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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One of my ongoing projects is documenting poverty and homelessness across the U.S. I aim to make a record over the next decade of how the economy has changed the demographic and the number of people who are impoverished and are homeless. Recently, I was fortunate to locate and spend a day with these homeless families in Madison, WI. I met them in a campground near the outskirts of the city. While I was researching, a recent article named a man, Koua Vang, who allowed a homeless village to set up camp on his property after it had been revoked permission to stay on city property. However, the city of Madison’s zoning commission ruled against him and the village was forced to disband. I corresponded with Mr. Vang and he suggested some of the homeless had been living at the campgrounds. So I planned a trip in conjunction with a friend, Jacqulyn Jahnke, who wanted to visit the Solidarity Singers at the state capitol. We arranged for me to spend a night in the campground with my old surplus tent, and upon arriving we were both immediately welcomed with hospitality from the people camping next to me. The matron of this family is Kim (not pictured), she and her two sons, and one son’s pregnant fiance were camped with a woman they took in and called grandma, an adopted Vietnam Vet, and the most recent addition was Shea with her two young children who are originally from Chicago. Nearby were additional families: two brothers and their friends and a couple from Illinois who sold everything they had and biked with their two dogs to Madison.
Jacqulyn and I will be returning to these families tomorrow to spend a week with them.
—-Update 28/06/13 12:36 AM—-
Jacqulyn and I arrived Thursday afternoon and returned to the camp only to find not one soul left. We speculated recent heavy rains drove them out, however as we later discovered, a combination of events unfolded leaving to the entire camp being cleared by the game wardens in charge at the campground. We were able to track down Kim’s family to a nearby hotel and we have been spending time with them off and on all evening.
A few days ago, Kim was admitted into the emergency room because she was shaking, feeling sick and has lost 20 lbs in the past two months. She had not slept in days, stressing over the troubles the family has had with other families and the heavy rain destroying their tent. While in the emergency room, doctors began to run blood tests (she is still waiting to hear the results), as they suspect she has a bacterial infection in her aortic valve and possibly lung cancer as well. Next Monday, Kim and Grandma Betty will be going to Milwaukee to move some belongings, including the ashes of Kim’s father, that have been stored in a storage locker of another family member to a better site. They hope to give Kim’s father’s a proper burial as soon as it becomes possible to do so.
As of this moment, Jacqulyn and I are spending the night across the hall in the same hotel. Tomorrow we plan to attempt tracking down others that relocated as well.
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