Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day Two: On the Streets and In the Woods

Yesterday we started out slow--second day up at 3:00 a.m. Spencer forgot the gift cards, so we had to meet another team to pick them up. It was cold and clear with a bright starry sky.

First, we decided to drive around the parking lots of shopping centers to see if we could find people who were sleeping in their cars. One of our volunteers had seen a car that she thought someone might be living in near an office complex. She pointed out the car, and I walked over to see if someone was in it. The back windows were open, and I could smell cigarettes and see clothes and bedding. I called out, but got no answer. Spencer looked in the front seat and saw a man asleep under a sleeping bag. He woke up and we asked if he would talk with us. He said no, and asked us to leave him alone. We walked away, but Spencer thought he might know him, so went back and asked again. This time, we got a very clear refusal to participate. We'll note that we found a man sleeping in a car, but that's all the information we'll be able to report.

Next we went back to one of the campsites we visited on Tuesday. This site is by a stream, in town, in a very private area. We found our way, and came into the camp, calling out. We walked through an arch made of bamboo, used the steps cut into the stream bank, and came to a sitting area. Near the chair, there was a small bucket with a toothbrush and toothpaste. The tent was nestled in a spot surrounded by bamboo. I approached, said hello. The man woke up, remembered us from yesterday, and asked that we give him a minute and he would come out talk with us.

He was a Hispanic man, in his mid-40s, dressed in casual clothes. He said he used to live in an apartment in Carrboro but couldn't pay for it and had to leave. He was the only one in the camp that night, but said that others come and go, and some get "bad drunk." He was willing to do the survey, and gave us his name and social security number, and let us take his photo. He works when he can, doing odd jobs.

He told us he had a heart condition, and showed us a device strapped to his chest. He gets his treatment at UNC in cardiology. He didn't know the name of his condition, but said he loses consciousness about once  every 40 days, and that the device gives him a shock. Was it a defibrillator?

One of the purposes of the Vulnerability Index is to identify those homeless individuals most at risk of death. We had just found one. There were no signs of severe mental illness, perhaps some anxiety and sadness, but what would you expect when you aroused in the middle of the night by a group of strangers?

He told us there were other campsites nearby, and gestured and pointed. We tried to find the another site, but couldn't find a path, and found our way blocked by a fence.

From there, we went back to the sites we had seen on Tuesday, close to I40. We walked into the woods, and found the tent empty, just as it had been the day before. Spencer wanted to walk further into the woods so we started walking and saw a light ahead of us. That led us to a second tent, and a man wearing a headlamp. Spencer knew him.

He was white, in his mid-40s. He said he had been homeless for more than year, and had had to leave the shelter when we started a work program. He goes to the program daily. He had recently been denied disability but was planning on appealing. He was skinny, with a cup of coffee in his hand, and shivered in the cold. He had been in foster care. Had had a head injury. And he had recently been diagnosed as having the early stages of mesothelioma. He was nicely dressed, and said that he slept in the tent, and then caught the bus into down and tried to stay busy in the day. One of the volunteers asked if he panhandled, and he said he would never do that.

He pointed out a tent a short distance away--the occupant had already left for the day.

The site I would have liked to have seen in Chapel Hill was also near a stream near a bridge. There was a man who lived there who was an artist -- he built mosaics around the camp, and brought in calla lilies and other plants to beautify the area. We had heard that the artist was no longer there, having decided to return to his homeland.

The image below is not from one of our camps -- but it gives you an idea of the care some people put into making these spaces a home.

In contrast, other sites looked like this:

We had a great team, and talked about meeting to continue our early morning walks in the woods. It was heartwarming to see the volunteer participation in this event--some of us mental health workers and community activists and others concerned and caring citizens. I learned alot, and will have more to say on the experiences.

Watch for an article on the initiative in this Sundays' News and Observer.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Scouting Camp Sites

Spent some time this morning with Solomon and Spencer scouting campsites in Chapel Hill--looking for places that people without homes might sleep for the night. We checked out some abandoned houses not far from downtown, with lots of evidence of human activity. We saw sleeping bags and clothes, long abandoned, along Bolin Creek. And we found two sites with tents. Talked with one man. We'll go back tomorrow morning with our volunteer team, bringing coffee, gift cards, and asking folks we find to complete a survey designed to identify the people most at risk of death. And we'll give people a chance to tell their stories. I hope you will listen.

At one of the sites, there were clothes hanging to dry, and personal touches--decorations hanging from tree branches--and a dog leash clipped to a tree, but no sign of a dog.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Homeless Count

As I go through some transitions in my professional life, I am taking some time to get back to my roots as a social worker. These last few years have been tough in my line of work -- privatization of the historically public mental health system in NC; funding cuts in the system, not to mention in my household; and struggles with the power structure and trying to create change from within the system. What I've seen is an increase in human suffering, and fewer resources available to alleviate it.

So, on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, I'll be getting up at 3:00 a.m. to participate in the Orange County count of unsheltered homeless individuals.

It's part of this national grassroots effort:

I'll be co-leading a team of six volunteers. My group will include a homeless outreach worker from Housing for New Hope, the mayor of Chapel Hill, Mark Kleinschmidt, and town council member Penny Rich.

We'll be visiting homeless camps within the town limits. We'll see the invisible people, and hopefully give them the opportunity to tell their stories.

Stay tuned . . . I'll report on the experience here.