Homelessness: Part 2

As I reported in my brief update, things had changed considerably in the week between my first visit and my return to the camp this past week. When I last saw Kim’s family camping, a hard-hitting storm was pulling their tent apart. The days following my departure, more storms came through the area and destroyed their tent. An altercation between Kim’s family and another homeless man took place leading a park ranger to conveniently evict all homeless campers just before the 4th of July weekend. Jacqulyn and I were able to track down Kim’s family staying at a nearby hotel. Kim and Grandma Betty were planning to leave Madison on Monday any way they could in order to get to Kim’s brother’s house in Milwaukee. Kim’s brother has been storing many of their father’s belongings including trumpets he once gave lessons with and his ashes. Her brother was planning to throw everything out so Kim was determined to find a way to save those precious memories. We only spent one night in the hotel across the hall from Kim’s family and returned the next day to the campgrounds.

Upon our arrival, we discovered new homeless folks had moved in overnight. Some were from Occupy Madison and were working on housing for the homeless in a nearby workshop. Occupy Madison changed quite early on from a group of Occupy Wall Street sympathizers to a band of homeless working to establish a Green, self-sustaining housing community for those homeless who are interested. The concept has changed several times as the city and county changed ordinances to combat their efforts to settle. Right now, they’re building Tiny Houses on wheels, similar to these from Oregon: Tiny House Blog.

Among the new faces were two people I had not been able to photograph, Dale and Joanne. Dale was once a teacher, the head of housekeeping at the Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, a CNA for a nursing home, and most recently a massage therapist. This year he has been living in various camps because he lost many of his clients and their referrals after he had to take the past year off due to a massive heart attack. His brother also found himself in a similar situation: currently, he is living in a friend’s garage in California. Until recently, he had worked as in various financial markets. One client required him to reinvest his $1M+ portfolio with them and then mismanaged the funds. This of course resulted in disaster as he lost his entire life’s savings at the age of 60. Another camper, Joanne, was “just camping” for the past month or so until she found a home. She was originally from the area but had lived in Mississippi for a number of years. Two months ago, she returned to Madison to start a new career with Catholic Charities. This left me begging to know, at what point does “just camping” or “just a rough spot in my life” turn into asking one’s self “am I homeless?”

Why did I choose Madison to begin documenting homelessness? About 12 years ago, I too was homeless in Madison. I had lost my full-time position due to the company I worked with downsizing and moving locations. I still had a part-time position at an auto parts store but could no longer afford my rent. So, I lived in my van in the back lot of my employer. I spent about a month or two living this way until a friend from work invited me to live on his couch until one of his roommates moved out.

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