On Saturday, host Melissa Harris-Perry profiled Jason Benson, a convicted felon who turned his life around and opened up the SALT Emergency Overnight Centers, housing the homeless in rural Missouri. I spoke with him this week.
What does SALT stand for?
Simply Achieving Life’s Triumphs.
What gave you the idea to start the SALT homeless shelter?
In 2009, I was arrested (again) for a DUI. I was a repetitive offender with a serious drinking problem. In county jail, in a town I’ve never even before drove through–Chillicothe, Missouri, population less than 10,000–I met a man who also had an addiction. He was a prominent lawyer who told me ‘I’ve spent my whole life focusing just on me, and look where it’s got me.’ I was looking at the same iron bars and brick walls and knew what he meant. We both had realized that self-centered ambition and self-centered interests are self-destruction. Our lives had become unmanageable and something had to change. I came to believe that ‘I make mistakes, but mistakes don’t make me.’ But I still didn’t know what I could do. I’m still just a homeless guy in a rural town I didn’t know with people I’ve never met. A local church put me up in a cheap hotel and five days later, the church is out $170 and I’m still homeless. This wasn’t an answer, but I found what I was looking for…a purpose.
As a newly convicted felon, I decided I would help other homeless people without discrimination. It was important to me to emphasize this, because I wasn’t born in extreme poverty. I wasn’t raised by abusive or unloving parents, quite the opposite actually. I learned that poverty, addiction and homelessness doesn’t discriminate, so why should I? That’s what helped lead me to choose the name SALT. Salt has no political or religious affiliation, it is completely neutral. It is underappreciated, vital to our existence and has a rich history.
Gandhi even used it as a commodity to defy English rule in India. But at the time I started working to make SALT happen, it was just an idea. (And a very crazy one at that.)
What was the reaction of the locals when you had this idea?
I have to admit, the reaction was almost comical, and became an inspiration to me in ways they didn’t predict. Nobody thought it could be done and that it was a fool’s errand. I just happened to be the perfect fool for the job. I don’t blame people for doubting me; I would have done the same. Rural homeless are called by researchers and advocates the “Hidden Homeless.” They can’t disappear in a concentrated sea of homeless like in the bigger cities. In the rural areas they are either shooed away or tucked away in a cheap hotel until they can be shooed away the next day.
So, here is my insanity. I planned to open a homeless shelter, with no money, in a town I couldn’t pronounce (let alone spell), where I didn’t know anyone, with no experience and a felony conviction. I plan on doing this to help a population that doesn’t want anyone to know they exist, in a town that doesn’t want to recognize that they exist. Sometimes it takes a village, but this time it took a village idiot (me). Lucky for me and the scores of homeless men, women and families we’ve helped, I was too ignorant to know it was impossible.
What services do you provide?
Currently we provide meals, beds, access to local and regional resources in a clean and sober environment. We are addressing poverty and homelessness by focusing on education and recovery by offering options and opportunities.
Who do you provide services for?
Anyone needing shelter or access to resources is welcome. If Warren Buffet wanted a place to stay, he might even get a bottom bunk if he asked nicely. I told you, we don’t discriminate and identities are protected for all clients. I might ask Stephen Colbert to wash dishes after a meal if he was a client, but his cameras would have to stay outside. All joking aside, we are all human. If someone thinks they never need help from someone else, then they need to call their parents and apologize for even having such a thought.
What is the response from the people who stay there?
I have stacks of letters from previous clients (we actually like just calling them “friends”) thanking us for how we’ve helped them achieve independence and stability. I’m not half as proud about the work we do, compared to the work they do to make a difference in their own lives. We can’t take any credit for the work they do, we can only be happy that we gave them the chance to do it for themselves. I vow to work as hard as they do to achieve the goals they want. Many of our “friends” work so hard that it’s not easy keeping up with them.
What have you learned from doing this type of work?
Like any good field of study, “the more I learn, the more I discover the less I know.” I’ve memorized so many statistics about rural v. urban homelessness, that I can fill this whole page with numbers. The biggest lesson that comes to mind is “we will all fail as long as we think of each other as ‘us & them’ instead of seeing all of us as ‘we.’”
What has Sherrie Wohlgemuth’s role been in the process?
Sherrie often says, ‘First time I saw Jason come into my office, I knew he was trouble.’ She was a county director with an action agency that lost funding due to government cutbacks and downsizing. About a year after I met her, she was without a job herself. Little did she know that I was going to offer her a job within a year, and in two years she actually might get paid for that job. She’s not the only one who has committed countless hours of time, energy and labor to seeing this project succeed without a single dime given to them for their hard work.
Why is it important to provide emergency shelter services in rural areas?
Most of all of the contributors to homelessness (poverty, lack of education, lack of public assistance, alcohol abuse, unemployment & underemployment, physical disabilities, disabled veterans etc.) are statistically worse in rural areas compared to their urban counter-parts. That means, our rural areas are more likely contributing more per capita to homelessness than the cities. Then the rural areas will ostracize their homeless to the nearest cities instead of giving them a chance to get back on their feet in the community and culture they are used to. They will more than likely become chronically homeless without hope. In Missouri, 30% of its population lives in rural areas and traditionally only 5% of the total funding for homeless makes it to rural areas. I believe that is grotesquely disproportionate.
But it can’t end there with just emergency services. That is like having a hospital with only an emergency room. We have to transitional housing, rental assistance, home weatherization programs and most of all, education. We have a moral obligation to “give a man a fish,” but we also have a social obligation to “teach a man to fish.”
What are your future goals plans for SALT?
When I get the “atta-boy” pat on the back, I always say the same thing: “We’re just getting started.”
Among the projects we are currently working to make a reality is the Green Bike Project, to allow free public transportation of bicycles throughout the city of Chillicothe, using local resources to maintain the project; Project Connect: Resource Fair, connecting the public to non-profit organizations designated with resources to help those less fortunate in all areas of service, to all people in need–and my favorite of all is the SALT Academy where we will use homeschool format to help adults finish the needed classes to graduate with a diploma (instead of just a GED), gain literacy and even basic job training skills to give them a better chance of employment. In Chillicothe, 1 out of 6 adults over the age of 25 doesn’t have a GED or Diploma. We are going to change those numbers.
I believe, heroes are not made during war, but after war. Statistically 30 years of a person’s life expectancy is lost, once they become homeless. Homelessness is a chronic social disease and that is our war. I’m just a foot solider helping heroes become who they were meant to be. Heroes like men and women who become sober parents again. Heroes like ex-offenders who learn how to give instead of having to take. Heroes are those that shrug off the dead weight of stereotypical labels and find an education that can take them places they thought impossible. I’m just the guy holding the door open for them and reminding them that there is no such thing as “impossible.”