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.
We seek the shade. Naturally. To “survive the heat,” as some say.
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’t look welcoming, but not intimidating either, exchanging laughs and smiles and joking about something or other.
I showed up, on the job, to meet Stephanie Hernandez. My goal – talk to homeless people.
I circled parking lots three times looking for her before I ended up here. As I crept up to the group, they didn’t make notice of me. I slid my foot along clumps of pulled weeds as a woman told a story about “Jessie.” I looked down when someone else looked at me. I laughed when they did.
I took my chance when she paused.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for Stephanie,” I said.
The lady telling the story laughed. “Right here.”
“Oh, hi. I’m Nash, with The Observer News Enterprise.” I put out my right hand, and she shook it with her left. She was holding a cane.
I had been talking to Stephanie for a couple of weeks about her organization, The Shepherd’s Heart. Today, she was taking me to a tent camp of several homeless men near Hickory.
She resumed her conversation with the group, and I started to wonder, “Were the homeless meeting us here?” I thought. “Are we going to them?”
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.
I looked at one man – he smiled. Looked at another – he nodded. One even had a dog. A cute puppy.
I leaned in to Stephanie. “So, what’s going on now?”
“We are waiting for them to come out of dinner,” she said, nodding toward one of the Salvation Army’s buildings.
As few people came trickling out of “dinner,” they stopped by Stephanie’s 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.
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.
After a good circle formed around the old, shady tree, Stephanie threw me into the mix.
“This man is from the paper,” she said. “He wants to do a story on you all.”
I looked at the clumps of weeds I had been kicking around and smiled.
“So, go ahead, talk,” she continued.
“Go ahead, talk to him.”
“Y’all talk to me all the time, go ahea—”
“What do you want to know?” a man interrupted her. Quiet.
“Hmmmm. What a good question? What do I want to know?” 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.
“I will listen to whatever you have to say – about anything,” I said. “What do you want people to know about your life?”
He looked confused. “What paper are you with?”
“The Observer News Enterprise, in Newton.”
“Oh, The Newton Observer.”
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.
“Well I tell you this, I’ve only been on the streets for two weeks,” he said.
“People don’t realize how hard we have it, and it’s going to just keep on getting worse. It’s rough out here for people. Police don’t 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’s against the law, and that it’s wrong, but we don’t have anywhere to go sometimes. We don’t mean any harm to anybody, but we are just trying to survive.”
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.
The man’s 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 – 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’t be back until 3:30 p.m. – 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.
“Most of the people don’t realize they’re just a paycheck away from being homeless,” Keith said. “I used to have a job and have worked all my life.
It just takes one thing and you’re out here. But they don’t think about that. They don’t treat you like a person. They act like you’re not human.”
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.
“I stay camped up because of the dog and to keep an eye on the scooter at all times,” Lowell said. “They say after you’ve been sober for a year, you get a wife. Well, I got a dog.”
Lowell continued to tell me he’s been on the streets on and off for 22 years. He said he was a “union man,” but drinking destroyed his life.
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 “safe zone” for the homeless, Lowell suggested a church or the city invest in a “tent city” 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.
“People don’t realize that food is not the issue out here,” Lowell said.
“There are plenty of places to eat. On Sundays, I think there are seven different places you can get breakfast. It’s the other stuff – a place to sleep, doing laundry, heaters for the winter, candles.”
As Lowell started on the “tent city” 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.
“Tell these people what is going on. Tell them, they don’t know. They need to know we are trying,” he said.
“I’ll do the best I can,” I told him.
He shook my hand and smiled for the first time. As he walked away, he turned and came just inches away again.
“One more thing,” he whispered. “God is great. God is good. May the lord walk beside you. When he walks beside you, fear no evil, fear nothing. Always have faith.”
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.
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.
“That’s their kitchen,” 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.
We were here to see Bobby, Jessie and Willie, but there didn’t 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.
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.
In the middle of our conversation, a tough-looking man with tattoos on both arms appeared.
“Hey Jessie,” Stephanie said. “That was fast.”
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.
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.
“We’re trying to get Jessie into rehab,” Stephanie said.
Jessie, who is 61, said he has battled alcoholism for years. He said he’s 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. “Someone last week stopped and said, ‘Get a job you (expletive) bum,” he said. So when he can’t 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 – alcohol.
“I drink to deal with this,” he said, pointing to his “kitchen” slumped over up the hill. “I know I have to do something to get out of it, but it’s not simple.”
As I stood in the woods being eaten alive by mosquitoes and imagining myself in Jessie’s 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’m afraid, is far from the truth. Jessie and the others might have fallen off the tracks at some point, but he’s 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.
“I’m too old for this (expletive),” he said. “I got to do something to get out of here.”