May Kirby has eagle eyes. She’s always on the lookout for her friends or people she needs to get to know.
Sitting on a coffee shop patio on a recent weekday morning, her eyes scanning the sidewalk, she spots Luis, who is homeless, walking by. She waves, and he stops by, tellingher he wants to buy a bus ticket to San Antonio to be with his family. She tells him she knows of a way he might get some help.
On another afternoon, walking along Main Street after lunch, she greets a man carrying his belongings in a green trash bag, offers him her takeout box of leftovers and tells him to get in touch if he ever needs anything.
Driving downtown in the middle of a workday, she passes a man she knows who used to be a pilot. Now, he takes a bus from Transitions every day then walks five and a half miles from its last stop to his job at Amazon.
Kirby knows story after story of people who live on the streets or in shelters – or who used to, thanks in part to her help.
But, “there’s so many people whose stories I don’t know yet,” she said.
Kirby is the homeless outreach coordinator for Columbia’s Mental Illness Recovery Center Inc. (MIRCI). Her job – and her passion – is to do what a lot of people shy away from: Make eye contact with the mentally ill and homeless, befriend them, meet their needs.
“Most of the time people are kind of surprised that somebody’s talking to them and that somebody cares what’s going on,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t do anything but say ‘hello’ because I don’t want to run them off before I get them in. ... The more times you see them, the more times they know that you’re still caring what’s happening to them.”
She works with a team of several other outreach workers at MIRCI who are dedicated to identifying chronically homeless people who live with persistent mental illness.
Kirby and the outreach workers from MIRCI go to the streets in Columbia, to the library, to the soup kitchens, or to wherever they’re likely to find friends in need. They’re likely to make contact with some 300 new people in a year.
Their ultimate goal as outreach workers is to connect people to mental and medical care, income and housing. But to get to that point, they first have to build relationships and trust, recognizing all the while that the people who need help the most are often the ones least likely to reach out for it.
A cheeseburger, or more
Beth Argent is a MIRCI outreach worker who specializes in connecting people with benefits such as food stamps and Social Security income.
Last week, she and Kirby made a trip to Washington Street United Methodist Church’s Soup Cellar, where they found their friend Charlie lounging on a nearby brick wall.
The pair have built a relationship with Charlie, after meeting him about a year ago at a bus stop. But Argent has only just now gotten to the point in their relationship where she can help him apply for disability benefits.
“A lot of it is just keeping yourself open and available to when someone is finally ready to ask for help, that they remember you and they remember your kind face and that you bought them a cheeseburger that one time,” Argent said. “So they know they can come to you, at the very least, if they need a cheeseburger.”
When she sat down with Charlie and told him it was time to do the work and get him some income, he told her, “I’m ready, Freddy!”
While the two sifted through a folder of paperwork outside on the wall, Kirby walked down into the Soup Cellar, where she worked the room like a party, saying “hello” to friends she’s been building relationships with for a while and passing out her business card to others she wants to get to know.
“She talks to every single person like they’re a human being,” Argent said of Kirby. “She’s not about labels. She’s very empathetic and compassionate toward these folks, and it’s just from a level of understanding that we’re all human beings.”
“People are valuable,” Kirby said, “and I think that’s the thing we lose when we start separating them into categories and diminishing their value. I’m never for that. And that’s why I love what I do, because I get to be able to put the value back into their lives and see that happen.”
‘I’m glad you cared’
On a recent afternoon, Kirby hopped in a tank-sized van from MIRCI, the backseat packed with boxes of food to drop off at a set of downtown boarding houses, where several of MIRCI’s clients live and where she was picking up a woman for a doctor’s appointment.
The woman is 53, a former cocaine addict who spent years living on the streets and once spent several years in a mental hospital. She has a violent cough, a penchant for cigarettes and a hankering for a Big Mac.
She’s a special friend of Kirby’s.
“She cares about me, talks to me. ... She’ll give you a little kiss on the cheek,” the woman said of Kirby. “I love her for that.”
Kirby calls herself an advocate for the woman. She sat with her through the appointment, reminded her of questions to ask the doctor, helped take in all the information and scheduled a follow-up appointment.
“I didn’t want to call you and get you upset,” the woman told Kirby before the doctor came in, her voice gravelly and her words a little slurred. “It ain’t right for me to just bust into your life. I’m afraid I’m going to aggravate you to death. ... I ain’t got nothing to give you but a hard time.”
“I’ll have a good weekend knowing that you’re feeling better,” Kirby told her.
Sitting in the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home from the doctor’s office, the woman said to Kirby, “I’m glad you cared enough to come by and see me.”
“I care about you, dear,” Kirby said.
Editor’s note: Kirby requested that clients’ last names not be used because of their health conditions.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
Homeless outreach numbers
Sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals counted in Richland County on a single night in 2014, the most recent figure available from the annual count.
Percentage of homeless individuals counted in South Carolina in 2014 who self-reported having a mental illness, compared to about 18 percent of adults overall. That number, though, is likely an underrepresentation, officials say.
People currently housed by MIRCI resources.
Estimated new contacts made by MIRCI’s homeless outreach workers in a year.
Sources: South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless and MIRCI