Camping Out

Homelessness AtlantaThe Monday after New Year’s, a new urban camper arrived in Piedmont Park. At least, I think he was. He had all the telltale signs:

  • More stuff than he could easily carry. To survive in the urban wilderness, you have to have your hands free. Be able to eat, zip your zipper or defend yourself without putting your stuff down. He’d have to lighten his load and stash it somewhere or he’d lose it. Likely he had already made some choices on what was truly valuable and necessary in his life. He’ll need to make more.
  • Some of his stuff was in paper bags and overflowing. Paper bags don’t wear well in the weather. Once they start to tear, all in the bag will be lost. Paper bags also don’t provide much security. The extra coat he had was clearly visible. Somebody would want that. Garbage bags are the preferred choice.
  • He was carrying a heavy blanket. Logical for his 7AM and 18 degree arrival, but unworkable for long. Marked him too clearly. If you’re going to sit in a public place, you have to look like you don’t live there. Plus, once it gets wet, he’ll tire of carrying it and it will be of little use.
  • He was alone and seemed nervous about his stuff. He’ll make friends soon enough. Learn the ropes. Find out you have to have the discipline of the wild and be able to stare straight ahead for hours as if you want to be there. He had carefully set all his stuff down when he arrived and left room for others on the bench. Only a few minutes later, he’d pick it all up and walk to the street. Look back and forth and return to the bench. This repeated for hours. During the time, the blanket found a permanent home in a tree branch. One of his paper bags had been emptied by more experienced campers who apparently appealed to his generosity.

From my desk, I have seen quite a few people join the ranks of the homeless and displaced. Mostly men. Disproportionately black. Those who I have met and spoken with shared pretty similar stories of how they arrived there. Oddly, most don’t blame their fate on others. “I was just drunk and shouldn’t have swung at him.” “My wife got tired of me hanging out and threw me out.” “I did something really stupid and (fill in the blank) someone.”

In just a moment, their lives were changed. When they made a bad decision they couldn’t or wouldn’t undo. Moments we all face, and had they turned out differently, we could easily be among them. Too much to drink. Loud talk. An argument. A desperate act. A decision to break the law. Drugs. Hanging out with the wrong crowd. Wrong place at the wrong time. Booze, an argument, a fight or all three and they were separated from their families and their jobs. Once they get arrested, and most eventually will be (public drinking, urination, panhandling, loud talk, a fight, etc. get them in the system), their job opportunities are narrowed.

Others shared stories even sadder – “My little girl died and my wife and I just couldn’t handle it.”

Sure, there’s a significant percentage where mental illness is involved – bipolar and PTSD (yes, way too many of our homeless are vets) are mentioned often. Those fortunate (if that is the right word) enough to be on disability, will get a monthly chance to get off the street. But the crazy check isn’t much. Often they will share it or it will be stolen. And I dare you to try and get approved to rent a place after living on the street.

There is also way too high a percentage of our homeless who are teenagers and young adults. Beautiful young people who have their health, energy, a quick smile and all the potential America offers in front of them, but they have run away and dropped out. Frequently they’ll sell a little weed or themselves for sex to get by. The youngest among them seem to want to hang out, hear and share the stories, but more likely they are just trying to be safe from those who prey on them. Weed turns to crack or crank or heroin. And all leads to jail and narrowed chances for release.

Most are just people who did something stupid and got caught that led them to the bench outside my window. Most are good people, at least when they are sober. Most want to work, but few employers hire those with a record. Many could find help, but most of those who help the most also require drug testing and have lots of rules. Except for food stamps, most homeless people can’t get on the dole. Welfare as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. So they just hustle and sit. Some will get to go to shelters during bad weather. During better weather, everyone has their secret place behind a house or office building.

Then there are those who just hit bad times. Couldn’t pay their house payment or rent and didn’t have any place to go. Most of those are just passing through. They’ll seek assistance. Many will get on their feet again or, at least, stay out of the system.

That same day as the new camper arrived, someone was evicted from Post Apartments on Piedmont and 10th. A Marshall supervised the dismantling of someone’s life. All of their stuff – furniture, clothing, books, family photos – everything was tossed in a pile in the parking lot. A crowd gathered to look through the new curb picks. It seemed sacred to me. I couldn’t watch for fear of getting sick and even the memory of it brings on nausea.

Post’s policy is to evict if rent for the current month is not paid by the first. I heard said of those evicted, that they had not paid December rent or responded to the letters demanding payment with the threat of eviction. I heard it said, that Post had no choice. Surely, they did. What could possibly have happened to those people that they couldn’t pay? Illness? Laid off or lost their job? Someone not pay them? A divorce? Family emergency? A death? Something seems terribly wrong.

And then, there’s the new guy in the park. I don’t know his story  yet. Hope I don’t learn it. Maybe after thinking about it, he’ll go home and say he’s sorry. Or find his mom or a sib and beg them for another chance. Get sober. Or seek out someone at a shelter to point him in a better direction.

Resources (mostly Atlanta, links – please comment and add more):

11 thoughts on “Camping Out

  1. Beth Nelson

    I believe most of us tend to look at the homeless and blame them for their problems. We feel they could help themselves if they really wanted to. Thanks for writing an article that explores the many reasons for homelessness. I think we all know people who are one piece of bad luck away from being in the same situation. Our lives are so isolated these days that many people do not have any support systems to help in times of trouble. It says a lot about the world we live in. After reading your thoughts I know I will not be so quick to judge. Thanks!

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  2. Lee Leslie Post author

    Personal responsibility is a popular buzz phrase these days, and for good reason -- to live a successful life, one must be responsible for their choices.
    That said, no matter how many good choices we make, how hard working we are and how responsible we are for our life, being born to the wrong parents, or in the wrong neighborhood, or with the wrong religious or ethnic background, or with the wrong hair or height or girth or complexion, or with the wrong interests, or IQ, or schools, or with the wrong amount of money in the bank, or an illness strikes them, or they are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the odds of success tip against them. For many lives, that and one bad decision or turn of bad luck, is all it takes.
    Don’t get me wrong, all of the men and women I have met who are homeless are responsible for remaining homeless. While many lack the mental ability to make good choices that could lead to a successful life, most do, but haven’t because they are afraid, or haven’t been able to give up drugs or booze, or won’t give up the resentment or anger of how they got where they are, or simply haven’t tried hard enough and long enough.
    But the odds are stacked against them. Our society, basically, makes it illegal to be homeless and pressures our law enforcement community to enforce the laws that can remove them from our public places. Once in the system, it very hard to get back on track.
    I saw a man in the park last night who I have known for a couple of years. He is bipolar and takes his medicine. He has been waiting for almost two years to get his disability. His court date for the decision was scheduled for the first week in February. He’s sober and stays that way. He doesn’t do drugs and won’t hang with the bad influences. He’s god-fearing and humble. A couple of months ago, he was accused along with a bench full of others for public drinking. He claims he had just sat down and was innocent -- I believe him. He became angry and agitated with the police and had to be subdued by several officers. He was, of course, arrested, treated for his arrest injuries, spent a few nights in jail and was released. He found out yesterday that the arrest violated his probation from two years ago in Clayton county and canceled his disability court date. He was still on probation because he hadn’t paid his fine. He couldn’t pay his fine, because he is disabled. Now he can’t get disability… well, you see that the circle is an endless loop.
    A generation ago and before a computers, a man could make a mistake, do his time and start over another place. Now all the sins of our lives -- our permanent records -- follow us, haunt us and potentially prevent us from ever getting out of the loop. Yes, society is served well by the safety of our law enforcement being connected with computers, but for some, like the guy in the park, it means there is no getting his past behind him.

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  3. Beth Leslie

    Great thoughts and great article. We are all so close to joining these people, it is our duty to help these people where and when we can. Jesus said, When you have done it to one of the least of these you have done it unto me. Love your neighbor even if he/she is unlovely or dirty and not behaving the way we think they should.
    Hate the sin, love the sinner. Hard to do sometimes, but it what we should strive to do. Thanks!

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  4. Pat Snyder

    I think that today we are seeing a new segment of homeless. More and more families that have lived from pay check to pay check, people we didn’t know were just a painting job, housecleaning job, unemployment check, etc. away from being homeless, are winding up on the streets, in their cars or in a cheap hotel trying to survive one more day. It is scary to think how many people we know are just that one _____ away from being homeless. In a position they never imagined themselves in. It is up to all of us to reach out and help all segments of homeless.
    Thanks for this very moving article Lee.

    Reply
  5. craig miller

    Genesis House, The Drake House, New Hope Mission, Atlanta Urban Ministry, Atlanta Day Shelter for Women and Children, North Fulton Community Charities could be added to your list.

    Reply
  6. Judy Thomas

    If you are interested in one of the best stories about the homeless and all the issues surrounding this, read a book titled “Same Kind of Different as Me” by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. It is the story of a dangerous, homeless drifter who grew up sharecropping in rural Louisiana, an upscale art dealer, and a gutsy woman with a stubborn dream and tells of the hope these three brought to thousands in intercity Dallas, and ultimately around the world. It will touch your heart and touch your mind.

    Reply
  7. George

    I was a loaned executive from Georgia Power to United Way Atlanta in the 80’s. I don’t talk much about what I learned and saw during my assignment because it makes me sad, and misty eyed. If I had one wish it would be that every time someone said “just tell that lazy ass bum to get a job, he/she would be wisked away to the street without money, someone who cared for them, or hope for a month. I think about executive compensation, the money we spend on wars and the fact that not many of us really help or care and I have to wonder what kind of people we really are.

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  8. Terri Evans

    Lee (the author) and I have many such friends in the park as he has described here. Their stories are complicated. At times we see glimmers of hope for them. Frequently their “new schemes” to get out of the park and off the streets derail before they ever have a chance, and yes -- at times they have driven the derailment with their own destructive behavior. Regardless, even self-destructive behavior is its own kind of illness and often fueled by even more illness (mental, addiction, domestic violence). They frequently share (even “float” for advice) their getaway plans — a job, a shelter, a Greyhound ticket somewhere. It always saddens us when they’re still there a day or two later. Among this cadre of fellows, we’ve only known one that made his way out so far (we talk with the other guys and one another about him often). Sometimes people express their concern that we could in some way be harmed by them. That may be true, but this much I’m fairly confident of: They wouldn’t let anyone else harm us. So far, the worst offense to us is that a dustbuster was never returned (big deal) after a loan for a “scheme du-jour” to clean cars. We’ve learned the hard way that giving them money all too frequently goes for booze, so now we give food and Marta cards or the occasional tie and grooming supplies to attend a funeral or job interview.
    And to George: I so agree. You broke my heart with your comments.

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  9. Beth Nelson

    Lee and Terri I really admire you for getting to know these people. Their stories are very complicated. It is so sad that only one of your friends has made it out. There is no easy solution and I’m afraid it’s just going to get worse. Reminds me of Tom Joad. Eighty years after the Depression we still have such heartbreaking stories.

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  10. ariel harris

    you know the ad on the radio and TV…the one that says one in eight people do not have food? what if we all really cared enough to act? so simply, starting with each block of each city having living gardens, ensuring homeless and children eat daily, while teaching skills.
    or what if instead of united way, we become our own united front? bodies not money, growing together, concerned and acting- doing people, willing to give three hours per week to viable solutions? make community action non voluntary. we are our neighbors keeper. for all we know, we could be next. Or it takes a village to raise a city?
    we are in mourning for haiti, and the idea that one country so bereft be yet again devastated. and we watch as gratefully someone else sends necessary items of comfort, but we stand by and let us senators talk us out of health care, and let our citizens go hungry, homeless and sick.

    It is no longer, tsk, tsk tsk, …but task , task task. we all need to participate. how shall we start this movement?
    Thank you, great job as always, Lee!

    Reply

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