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Thursday, May 8, 2003 02:20 pm

Homeless in winter

The homeless are often called "lazy" or "crazy." Writer John Jermaine spent last weekend in the freezing cold, talking to homeless people as they tried to stay warm. He says there is no one type. "I have discovered men who defended this country, people who do volunteer work, and those driven to the streets by unhappiness, addictions, delusions, or depression. Most didn't want to be named, but they all wanted to tell their stories."

"Walt" has been homeless, off and on, for several years. A veteran, he's friendly, helpful, and highly respected among his peers.

"Sleeping outside in winter can be done. Take a large quarter-inch cardboard box, fold it in half, remove the lower section, and put the remaining portion somewhere out of the wind. You need to get one large enough where you can move around and sit upright in it. Then you need to roll out your sleeping bag inside. The person also needs to make the box appear to be discarded and not containing anything of value.

Finally, put it in a place that is fairly dark at night. I quickly get used to being in semi-darkness. Someone else will stumble around, buying me time to react.

"You probably wonder why I don't use a shelter. They pack you in those places with people who want to mess with you. Some will take your stuff if you don't keep and eye on it, and others just want to argue and fight. Then there is the matter of having one television and 20 or more people who want to watch different channels. Things can get hot very quickly in these situations. Over the years I have done some farm labor, worked in a gas station, was a school custodian for a while, and put big tires on earth-moving equipment. I was also in the military, shortly after the Vietnam War. You see a lot of things there that change you inside and change your view of things in this country. I will probably return to the real world once I get some bugs out of my head. I have trouble dealing with people and still have a realistic nightmare to overcome."

"Barry" says he's been sporadically homeless since he ran away from home at the age of 14. He's now 23.

"I don't currently live on the streets, but I spend a lot of time there because my friends are there. I have spent some time in prison, and I don't have a job. Some people don't go to the shelters because they have already been barred from them, usually because of fighting. I've been barred from several places too because I get mad and throw a fit sometimes. I don't mean to do it, but it just happens.

"One shelter had a hot situation a year or two ago. A guy got stabbed. Then they started searching everyone going in there. They checked their bags, pockets, etc., for possible weapons. I had an incident myself. During an evening in October of 2002, I was drunk behind one of the DCSF buildings. I wasn't bothering anyone. Then these three big guys came along. They beat me up, stole my Chicago Bulls jacket, and took about $25 in cash. I also had to get two stitches in my cheek. Looking back, I shouldn't have been there by myself. It was getting dark. That was my mistake.

"Most shelters have TV, a stereo, puzzles, books, etc., to entertain their guests. But the number one pastime is people just sitting around discussing what is wrong with this person, how that individual got away with something, and who is seeing who. Talking about these things can get you hurt sometimes."

"Ann" is one of those people everyone likes and remembers. Small and apparently middle-aged, she has a disarming smile. She's been homeless, off and on, for four years. Her old shopping cart, parked outside a mission, carries numerous bags of aluminium cans, clothing, and camping equipment. Just before this interview, she gave an old man a haircut. At one point while talking, a tear rolled down her cheek.

"Several weeks ago, I walked over to the Breadline for supper and returned to find 30 to 35 of my cans were gone. That was all the money I had in the world. Around 30 flattened cans equal one pound, so it meant I did a lot of work for nothing. [The price for mashed cans is about 30 cents a pound.] The streets are cruel sometimes. My only bad habit is smoking. I admit I buy cigarettes with my money. But I try to save most of it and give a lot of the money to my little girl. On occasion, I have sent some to my old boyfiend Joe too--but that has not been lately. He's 110 miles away. I don't feel funny helping him because we are still friends and may get back together someday. People have helped me, so I try to help others whenever possible.

"I have four children, my youngest is still a minor. I have six grandbabies. We spend as much time together as possible. Then why am I out on the streets? Well, I had a Section 8 house four years ago. I really wanted my own house. They were going to raise my rent at a time when I didn't have much money coming in. I was already gathering aluminium cans for extra income. It was honest work. So I'm still out there picking up cans, in good weather and bad, because it is my only real income. You don't have to punch a time clock. You can just sit down and rest, smoke a cigarette, drink a pop, and continue on your way. I used to walk a regular route that went several miles. We would walk the same route every night, complete it in around four hours, and I would average between $20 to $40 in cans a day. I did an evening route because people usually take their trash out in the evening. I also went out in the morning. Some individuals hand me a little bit of money, some pocket change, or a few cans they've saved. They might stop and give me a sweatshirt to keep me warm, and a lady stopped by one night to bring me a blanket. I write down all of these kind acts in a book I call Pennies From Heaven. Sometimes I sit down and read the book to remind me there are a lot of good people in the world, when things are not going very well.

"It is not easy living on the streets in winter. People have offered me places to go, but usually it's some guy making the offer. And we all know what most of them want. One nice individual offered to get us a place for the winter, where we would share the kitchen and the bathroom. It was a sincere offer. I knew the landlord. He was abusive and took advantage of women. So that was a bad deal too. I have also been offered a place in one of the local shelters. But I don't like them because they are full or overcrowded, dirty, and don't really care about you, the person. They are all about funding, and looking good to the community. In the morning, you get up and have to get out around 6:30 in the morning. No one looks for work at that time. You also have to take your stuff with you because there is no place to store it. You cannot pack stuff around all day and go looking for a job and feel good about yourself. It just can't be done. It's not that I don't want a regular job, but you have to have an address to have a job. Then I have the problem of bathing and washing my clothes. Once in a great while, I can do so at the mission.

"I volunteer at the mission. I scoop the snow, fold clothes, sweep the floor, so on and so forth. I respect and love what the mission represents. But sometimes I think it's more about greed than need. A lot of people have lost a lot of their possessions in the shelters due to theft. I hear that you just about have to lay on your things to keep them at some places. One shelter had a stabbing, which rarely takes place. Shelter workers have their favorites in the crowd and give them special privileges. And if I should get a bed at a mission, I would feel like I was putting somebody else outside who doesn't know how to survive as well as I do. Then you have to deal with possible violence on the streets. While I was laying down one night, I had a guy come up and put his hand over my mouth. I was lucky enough to push his hand away and ran for help next door. That was one incident. Three teenagers recently approached me in a car. One got out and began throwing rocks and snowballs in my direction. I had never seen these kids before. I never bothered them, or would ever consider bothering them. Anyway, the guy threw stuff at me and pulls out a metal ball bat yelling, 'Do you want the bat, bitch?' And they came by twice: at 5:30 the first morning and around 4:30 the next one. I contacted the police, the second time, hoping they would catch those guys. Sometimes I wonder if they are out there when I hear a twig snap, or see a car pull up and stop. It scares me. I just freeze up inside. You never get much sleep at night because you hear every sound. You're always tired in the morning, trying to catch some sleep during the day when there are people around you that you can trust.

"People wonder how I can stay out in the coldest weather and not get frostbite. Sometimes I think I have a touch of it. I have problems with my fingers not working right and going numb. On a frosty morning, they seem to tingle a lot. How do I sleep in winter? I have a little mattress thing that goes on a lawn chair. I sleep on that. Then I put 2 sleeping bags and a small blanket over me. When it's really cold, I use a third sleeping bag. I also have a plastic tarp that I can throw over me if it's snowing, raining, or frosty outside. We sometimes occupy a general area with someone we trust, like a campsite. Generally speaking, everyone tries to keep their favorite spots secret. Sometimes when you let other people use your spots, you end up getting booted out, or there is some sort of trouble. At times it's great to have somebody there, to talk with and keep an eye on things. But I also enjoy silence and time to myself. Hopefully, I'll have another house in the next few years. Maybe Joe and I will get back together, and I will have a regular job. I will never give up on myself or that dream. Nobody will ever break my spirit either. I'm a survivor."

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