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When the sun sets in the summer, trees chew up light and spit out shadows. It is a phenomenon, for humans, that creates a natural nestling place.
‚Ä®We seek the shade. Naturally. To ‚Äúsurvive the heat,‚ÄĚ as some say.
‚Ä®On Tuesday, I found myself ambling awkwardly through a gravel parking lot toward a short tree providing enough shade for four strangers. They sat or stood 100 yards from the Salvation Army headquarters in Hickory.
They didn‚Äôt look welcoming, but not intimidating either, exchanging laughs and smiles and joking about something or other. ¬†
‚Ä®I showed up, on the job, to meet Stephanie Hernandez. My goal ‚Äď talk to homeless people.
‚Ä®I circled parking lots three times looking for her before I ended up here.‚Ä®As I crept up to the group, they didn‚Äôt make notice of me. I slid my foot along clumps of pulled weeds as a woman told a story about ‚ÄúJessie.‚ÄĚ I looked down when someone else looked at me. I laughed when they did.‚Ä®
I took my chance when she paused.
‚Ä®‚ÄúExcuse me, I‚Äôm looking for Stephanie,‚ÄĚ I said.
‚Ä®The lady telling the story laughed. ‚ÄúRight here.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®‚ÄúOh, hi. I‚Äôm Nash, with The Observer News Enterprise.‚ÄĚ I put out my right hand, and she shook it with her left. She was holding a cane.
‚Ä®I had been talking to Stephanie for a couple of weeks about her organization, The Shepherd‚Äôs Heart. Today, she was taking me to a tent camp of several homeless men near Hickory.
‚Ä®She resumed her conversation with the group, and I started to wonder, ‚ÄúWere the homeless meeting us here?‚ÄĚ I thought. ‚ÄúAre we going to them?‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®But as she gossiped and chuckled with the swelling group of men, and women, I began to realize that I already found what I came for. These people are homeless.
‚Ä®I looked at one man ‚Äď he smiled. Looked at another ‚Äď he nodded. One even had a dog. A cute puppy.
‚Ä®I leaned in to Stephanie. ‚ÄúSo, what‚Äôs going on now?‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®‚ÄúWe are waiting for them to come out of dinner,‚ÄĚ she said, nodding toward one of the Salvation Army‚Äôs buildings.
‚Ä®As few people came trickling out of ‚Äúdinner,‚ÄĚ they stopped by Stephanie‚Äôs car and picked up clothes, socks or shoes out of bins separated by gender. ¬†As time passed, a line of men and women stood outside her car.
‚Ä®There were mobs of people now, and they all seemed to know each other.
They talked about dinner, gossiped about stories, laughed at the puppy.
They were all here for different reasons, but yet all seemed to share something. They were friendly. They breathed. They smiled. They blinked. They were homeless.
‚Ä®After a good circle formed around the old, shady tree, Stephanie threw me into the mix.
‚Ä®‚ÄúThis man is from the paper,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúHe wants to do a story on you all.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®I looked at the clumps of weeds I had been kicking around and smiled.
‚Ä®‚ÄúSo, go ahead, talk,‚ÄĚ she continued. ¬†
‚Ä®‚ÄúGo ahead, talk to him.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®‚ÄúY‚Äôall talk to me all the time, go ahea‚ÄĒ‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®‚ÄúWhat do you want to know?‚ÄĚ a man interrupted her.‚Ä®Quiet.
‚Ä®‚ÄúHmmmm. What a good question? What do I want to know?‚ÄĚ I thought. My response would determine how the rest of the afternoon went. One wrong word, or phrase, could easily ruin the whole thing I had planned for weeks. I had to be honest.
‚Ä®‚ÄúI will listen to whatever you have to say ‚Äď about anything,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúWhat do you want people to know about your life?‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®He looked confused. ‚ÄúWhat paper are you with?‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®‚ÄúThe Observer News Enterprise, in Newton.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®‚ÄúOh, The Newton Observer.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®The man bounced off the front of a rusty, gray pick-up truck and moved closer. His face was scruffy and wore a camouflage baseball cap. He wore sandals and cut-off jean shorts, attire I found unusual for a man who lives in the woods.
‚Ä®‚ÄúWell I tell you this, I‚Äôve only been on the streets for two weeks,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúPeople don‚Äôt realize how hard we have it, and it‚Äôs going to just keep on getting worse. It‚Äôs rough out here for people. Police don‚Äôt allow you to sleep anywhere. They harass you all the time, ask you for your ID.
The government ought to allow you to sleep somewhere. I understand that it‚Äôs against the law, and that it‚Äôs wrong, but we don‚Äôt have anywhere to go sometimes. We don‚Äôt mean any harm to anybody, but we are just trying to survive.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®He spoke in such rapid succession that I had to stop him. A burdensome filter had been pried from his mouth, it seemed, and he could speak.
‚Ä®The man‚Äôs name was Keith Hebert, and like he said, he has been homeless for a little more than two weeks. In that short time, he found resources for food and shelter ‚Äď resources he said sometimes fall short.
The Salvation Army and the Grace House in Hickory both provide places for the homeless to eat and sleep, however, the residents must check out of the buildings at 9 a.m. and can‚Äôt be back until 3:30 p.m. ‚Äď putting them on the street with nowhere to go for nearly seven hours most days.
With limited public property to sleep on or reside at, sometimes people like Keith have a hard time finding a safe place to go.¬†¬† ¬†
‚Ä®‚ÄúMost of the people don‚Äôt realize they‚Äôre just a paycheck away from being homeless,‚ÄĚ Keith said. ‚ÄúI used to have a job and have worked all my life.
It just takes one thing and you‚Äôre out here. But they don‚Äôt think about that. They don‚Äôt treat you like a person. They act like you‚Äôre not human.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®Before Keith could utter another word, another man wearing a purple bandana and racetrack sunglasses stepped forward. He rode a scooter with a dog at his feet into the parking lot about 15 minutes earlier. Stephanie told me his name was Lowell Benson.
‚Ä®‚ÄúI stay camped up because of the dog and to keep an eye on the scooter at all times,‚ÄĚ Lowell said. ‚ÄúThey say after you‚Äôve been sober for a year, you get a wife. Well, I got a dog.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®Lowell continued to tell me he‚Äôs been on the streets on and off for 22 years. He said he was a ‚Äúunion man,‚ÄĚ but drinking destroyed his life.
‚Ä®Like Keith, he said there are resources for the homeless in Hickory, but said there is work to be done. Unlike other cities such as Charleston, S.C. and Charlotte, Lowell said he and the homeless have no help getting jobs and have few opportunities for indoor shelter during the day.
Because there is no ‚Äúsafe zone‚ÄĚ for the homeless, Lowell suggested a church or the city invest in a ‚Äútent city‚ÄĚ for the homeless, where they can reside safely.
He said an organization could buy a piece of land and have guards monitor tents in shifts so that only sober people can enter the area.
‚Ä®‚ÄúPeople don‚Äôt realize that food is not the issue out here,‚ÄĚ Lowell said.
‚ÄúThere are plenty of places to eat. On Sundays, I think there are seven different places you can get breakfast. It‚Äôs the other stuff ‚Äď a place to sleep, doing laundry, heaters for the winter, candles.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®As Lowell started on the ‚Äútent city‚ÄĚ again, Keith announced he was leaving. Before heading out, he approached me and got close. Real close. The brim of his hat grazed my forehead as he raised his head with his eyes closed.
‚Ä®‚ÄúTell these people what is going on. Tell them, they don‚Äôt know. They need to know we are trying,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚Ä®‚ÄúI‚Äôll do the best I can,‚ÄĚ I told him.
‚Ä®He shook my hand and smiled for the first time. As he walked away, he turned and came just inches away again.
‚Ä®‚ÄúOne more thing,‚ÄĚ he whispered. ‚ÄúGod is great. God is good. May the lord walk beside you. When he walks beside you, fear no evil, fear nothing. Always have faith.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®After a while more talking with some of the guys, Stephanie, her husband, Juan, and I headed out for a tent camp in the woods. A short drive from the Salvation Army led us behind an old brick building. From there, we walked a tiny path of tall weeds and briars to a trail in the woods. The setting sun was blinded by the shelter of trees, but the air was still sticky and smelled of vegetation. We walked a little further, and we were at the tent camp.
‚Ä®Large white, blue and transparent tarps draped among trees, and a set of camping-style tents were scattered about. On the ground, a random assortment of miscellaneous items littered the leaves and dirt. Used candles. Old clothes. Buckets. Cans. ¬†
‚Ä®‚ÄúThat‚Äôs their kitchen,‚ÄĚ Stephanie said, pointing to a cluster of tarps draped over a small area filled with old pots, pans and makeshift chairs. A dirty white sock used as an impromptu coffee filter hung on a chair and cigarette butts littered the leaves and blended in with the dirt.
‚Ä®We were here to see Bobby, Jessie and Willie, but there didn‚Äôt seem to be anyone home. Stephanie rattled around the tents looking for movement, and a tall, skinny man emerged from a green camper tent. He puffed on a hand-rolled cigarette that was falling to pieces and walked up and shook my hand kindly as Stephanie introduced him.
‚Ä®Bobby was not as talkative as the rest, and Stephanie said he does not come out of the woods often. He showed me his home and storage shed that consisted of a tent with various couch cushions and home appliances inside. He even posed for a few pictures.
‚Ä®In the middle of our conversation, a tough-looking man with tattoos on both arms appeared.
‚Ä®‚ÄúHey Jessie,‚ÄĚ Stephanie said. ‚ÄúThat was fast.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®Jessie had been at the Salvation Army just minutes before and had walked at least four miles back to the camp site. We barely beat him in cars.
‚Ä®He breathed in deep, and let it out hard. Reaching into his left pant pocket, he pulled out a baggie of half-smoked cigarette butts and lit one up. Jessie and Stephanie talked about issues I did not understand, and it seemed like the two were pretty close.
‚Ä®‚ÄúWe‚Äôre trying to get Jessie into rehab,‚ÄĚ Stephanie said.
‚Ä®Jessie, who is 61, said he has battled alcoholism for years. He said he‚Äôs tried to get a job, but a lack of transportation and high school diploma makes that goal tough. Unlike other, larger cities, there is limited free public transportation in Hickory. Therefore, Jessie and Bobby walk the highways and streets every day collecting cans, picking up cigarette butts and making their rounds to the Salvation Army, Grace House, and other area soup kitchens. On those walks, Jessie said he is usually harassed by either police or pedestrians. ‚ÄúSomeone last week stopped and said, ‚ÄėGet a job you (expletive) bum,‚ÄĚ he said. So when he can‚Äôt qualify for a job, he walks miles for food each day and has to live in the woods, Jessie said he spends the spare change he does get on something that helps him at least go to sleep at night ‚Äď alcohol.
‚Ä®‚ÄúI drink to deal with this,‚ÄĚ he said, pointing to his ‚Äúkitchen‚ÄĚ slumped over up the hill. ‚ÄúI know I have to do something to get out of it, but it‚Äôs not simple.‚ÄĚ
‚Ä®As I stood in the woods being eaten alive by mosquitoes and imagining myself in Jessie‚Äôs shoes, I came to a realization. My whole life, society has taught me to look the other way when I saw a homeless person. We are conditioned to think of them as something else, not human. But that, I‚Äôm afraid, is far from the truth. Jessie and the others might have fallen off the tracks at some point, but he‚Äôs trying to get back on. He has a good heart and just needs a little help. And then, too, I think he will help himself.
‚Ä®‚ÄúI‚Äôm too old for this (expletive),‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI got to do something to get out of here.‚ÄĚ ¬†¬†‚Ä®