A Simple, Rough Life

For some homeless, camps are preferable to shelters

Sep 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

A gentle autumn sun warms scores of tents along the Cincinnati riverfront. The smells of grilled meat mingle with those of sweat and city streets. The setting is idyllic and welcoming as the crowds gear up for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats football team to face off against the Oklahoma Sooners.

The temporary residents of this tent city will return home at the end of the day after seeing UC lose in a close game. After the tailgate parties are gone, some tents remain. These are makeshift shelters that include a crude lean-to and an elaborate military-style tent. Homes built by the homeless on the fringes of the city, behind trees and beneath bridges, purposely hidden from public view.

Baldy is 45 years old but looks older. His face and scalp are covered in scabs from a recent fight. He makes his living by panhandling — flying signs. His camp, on the outskirts of the city, is the only place where he doesn’t get hassled by police, he says.

“I think they’re just trying to run us out of town,” he says. “They can’t fuck with us too much in this camp ’cause the owner of this camp said we can live here. … He said, ‘I don’t give a damn about that piece of damn property.' He said, ‘You can stay there all you want to.’ But if you’re down there under a bridge, down where they got them no trespassing signs and stuff, then they’ll give ya hell.”

Baldy doesn’t use the shelter at the Drop Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine for a simple reason: “Nobody can tell me what to do in here,” he says.

Homeless for between five and seven years, Baldy was once married and worked as a welder and truck driver. His wife finally divorced him two summers ago. He still has his Commercial Driver's License but doesn’t use it.

Baldy, 45, used to be a truck driver but quit because of a drinking problem.

“I don’t drive anymore because I drink so much,” he says. “I don’t want to run over somebody and kill them. If I did that, I couldn’t live with it.”

Baldy’s home is a small, hand-built tent on a narrow strip of dirt between a road and a section of highway. He has a plastic hand cart, a cooler for water and a fire pit. It’s a simple, rough life that he shares with other homeless people — mainly men — who filter in and out of the camp. It’s probably the end of the road as far as he is concerned.

“I don’t know what the future’s gonna bring,” he says. “I can’t predict the future, but I think I’m gonna die soon. I’m not in good shape. A lot of things happened to me. I mean, I could be wrong. Hell, I might live another 10 years but if you want to ask me my prediction, I think I’ll probably be dead soon. I mean look at me. I’m scuffed up, beat up, scarred up. I ain’t no kid no more. I might live 10 years, I might live one. But if I was going to guess, I’d be in the one category.”

Wanting a space of their own

Josh Spring, director for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, says that, for reasons that are obvious, there are more homeless sleeping outdoors and outside of local shelters in the warmer months than during the winter. The coalition counted 77 people living outdoors around downtown last winter, and he estimates there are about 200 persons camping out at any given time.

These are men and women, both young and old. In fact, Lighthouse Youth Services has a person who works just with those outdoor homeless who are younger than 24.

“I’m pretty convinced that right now, anywhere in the city, there is a large patch of trees, there are people there,” Spring says. “A lot of people who are housed don’t know the breadth of it.”

The reasons for avoiding shelters are many and often personal, he adds, but usually can be boiled down to having a personality that’s incompatible with shelter life and its rules. Some people have had bad experiences, but the coalition is the clearinghouse for complaints and Spring hasn’t heard many.

Although space at the shelters is tight, people who set up camps can usually find a place indoors to sleep. Camps are still a choice for most homeless people for now.

“We estimate that 25,000 people in a given year experience homelessness locally, including the street, the shelters and the couch,” he says. “If the economy doesn’t turn around soon enough, we may not have room. That is my fear.”

Camps, however, are especially vulnerable to attacks.

Last April, John Johnson made headlines after being beaten at his camp near Spring Grove Village. That attack received a lot of attention but many others go unreported; it’s not uncommon to hear about people in camps being pelted with rocks or eggs, threatened with guns or otherwise harassed.

“The level of harassment depends on the location of the camp,” Spring says. “Some camps are more visible and people who don’t understand complain about it.”

As we talk, I find myself grappling with what words to use. There aren’t many terms in our economy of language for the homeless or their camps that aren’t derogatory. The neutral terms, “camps” and “homeless,” are about the only ones that seem decent, but it’s also anonymous and does little to paint a portrait of these persons who live outside of the mainstream but within their own community.

Baldy lives in a small, makeshift neighborhood of other homeless persons. He knows others in his camp and in other camps throughout town. Some are alcoholics and some are not. Some are articulate and have dreams of improving their lot in life.

“We might refer to these as camps but they refer to it as a home,” Spring says. “There’s a bond formed among people living together. There’s not too much of being out on your own. It’s more like a family … I think that we forget that even though they are homeless, they still have a need for setting up a home. We all have a need to be settled and I think setting up a camp helps people do that.”

In this way, he adds, it can be preferable to shelter life.

“Some people out of the broader population prefer to be in a group setting where they know everyone around them and set up their own institution rather than a shelter that has its own institution and rules,” Spring says.

Making do with scraps

“Don’t class all homeless people as being nothing but drug addict, alcoholic bums, because a lot of us aren’t,” insists Lee, whose camp is the largest in his community.

Lee lives with his girlfriend in an 800-square-foot tent that he built using wood from skids and a patchwork of tarps. It looks a lot like a military field barracks, and for good reason: Lee served in the Marines and was trained in making these shelters.

At 52, Lee is in reasonably good shape.

He’s missing some teeth, has a shoulder injury that limits the work he can do and his hair is gray, but he gets around on his own and is self-sufficient. His mustache is trimmed, his clothes and hair washed and his shirt is tucked into his pants. He looks like anyone else but he makes his home on a rugged patch of sand and river silt, behind a tall fence topped with barbed wire.

Like many homeless camps, this one uses discarded and donated items

Lee and his girlfriend have no electricity, no running water and burn kerosene in their lamps. They have a fireplace at the center of their tent that they built by hand using donated bricks and mortar, wood from broken down pallets and scrap tin. A solar shower — a bag of water attached to a hose — is strung from a tree limb next to their outhouse behind their tent. Building materials and firewood are stored in their “front yard.” They use food stamps for groceries and get their water from a friendly local business owner.

“We walk though his property in the evening and chase out anybody who doesn’t belong there,” Lee says. “In return, he furnishes us with old skids, scrap sheet metal he comes up with and he leaves an outside water faucet turned on for us year-round.”

When it’s cold outside, they use the shower and laundry services at the Mary Magdalen House on Main Street. Otherwise, they do for themselves in their own space. Lee has an old metal tub and a piece of a plastic shutter that they use as a scrubbing board to wash clothes.

“It’s basically using old-style technology from the previous century,” he says. “I saw my grandmother scrubbing clothes in an old metal tub on a washboard. I know how to do it. (My girlfriend) didn’t know how but I said, ‘Here’s how: You clean ’em. You rinse ’em. You hang them up.' Why have to worry about trying to come up with $10 or $15 plus bus fare to go up to a laundromat if I can do the stuff right here, put them on a clothes line, let the sun dry it?”

Romance among the ruin

Lee met his girlfriend at another camp. They were both homeless, lost touch and then ran into one another again.

“I said, ‘Look, you need a place to stay?’ She goes, ‘Kinda.’ I said, ‘Come on, we’ll go to my camp. I’ll give you a place to stay.’ And we’ve been together now for about four months.”

Lee, who at one time worked as a carpenter, says his shoulder injury prevented him from continuing that occupation. He was trained in the military to work on computer software, but can’t use those skills because he has a police record dogging him from his younger days.

“I’ve had some run-ins with the authorities in my past,” Lee says. “Consequently, with that, the economy, my injury and my age, it basically puts me out of 99 percent of jobs. Because (I'm) over 50 years old, that means I’ve got 10 years at most, maybe 12, before I would hit retirement age. Most companies don’t want to hire an older person like that, especially if they have injuries that are going to limit their abilities.

“The other things I have knowledge and abilities of — because of my background — I can’t even touch those,” he adds. “I know how to write computer software but because I’ve got felonies on my record from in the past, nobody in an IT field will even touch (me). Too much of a risk from their part, and I can understand and appreciate it. They still have to safeguard their interests and their business. If I was in their place, I’d be doing the exact same thing. So I understand that, but it doesn’t help me any. It’s not like I can sit here in a camp and write software and sell it.”

Lee’s girlfriend was sick on the day of our visit, in bed with a sinus infection. She has seizures, too, he says, so that’s one of the reasons she has difficulty finding a job. She does know how to make candles and Lee says they hope to come up with money for a vendor's license and start a small street-side business downtown.

“Some of us are just doing everything, whatever we have to do, within the boundaries of the law and the boundaries of society to simply get by and survive,” Lee says.

For the past three months that has meant concentrating on getting their camp ready for winter. They live a pioneer’s life, laboring from sunup to sundown seven days a week to keep things in order and to build on what they have. It’s worth it to have their own space, Lee says, because he doesn’t care for staying in homeless shelters.

“I have, but I did not like the experience,” he says. “ I had a couple of altercations with some individuals. It was, believe it or not, very unclean compared to where we are now. I was in there two days and had bedbug bites all over my legs and arms.”

Lee hopes to one day build a real house on a plot of land he owns.

“We’d be happy for the rest of our lives,” he says. “I’ll make do with the best that I can. I’ll keep trading up. First, we had tents. Then, we got tents and tarps. Now, we got a place with a fairly permanent fireplace in it. Next, we might try and make arrangements to buy this property and then they can’t tell us to leave.”