Preston Wolf, left, helps James Arnold secure the door to his shelter outside of Wolf's Furniture in Hays.
By CRISTINA JANNEY
HAYS — James Arnold has been given notice to leave the only home he knows — a makeshift encampment behind Wolf's Furniture in Hays.
If you weren't looking for it, you probably won't see it. The encampment is made out of shipping pallets, sheets of plastic and cardboard. The makeshift shelter has just enough space for James to crawl into for the night. He has a small space heater that kept his hideaway warm even as the temperature dipped into the single digits this week.
He has squirreled away a few possessions — dishes and a few household items he hoped to use to start a new life in his own apartment — in a couple truck toolboxes. He recently adopted a mother cat who took advantage of the warmth of his shelter to have her kittens. Preston Wolf, owner of Wolf Furniture and James' friend, received a letter on Oct. 30 from the City of Hays Planning Inspection and Enforcement Department saying James could no longer stay in his encampment because the area was not zoned for residential use. Wolf was given until Friday to have James out.
James, who has been homeless for 16 years, wants to stay in Hays. His face tells the tale of those years, mostly lived in similar makeshift shelters. A long white beard stretches halfway down his tall, lean frame. The heavy lines in his weather-worn face make him appear much older than his 57 years. James has been in Hays for the last year and half, working odd jobs, hoping to save up enough money to get an apartment of his own. Wolf befriended James. He helped him apply for and receive a new ID and Social Security card, which took almost a year.
Although James said he prefers his encampment, Wolf put James up in a hotel last winter at his own expense. James said he doesn't want to keep taking advantage of Wolf's kindness.
"I can stay back there and it doesn't cost him as much money. ... I'm homeless. I'm used to this stuff back here by now," James said. "The first three or four years I wouldn't have made it, but now it's been 15 years and I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me as bad. He's so nice. I'm not going to let him spend that much money on me this winter. I'd rather stay back there if he'll let me and do it cheaper and save more money.
"This guy's like a gift — like a banker, but I don't want to abuse him," James said. James said he has made a connection with people in Hays. "I have people who I like now and a lot of people I enjoy being around," he said.
The inside of James' shelter. There is just enough room to crawl in and lie down.
James appears to have no family ties or support system outside of what Wolf has offered him here in Hays. He has mentioned an ex-wife and kids, but James' mind wanders from one grandiose topic to the next. It's hard to nail down a history and tell what is truth and what is fantasy. Wolf said he suspects he might have mental health issues.
Wolf expressed great distress about what might happen to James after Friday. James said he plans to hitchhike to another encampment up north, but Wolf has tried to dissuade him. "It's just a field," Wolf said. James has COPD, a lung condition, which means he is winded easily. Wolf said he doesn't think James will last long out on the road. "If he leaves here, he is probably going to die because he has no place to go and no help," Wolf said. "If there was someplace he could go where he would have a roof over his head ... We understand that is not the ideal out there." "It's not harming me," James said of his Hays encampment. "If he ain't mad about, it ain't harming me. I have been saving a little money."
Few resources in Hays for homeless
The City of Hays says James Arnold can no longer stay in this makeshift shelter behind Wolf's Furniture because it is not zoned for residential use.
Linda Mills, director of First Call for Help, which helps transients in the community, said Hays unfortunately has little to no resources for a person in James' predicament.
"It's frustrating," Mills said. "The thought of someone sleeping outside when it was a cold as it was last night ... I couldn't do it."
There are housing programs for veterans, but the veterans have to have proof of service. Hays also has a housing program for people who have mental illness, but recipients must have a diagnosed mental illness and meet other criteria to qualify. Hays has no homeless shelter. First Call for Help is working on a project to build a transitional housing unit in its current building at 607 E. 13th.
However, that housing will not be available anytime soon. The organization has raised $43,000 toward the renovation project. About $25,000 of that money was used to remodel the supply distribution area, which is now complete. First Call needs $215,000 to remodel the rear of its building into transitional living areas for its new First Step housing program.
Now that First Call has a firm bid in hand, it hopes to start applying for grants for the project. You can donate to that project by clicking here.
Even if the transitional housing project was ready, Mills said James would likely not qualify for the program because he has not been able to hold down steady work. In addition to his COPD, which makes it difficult for him to do physical labor, his mind tends to wonder, Wolf said.
"I definitely don't mind him staying there," Wolf said. "He causes no problems. What we were trying to when we got his ID and his Social Security card, we were try to get him a job at Walmart or someplace. The ideal thing was to try to get him back into society to find a little one-bedroom apartment or something. We are trying. We just haven't got that — with the job application. I don't know if James could work eight straight hours."
Mills said James might qualify for disability, but that process can take months or even years. Initial applications are often denied and applicants have to appeal and even employ an attorney to secure disability payments.
"If he doesn't want to leave Hays, I'm not sure unless people are willing to set up a GoFundMe or something and match what he has saved up to get into an apartment," Mills said. "But even if he gets into an apartment, how is he going to pay for the rent month to month? It probably doesn't makes sense to raise money to get him into the apartment unless they are going to raise money to keep him in the apartment because he'll get evicted."
Mills said the best First Call could do for James is to offer him a bus ticket to Salina, the location of the nearest men's shelter. James said he has been in shelters in Denver and Wichita, and said they were like being in prison. He doesn't want to go.
It's the law
Curtis Deines, superintendent of Planning Inspection Enforcement, said Arnold's situation was unfortunate and he hoped Arnold would be OK, but he had to follow the law. He said the city had worked with Wolf to try to resolve the situation, noting it's Wolf's obligation as the property owner to remove Arnold from the property, according to Deines.
Deines said the the city was first made aware of Arnold's encampment when police were called to the area because of a civil disturbance involving Arnold. He allegedly pulled a knife, threatened another individual and was arrested.
"I know it can seem like the city is going after somebody, and that is not the case," Deines said. "There was an unfortunate event there and that prompted the situation."
Wolf described James as mild-mannered and said he has never had any issues with him since he took up residence behind the store. James doesn't drink or use drugs. James said he just wants the city to leave him alone until summer comes and he can move to his encampment up north — home.
Wolf said, "We just don't know what to do. That's what it boils down to."