that those places still do something,” he said.
To get involved
On July 4, Johnson and anyone interested will gather at 8:00 pm on the NW corner of Newman and Duquesne to remind the community that our country’s homeless veterans are plentiful and should not be forgotten.
“Nothing is meant to have a confrontation, we want to have a conversation,” says Johnson.
H.E.A.T. is currently trying to find a location to open an emergency cooling center. To stay up to date with the team or get involved, join the H.E.A.T. Facebook group.