A week of days and nights on the streets with Lafayette's homeless
You step onto the pavement of Highway 90 with $10 in your pocket. Backpack stuffed with one change of clothes. The wind howls a strange song in your ears, and immediately you are engulfed by a thunderous racket of enormous trucks. A siren in the distance. The trapeze nets of the power lines above you. Passing motorists occasionally yell insults.
When you stop in the middle of this concrete riot of color and sound, you start to notice all the little things you never noticed before. Cracks in the sidewalk. Beer cans and glass in the gutters. The neighborhood dogs barking behind chain-link fences. A drainage ditch. The incessant growl of traffic whipping by your side just a few feet away. The push of the city, going in 1,000 directions at once.
And you are in the middle of it, going nowhere.
Your nearest relative is 1,000 miles away.
You've been fired or laid-off and are unemployed.
You are standing alone.
You are homeless.
You take another step and disappear into the maze of the concrete.
I start by wandering the sidewalks and drug alleys around the Jefferson Street underpass in downtown Lafayette. The Greyhound station. The public library. I have no cell phone and keep to myself. With my hat pulled low and my beard grown long, the cars pass and I'm rarely acknowledged by other pedestrians.
When nightfall comes, the open streets start to take on an unsettling edge. They empty of people and fill with shadows ' most benign, but some threatening. Near an Evangeline Thruway gas station, a man in a rumpled jacket approaches. Friend or foe? Without any preliminary introductions, he simply asks, "You need anything? What you looking for?" He offers crack, cocaine or weed. I wave him off and walk on. He follows and hits me up for loose change. Then a cigarette. Then a light. When you are alone at the bottom, you quickly get the feeling that you only are perceived as prey.
Thunder sounds in the distance and soon it is drizzling rain. Within minutes, I am nearly drenched and seek shelter under the overpass at the I-10 and University intersection. When the traffic thins, I make my move and climb the slanted support walls to a ledge near the top ' right under the bridge itself. There's just enough room to huddle and crouch. Two pieces of cardboard are laid out like a bedspread. Shredded magazines. Emptied liquor bottles, beer cans, and more trash are scattered about. The stench of urine is overwhelming. When my eyes adjust to the low visibility, I spot a figure across the way, under the opposite side of the bridge. I wave and nod. He doesn't wave back.
For the next three hours, the rain comes down. I lay out my sleeping bag and try to stay warm. Sleep is near impossible as the sound of enormous 18-wheelers slam by overhead, rattling and vibrating every inch of my body. The sound is huge ' like a 10-ton alarm clock going off every few seconds. I plug my ears with pieces of napkin, pop a Tylenol PM, and lie down in darkness.
The next morning I head back toward the public library, where I cross paths with Russell. He's 43 years old, a New Iberia native, and homeless. How he ended up homeless is a mystery that he refuses to talk about. He invites me to sit and talk at his spot ' a quiet park bench away from the slew of traffic. He's reticent and shy, but talks of missing his daughter, his family, the job from which he was fired ' and the shame of being homeless.
"It makes you lazy, being out here, like this. The days wear on you and make it harder to get up everyday. My only advice to people is: don't ever let yourself slip this far."
After a cigarette, Russell gives me a starter course in how to survive on the street. Shower at the gas station bathroom. Avoid the police. Pick and pull unsold food from the dumpsters at fast food joints. And sleep where they can't see you. "Near a church is always good," he advises. "Who's gonna try to hurt you near a house of God?"
Above all, take care of your shoes.
"Keep your shoes dry and your feet clean," Russell says. "If either of them get messed up, you're in trouble."
According to Eric Gammons, president of Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, Inc., the homeless population in Lafayette hovers somewhere around 400, decreasing in summer and increasing during the winter. However, that number does not include the homeless who primarily exist outside of the homeless shelters. Those people are usually documented by public or private agencies only if they get arrested ' or killed.
Through Russell, I meet Uncle Larry, who's my ambassador to "The Camp" ' a hidden and secret homeless encampment I've been told is located in Lafayette within eyeshot of 10-20 businesses and a government building.
Uncle Larry is 60, homeless, and a self-described old hippie from West Virginia.
"I don't care about money; that's why I live and travel on the streets," he says.
Larry leads me to a small wooded field and locates the entrance trail ' marked by a well-placed Styrofoam cup ' and screams, "Incoming!" to alert the camp residents that "friendlies" are approaching.
We make our way through a patch of thickets and briars. The trail twists and turns, tightly around vines, tunneling around trees, criss-crossing back and forth for about 50 yards until we begin to see hints of life ' colored tents in a clearing. After ducking through one last tangle of branches, I hear voices and the trail suddenly opens up to reveal five tents, a radio, barbecue pit, Coleman stove, ice chest, smoldering fire pit, and a staging area for empty beer cans soon to be recycled for cash. We have officially entered another world: The Tramp Camp.
I've passed this wooded field a thousand times or more and never even suspected anything was back here, let alone an extended family of more than 10 homeless folks.
There's a loose logic and organization to the camp. Tents are randomly spaced approximately 30 feet apart to give everyone their dose of privacy when needed. Various foods and perishables hang in knotted, plastic bags from several tree branches, out of the reach of ants. Wet sleeping bags hang in the trees, drying out from the previous night's rain. Tipped-over shopping carts and milk crates serve as chairs around the fire pit located in the center of the camp. Books, magazines and newspapers lie scattered about. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice hundreds of empty liquor bottles surrounding the perimeter ' arbitrarily tossed and spread along the outer limits of the camp like the graveyard of many a drunken night's memory.
I am formally introduced to everyone in the camp like a visiting ambassador from some distant world where people sleep on nice beds and have hot water. Faces appear from veiled tents to say hello and size me up.
Jason: 32, Illinois
Russell: 43, New Iberia
Uncle Larry: 62, Virginia
Allison: 40, New Orleans
Rodney, 50, Venice, Louisiana
Keith: 44, Fort Worth, Texas
Robert: 44, Lafayette
Shannon: 25, Detroit, Michigan
In addition to some of them being slightly drunk, they are open, animated, and excited that someone ' anyone ' is interested in listening to their stories of what happened in their lives and how they ended up here at The Camp. "If someone doesn't want to talk, you just leave them alone," says Allison. "That's another reason a lot of us are out here; we just want to be left alone. But it's also like a family ' we take care of one another. This is how we live. And we prefer to be called 'Tramps.'"
Jason is the undeclared leader of the group. He is a construction worker from Illinois ' clean-cut and built like a soldier. He still retains the presence of a young man who has drive and ambition.
With both of his parents deceased, Jason and a friend drove down to Louisiana to work offshore, but ran into trouble the first week when his friend wrecked his truck and was jailed for DUI. After losing his ID and effects in the wreck, Jason found himself with no transportation, no place to stay, and no one he knew that could help him. Without a valid ID, he was unable to find work and routinely denied beds in shelters.
"I've always had a place to live before," he says. "I've worked my whole life, but I ran into a little bit of bad luck down here. I'm in the process of trying to get back on my feet."
Since September 2006, he has lived on the streets of Lafayette, and for the past three months he's lived in the Tramp Camp. "It can be rough out here at times," he says. "It can lower your self-esteem and depress you. There are a lot of bad things that come with it ' alcohol and drugs ' things that you end up using to numb the experience. It's different. I've never been homeless before. It's a tough experience. I like the outdoors, but I don't like not having a job. I do what I have to do to get by: selling aluminum cans, scraping."
After he answers a few more questions, Jason excuses himself for various chores about the camp.
Allison, 40, is one of only two females here. The tattoo on her left hand has two words: THE BITCH. She's been at the camp for two months, but she's lived at tramp camps in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Dakota. A product of a middle-class upbringing and Catholic schools, she was born and raised in New Orleans. She's the daughter of a decorated New Orleans police detective and a waitress mother who eventually divorced.
Allison is an unrepentant alcoholic who left New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "If I didn't drink, I would've blown my brains out a long time ago," she says. "You try sleeping under a bridge without being drunk off your ass! It ain't easy."
Allison says she worked mostly men's jobs: electrician's helper, concrete worker, insulation installer and carnival worker. "Being a carny is similar to being a tramp," she says. "You travel a lot and you drink ' but you have a steady job."
As we talk, it dawns on her that it is Laundry Day at the camp. She and Shannon, a short brunette dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, begin to grab small bags of dirty clothes from all the tramps and throw them in a shopping cart pulled from a bush. I volunteer to help out.
Fifteen minutes later, I'm ramming a shopping cart ' wheels flap-rattling ' full of dirty clothes up Moss Street through rush hour traffic, bustling intersections, blaring horns, and odd stares. Allison and Shannon pull from the front and side. Cracks in the sidewalk bite at the cart's wheels. Cars narrowly avoid running us over. The two women never flinch.
We arrive at the laundromat and Shannon takes control of the cart. Allison and I continue our conversation in the rear parking lot whilst sipping our beers. She jumped into the tramp life at 15 when she ran away from home for the first time and got a job cooking on a tugboat. "My dad was a drunk," she says. "Told me get the hell out of his house. So I bought a pack of cigarettes and left."
Years later she married, had three kids and settled down. She was sober for a few years, but after the unexpected death of her husband, she went into a tailspin, returning to alcohol, the streets, drugs, and transient life. She says her mother is raising her kids.
I bring up the subject of alcohol and its possible detrimental effect on her life thus far. Her voice cracks and the words pour out quietly.
"I may be an alcoholic, but my worst addiction is men," she says. "I can't stand to be alone. I've always been that way. I need to have a man around me."
Rodney, 50, is Allison's boyfriend. He's a vacuum salesman from Venice, La. with 30 years of sales experience under his belt. "I prefer to be called a 'distributor,'" he says.
Like many of the homeless I meet, Rodney began a downward spiral after a death in his family ' in this case, the accidental death of his 22-month-old son. A divorce soon followed. Then another marriage. And another divorce. Then he lost his job and got a DUI.
After riding a bicycle from Port Fourchon to Lafayette for a job interview that didn't materialize, he decided to take a break from "the grind."
"You get tired of the rat race," he says. "You get to a point where you want to give up and then you start giving up, and it deteriorates from there."
He sips from his beer and stares past me.
"The hardest thing to do is to come back after you've suffered a loss."
When we return from the laundromat, night has fallen and we make our way down the trails to camp by flashlight and headlamps. A fire is burning and food is prepared. Hamburgers and hotdogs off a makeshift grill with beans cooked on a portable stove. It's a Coleman Dual-Fuel camping stove that's popular among the homeless, since it's easily portable and can run on gasoline.
"I've never been denied anything in the camps," says Keith. This is a sentiment that I will hear repeated many times by the others.
As the full moon rises, we eat, talk, laugh, and drink beer around the open fire. The city can be heard rumbling, chugging, and wailing with the occasional siren in the distance. A few of the tramps don't drink, but almost everyone else living in the camp is at some varying stage of drunkenness. That is one of the bonds that hold them together: the alcohol. Some are tenured alcoholics; others are still exploring the extent of their dependence.
"There's not much else to do out here, but drink," mumbles Keith.
"It's a pressure free lifestyle ' we're free," someone else says in the darkness.
The fire in the center of camp dwindles to ash and the tramps each make their way through the darkness toward their tents. The beer is gone. The nearby parking lot and fast-food restaurant lights are off. It's 2 a.m. I roll out my sleeping bag and climb in, with my back to the earth and my eyes looking at a maze of stars in the sky.
The next morning, the sun is bright and Jason is already up, working around the camp. I wake up late and Uncle Larry is gone. I never see him again.
"People come and go all the time," says Rodney, climbing out from his tent.
Where did he go, I ask. "Never ask a tramp where he's going!" shouts Keith. "It's not polite. And never tell a tramp 'goodbye.' Just say 'So long.'" I make quick mental note of the sudden appearance of these camp rules.
Rodney then schools me in the four types of homeless people. The transitionally homeless are men and women who have lost jobs or experienced some type of temporary, financial setback, resulting in a single episode of homelessness that lasts 30-60 days. "There's a lot of people out there who are only one paycheck away from being exactly where we are," says Allison.
The second tier of homeless people are hobos. Contrary to popular belief, the days of the Dust Bowl transient criss-crossing the country by rail and foot are alive and well. Hobos travel to wherever they can find work, and there's even a nationwide covert brotherhood of sometimes-feared riders known as the Freight Train Riders of America.
"F.T.R.Aâ?¦they're bad news," says Keith. "I don't trust them."
Tramps are the homeless who drink often, work occasionally, and travel when the opportunity arises. Tramps are a nomadic tribe ' kin to the hobo ' and they champion autonomy and freedom as opposed to the institutional dependency of some of the homeless. They exist seemingly outside of society and yet their camps are often hidden within walking distance of the structures, franchises, and institutions they seek to escape.
Bums/Home Guards drink or do drugs and not much else. The Home Guard is not a traveler. They do not leave their "home city," instead they choose to stay and "guard" the free resources ' possibly from other transients ' that are available to them in that area. The Home Guard category contains many lost souls ' drug addicts, tenured alcoholics, the mentally ill, and people who for one reason or another have exhausted all the good graces of their families and friends and find themselves living on the streets or sleeping in shelters. The Home Guard sits at the bottom of the homeless pecking order.
In order to feed themselves and afford liquor, the tramps work a number of jobs or "hustles." Allison panhandles outside of grocery stores. Rodney works at a temp labor service and sells his plasma twice a week. Lafayette native Robert, who says he has a degree in political science, works offshore until he can afford an apartment ' for now, when he's inland, he sleeps in tent 5.
According to a 1997 report by the National Coalition of the Homeless, almost one-fifth of the homeless work full or part-time jobs. And almost all of them at some time or another end up "flying a sign" ' like Keith.
Forty-four-year-old Keith is the guy you see standing at the intersection, holding a cardboard sign that reads, "PLEASE GIVE & GOD BLESS." At certain times of the day, when the light is right, he resembles a dust bowl drifter. He's got a square head, skin like sandpaper, and a dry sense of humor that has carried him through seven years on the streets and in assorted camps. Born to alcoholic parents in Ohio ' with a grandfather who built a still in their backyard ' he enjoys his liquor. At times, he can be hilariously funny or rudely belligerent. Out of everyone at the camp, he is the least romantic and most realistic about tramp life. "Don't hate me till you know me," he says. "That's my motto."
Keith flies his sign reluctantly. He spends 20-30 minutes at a time, standing on the corner, holding his sign and earning $0-10 on average at a time. There are many days when he makes nothing. He assesses intersections like an economist evaluates a flow chart. "This one's got a nice long light, gives you time to make eye contact," he says. "There are some trees to hide you from the cops. You can walk up and down the line of cars, let people know you are there."
Who are the most generous givers?
"Black women, without a doubt," he says. "They've got more heart than all of them."
"Flying a sign," Keith tells me, "is my job when I can't get one. I'm not proud of it. I'd much rather work, but who wants to give a guy standing on the street a job?"
For 17 years, Keith hung wallpaper and worked offshore. He has an ex-wife and two kids. Somewhere along the line ' he won't say ' he fell into the tramp life. "Don't be fooled; this is a rough life. Ain't nobody grew up saying, I wanna be a tramp for the rest of my life and live in the woods. But some of us get stuck. I slept for a month under a bridge ' with a knife on my chest. Scared. Try it sometime ' it ain't no picnic."
He shrugs and speaks of the dangers present when sleeping in the streets or camps ' people getting attacked, mugged, or beat up for no reason. "All the time! All the f--king time!" he yells. "That's why I sleep with a knife on my chest."
On March 10, 2007 at approximately 12:39 a.m., homeless man Robert Willis got into an argument with Ronald Jones near the Jefferson Street underpass. Jones stabbed Willis multiple times, killing him. Jones turned himself in to the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's that day, and was charged with second degree murder.
The camp residents spend most of their day drinking cheap beer with the highest alcohol content. Miller High Life seems to be the beer of choice. They keep to themselves in the camp, mill about, read books, magazines, and listen to music. As noon approaches, the tramps gather in the center of camp and make the 1.5 mile trek on foot to the St. Joseph's Diner where they serve 200 breakfast and lunch meals a day to the homeless and needy.
There is a line at the door when we arrive. The place is packed. When we get inside, we are served a smothered chicken dinner with a side vegetable and dessert. Everyone cleans out the contents of their plates. As we eat, I silently count 55 heads.
Outside the diner after lunch, I meet "Just Dave," the Train Rider. That's who he is and how he wants to be known, Just Dave. There is something different about him. Something proud and defiant. Temperate and sturdy. He's from Oregon and says he's been a member of the Freight Train Riders of America since 1982.
At the time, Just Dave had just gotten out of prison after spending 22 years in and out of jail on various drug-related charges. He sobered up and decided to see the country and travel. A girlfriend suggested the trains after a fruitless hitchhiking run. Overnight, his first train shot from Oregon to Bakersfield and Tucson. He liked the outdoors and the sense of autonomy that the journey gave him.
His conversation is a heady cocktail of advice, yarns, warnings, and learned fact.
"A hobo stays with the train and a tramp sticks to the woods," he says. "A homeless person will eventually turn into a tramp, then maybe transform into a Stew Bum. Stew Bums are lazy ' stay away from them. All tramps are survivors. I got a buddy named Drifter that was busted by the cops in Barstow, California. They took him nine miles into the Mojave Desert. Dropped him off. He made it back ' that's surviving."
Just Dave has a plan, and it's a simple one. Find a secluded spot to camp in Lafayette, rest for a couple days, and then head back out. "They got some bad spots ' Oklahoma, Las Vegas. Took me six years to learn the ropes. It's a hard life, but I like it."
"You ever slept in 2 feet of snow on a train in North Dakota? Try it sometime."
The actual act of jumping a moving train is the dangerous first step. According to Just Dave, there's only one simple rule that needs to be followed: count the nuts. If you can count the lug nuts on a train wheel, you can jump the train. The average train wheel has three lug nuts. If they're blurry, moving too fast, or you're too drunk to count them, better let that one go.
Just Dave's Top 8 Tips on Train-Riding:
1. Buddy up and find a partner
2. Count the nuts
3. Always carry water
4. Avoid being out in the open and easily spotted
5. Find a boxcar with an open door; use a railroad tie to block the door from shutting you in
6. Bring a good pair of boots
7. Bring a bedroll and pack light/smart
8. Enjoy the freedom
"I've been locked up a lot of my life, so I enjoy the freedom of traveling around," he says. "I like to meet people. I did drugs for years, and that's just a one-way ticket back to prison. This is a better life. It may not appear that way, but it is."
After a week on the streets and in the camp, it's time for me to return to my former life behind four walls and a roof ' with bills, e-mail and a constantly ringing cellphone. I grab my backpack and sleeping bag and make the rounds of the camp one more time.
I say my goodbyes to everyone, not knowing when or if I'll see them again. When I get to Keith, I shake his hand and say "so long" instead of goodbye. He nods approvingly.