Long-term Homeless Want To Live Outside Society's Rules? FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 29 Mar 1999 04:48:36 -0800 (PST)

Does the article below give an unbiased and complete portrayal of why some
homeless people avoid shelters, welfare offices, charities and other
mainstream "service providers"?

If you avoided "helpers" when you were homeless, please explain your

FWD  Washington Post - Monday, March 29, 1999; Page B01


     In City and Suburb, Some Prefer
     to Live Outside Society's Rules

     By Tom Jackman and Josh White
     Washington Post Staff Writers

After midnight in the woods near Route 1 in southern Fairfax County, a
light rain drips through the trees onto four men drinking cans of Magnum
beer, which sell for $4.49 a 12-pack at the 7-Eleven. They argue about the
money. They interrupt each other. They reminisce about arguments and shout
in the familiar tones of longtime friends.

Even as the weather turns worse, they won't be going to a shelter for the
homeless. Like their four friends who died in a fire in an abandoned house
days earlier, they can't stand the rules. So Nathan "Brucie" Boyd will
slide under his makeshift tent of blankets carefully draped across wires
strung around the trees, and Bill Hammack will retreat to his secret spot
in an empty room of an apartment complex.

"I don't want to go to any institution of any type," said Hammack, a former
radio technician who has spent much of the last 14 years on the streets.
"It's a demeaning experience."

In the woods of suburban Virginia, under Beltway bridges in Prince George's
County, in abandoned office buildings in the District, a subpopulation of
homeless stubbornly defies the entreaties of outreach workers to come in
from the cold.

By the hundreds, they carve out territory in the shadows of prosperity,
meandering almost invisibly from vacant lots to trash-filled alleys,
surfacing only to scrap for spare change for the next sandwich or bottle of
beer. Their reasons for refusing even the most modest kind of official help
are as diverse as their backgrounds -- unwillingness to stop drinking,
mental illness, fear of arrest, lack of privacy or a perceived slight by a
representative of a social service agency.

Randolph Shepherd was one who preferred the streets to the shelters of
Fairfax. Shepherd had been staying with Boyd under his blanket-tent in the
woods until shortly before March 18, when he decided to sleep in a
boarded-up house at 8159 Mount Vernon Hwy. The building burned rapidly to
the ground that morning, killing Shepherd, Stephen Ward, Michael Britt and
a still-unidentified woman, believed by family and friends to be Britt's
girlfriend, Denise Sullivan.

"I think we're beginning to recognize that we've got to start building
relationships with these folks," said Mary Ann Luby, an outreach worker in
the District for Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. She said that
shelters and social programs in the area often impose requirements, such as
sobriety or psychiatric evaluations, before accepting homeless clients and
that the long-term homeless see those as impenetrable barriers.

"If we had very low barriers and very good staff and very effective
outreach, we could make a dent," Luby said. "But it wouldn't be a fast
dent; it would be a very slow dent."

Although the Route 1 corridor attracted much of the attention after the
fatal fire, the homeless are hardly limited to that area. In Manassas in
October, two homeless men squatting on a wooded plot died in a fire when
their makeshift tentlike shelter was ignited by a propane heater.
Authorities later found five homeless camps within the city limits and
cleared out their occupants.

In Reston, where the 60-bed Embry Rucker Shelter turns people away every
day, police say the community has its share of homeless living in cars or
wooded areas.

Sheritta Seawright, associate director of the Community Ministry of Prince
George's County, a coalition of 32 churches, said many of the county's
homeless shun help, choosing to remain outside in such places as under the
Capital Beltway in Oxon Hill and in the woods near a National Guard armory
in College Park. And such homeless camps are not uncommon in Montgomery
County, according to Bo Nguyen, assistant director of a similar church
coalition there.

The Washington area's booming economy has failed to reduce the overall
homeless population, according to advocates and social workers. In fact,
they say, it could be growing. "The demand is there" for beds and space in
shelters, said Paul Heimer, of the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the
Homeless. "The demand hasn't gone away. And I'm afraid of what will happen
when welfare reform and a bad economy mix. Then we'll see a rush of folks."

Fairfax estimates that its homeless population rose in the last year, from
1,600 to 1,700. Of those, according to a survey done earlier this year, the
county believes about 70 are unsheltered. In Washington, the Community
Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness estimates that 7,500 people
are homeless on any one night and that 700 of those are unsheltered.

"A lot of these folks are untrusting of the system," said Ann Oliva,
program director for the partnership. "Many had interaction with it 10 to
15 years ago, and whatever happened then, they can't believe things have

Pooling Their Money

Rather than accept aid from a shelter, some homeless will pool their money
and rent a motel room for the night. Some, such as Boyd, get a monthly
Social Security check and then move into a room for as long as the money

"I go in every time I get my check," Boyd said, and also when the weather
gets bad. He said the motels in the Route 1 corridor charge outlandish
prices for poorly maintained rooms, sometimes $40 a day or more.

"I know they're getting over on me," Boyd said, "but I'll pay it just to
get out of the weather."

Still, it's preferable to a shelter, said Boyd, a Washington native who has
slept in various locations in the Mount Vernon area. "Shelter makes me
lazy," Boyd said. "I don't go because I like to be independent. In the
shelter, all I'll do is sleep. When I'm out here, I know I got to get up
and do what I got to do."

For most, that involves mastering survival skills such as locating service
agencies that hand out clothing and blankets, finding prime locations for
lucrative panhandling, and learning which fast-food restaurants will give
away their leftovers.

Many spend the rest of their time drinking, and reflecting on the promising
futures that somehow slid through their grasp.

On a recent afternoon in southern Fairfax, Don, who declined to give his
last name, sat beneath a highway, listening to the drone of cars and the
clanking of trucks overhead, drinking from a 40-ounce beer. A pile of 200
beer cans littered the cold mud of the place he calls the Steel Bridge

He said he has been homeless, off and on, for more than a decade. He used
to pull down about $30,000 a year as a truck driver and lived a comfortable
life, he said. "Look at me, I'm dirty and filthy," Don said. "I'm not this
kind of person."

A companion, Richard Scott, 57, said that he would love to be working but
that his failing health makes it difficult to take the day-labor jobs
common to the homeless. Once the coughing starts, it's hard for him to
catch his breath.

Scott said he has been arrested several times for panhandling and recently
spent nine days in jail in Fairfax. His mother bailed him out, and now he's
back looking for handouts.

"I hold a sign, because I don't like to ask people for money," Scott said,
reaching into his jacket to produce a small piece of cardboard that reads,
"Homeless, please help, God bless U."

'This Is a Harsh Reality'

Those who live on the street also develop their own pecking order. Ronald
"Ronnie" Blankenship, 35, a gruff ex-bricklayer, commands respect from the
homeless community in the eastern end of Prince William County, where he is
the "boss" of a large group of people who dot the woods around Woodbridge,
Dumfries and Dale City. He said he maintains five makeshift homeless
villages, which support about 45 people at a time.

Blankenship says he can't get a driver's license or regular work because he
can't remember his Social Security number. He spends many of his nights in
the county's winter shelter, which provides 35 beds for the homeless from
the beginning of November to the end of March. He said he goes to relax and
get a shower, but when the shelter closes Wednesday, he'll be back in the

"This isn't like a family vacation, camping out in the woods, all fun and
games," he said. "I'm not playing because this is not a game. This is a
harsh reality. This is survival."

Then there are those like Hammack, 42, whose survival skills are so well
honed that he could easily be mistaken for a graduate student rather than a
homeless man. Hammack, articulate with a neatly trimmed beard, wire-rimmed
glasses and a backpack, plummeted quickly after leaving his job with a
Tysons Corner high-tech firm in 1984 because of emotional problems.

"I was pathetic," Hammack said of his beginnings on the street. "I starved.
I didn't know how to survive. I stole food. I was too embarrassed to
panhandle. You'd be surprised how many friends turn their back on you."

He's comfortable on the streets now, spending mornings in fast-food
restaurants on Route 1 reading the newspaper, meeting a friend occasionally
for odd jobs like hauling or moving, maybe seeing a movie in the
afternoons. The idea of rejoining the work force just isn't appealing.

"I like the freedom," he said, "I feel like I'm selling out when I let
people control me. I have a hard time dealing with everyday [stuff]. And I
can't stand back-stabbing at work."

The Costs of Homelessness

Some advocates for the homeless noted that the cost of not treating
homelessness can actually exceed the cost of doing something about it. Many
homeless people require hospital treatment for injuries suffered on the
street, and many more are placed in temporary detoxification facilities,
costs that are usually absorbed by taxpayers. Michael Britt, one of the
recent fire victims, had been hospitalized twice in recent months, once for
a head injury suffered in a fight and once for a severe burn on his leg.

Mary Ann Gleason, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said
some cities have devised innovative ways to treat the chronically homeless
and ultimately save money for the taxpayers. Minneapolis, for example,
opened an 80-bed "wet" shelter that allows inebriated clients to stay.

Washington's Community Partnership has been applauded for its programs to
reduce the District's homeless population, in part by increasing the number
of beds in its transitional and permanent housing programs. But advocates
for the homeless watch with alarm as housing prices continue to rise,
causing waiting lists for public and subsidized housing to swell. The wait
for public housing in Washington is now five years, according to a federal
report issued earlier this month.

When homelessness became a cause celebre in the 1980s, Congress responded
with the McKinney Act of 1987, which provided a continuing infusion of
funds for support programs and affordable housing. But the issue faded from
popular view, even though as many as 700,000 people may be homeless on any
given night, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and

"About 10 years ago, it was popular to help the homeless," said Tia
Breeding, a mental health therapist who has spent years working directly
with the homeless in the Mount Vernon area. "But it has since gone
underground. People realized that there would not be an easy solution, and
a lot of them gave up. People started to see the homeless as a problem, not
as people."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.


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