East TN News
East TN News

A Picture of Winter for the Homeless - 24 Hours on the Streets

By John M Disque


Photo By John M Disque 12/7/2010

I was walking down the railroad tracks behind the old Knoxville Ironworks building asking myself where I would go and what I would do if the temperature suddenly dropped to 0 degrees and the shelter doors were locked.

With that... it isn't hard to find the cracks of our city. You see things you're not supposed to see and you feel things that remove you from any part of a normal society. In this natural sickness there's an air of calm. There's no longer a job to do or a story to write. There's no longer a bill to pay or a mask to wear, and you find things that the world tells you to ignore. You have to be careful here. The rush for anything fades, and the holiday pressure does not exist. Even the cold, the friends, family, and circle of confusion drifts off to the 1950s as you realize that you're not subhuman. You are, in fact, more human than you've been your entire life.

Some of the hiding places that the homeless make their home take one back and give us a strong dosage of reality. Like any wild animal building a nest or a den, they're within the rafters or in the ditches and drainage pipes of our city, and you can't help but wonder how civilized any of us really are. Maybe we're all faking it. Maybe our homes, cars, jobs, clothes and health are more fragile then we think. Maybe we're not as far away from nothingness as we'd like to believe. While we spend our days maintaining our luxuries, the homeless spend their days maintaining their very survival. There's nothing else but "the natural instinct to stay alive;" just a constant voice reminding you that it's not quite time to die. Everything else has been stripped away or destroyed. Whether you did it yourself or someone else did it, it doesn't matter. Picking up a bleeding person and getting them to a hospital is all that matters now. Besides, isn't the blame just another place to put our guilt or perhaps a way to separate us from the truth? Is there a truth here that we're not quite prepared to face?

The intelligence level of the streets is higher than one might think. In fact, many have thought their way straight into the hands of mental illness. Many use alcohol and drugs to stop their own mind. It's a way to numb them and, while it will forever keep spinning with unending questions, it doesn't mean we are equipped to handle it nor does it mean we want to listen or deal with it. In every social level it is certainly apparent that intelligence does not equate to contentment. In fact, most of the brightest people I know are very angry. 

Sociologists are always trying to find percentages with every piece of society they can get their microscopes on but, in this case, I can make their job a bit easier. The biggest stumbling block to homelessness is not substance abuse or mental illness. They are merely symptoms of a much greater underlying problem. The problem is anger. With poverty comes the lack of support and no outlet or place to put all of that energy. With it come open doors that justify violence, self-abuse and ultimate self-destruction.

The real challenge of the streets is to somehow re-inspire the person and to show them that there is a large percentage of human beings who are good and they do care but simply don't know what to do. You have to prove that there are places and people who will listen to them and learn from them. If we first point this out, then show them, then recognize the person's talent or gift we will begin to see changes. At that point we show them how they are valued and how they had dropped out or were pushed out of a world that needs them. You then have to continually support them and show them how to focus and channel any negative energy on positive outlets. Whether these thoughts are brand new or have to be rekindled, it will start an upward spiral; however, the key is to keep the path cleared for the homeless person. It isn't a handout. It's a way for the homeless person to finally be a position to help themselves. They can, therefore, take 100% of the credit, which will further instill their own confidence. 

Is it really that easy? It's a start. Sixty-six percent (66%) of the homeless are dealing with chemical dependency and/or mental disorders. Knowing your value, finding an outlet for your talent and caring about yourself will inspire you to take care of yourself. That will mean seeking and following through with addiction-recovery and mental illness programs. Many well-meaning organizations unintentionally rob the homeless of their own potential glory. These organizations take the credit for their success and throw their stats around as if the homeless were their product. If not that, they will give the credit to their own beliefs when the real hero in this story is the person who was once homeless.

I had walked down the tracks for a mile or two when, at some point, I had veered off and made a wrong turn. I don't know why but it's just like me to not turn around. I'll just keep going. It always takes me somewhere and I'll wonder what's it's supposed to teach me. 

I found myself sitting on a wooden drainage bridge with an elderly Black man who was obviously suffering from mental illness. I asked him about his illness. He told me his diagnosis, but it was something I never heard of. He then quickly jumped to many different subjects as I did my best to get back to the mental disorder. It wasn't easy. He obviously couldn't or didn't want to talk about it. I did manage to learn that his prescriptions make him sick and sleepy so he sells them. He has no faith in the mental health system.

Between his rambling he would stop and ask me for another cigarette. I'd take the opportunities to ask him key questions yet the only thing I learned about winter survival was that Damian likes the cold. It made me smile and broke the seriousness of my own mind. At that I just let him go on and on about whatever he wanted to talk about.

As I got up to continue on my way, he asked for another cigarette. I opened the pack took two out, put them in my coat pocket and threw the whole pack to him. He then asked me for a lighter. I pointed to him and said, "Ya know… you're pushing your luck." Finally, there was Damien's big toothless smile and how could anyone not give the man a lighter?

Then something happened that will stay with me for the rest of my life. He had missed catching the lighter and he was bending to pick it up, still smiling he said, "Your name John [sic], right?" I stood there going through the entire conversation from start to finish in rapid forward motion. I had never introduced myself. I never thought he would care what my name was and I had decided to skip it and just let him have someone to talk to. "Damien, how did you know what my name was?" He had never sat back down from picking up the lighter. He was now dusting himself off while lighting a cigarette. I guess he decided he was finished talking. He never answered me, but he did smile again as he turned and walked away. I just stood there watching him walk back to the train tracks like some broken, derailed, lost train that never had a destination.

In most cities homeless shelters are not a reliable source of shelter. Even in the most frigid conditions many of the homeless prefer not to use them. The wait for a bed can take all day and guarantees nothing. You might laugh at that and ask what else they have to do but you may be surprised. They have to stay warm in the meantime, they have to eat, drink, and find some sort of privacy to take care of their personal business. Depending on their vice many also have to get their drugs or alcohol. Depending on their physical and mental condition, there are doctor appointments to keep and prescriptions to pick up. Just like you or I, many have a certain ritual throughout their day which doesn't include standing in line to get in the shelter. In the US nearly half of all homeless prefer the streets to shelters. Many of the country's homeless feel unsafe in the shelters because of the homeless people themselves, and 20% have reported being assaulted while staying at a shelter.

It's interesting how creative any human being can be when they have to be. Naturally, the winter months are the most challenging for the homeless. While everyone is different, there are certain percentages utilizing the many tricks of the trade: One is trapping your own body heat. This is accomplished by breathing under a blanket, breathing into a scarf, layering your clothing, covering your body in plastic wrap, wearing long underwear (long Johns), shredding newspaper or magazines, and filling your clothes to keep the actual cold air from hitting your skin. Earmuffs, hats, socks, blankets, sleeping bags, gloves, and boots are also valuable assets to the homeless. Although these things are a haven for lice, fleas and bedbugs, they are always preferred over the alternative. 

When things get too cold and out of hand the homeless person is often forced to build a fire. This comes with several risks: While the homeless are hiding in the shadows and alleys, the smoke and the fire itself acts a magnet for the police or any business or residence that doesn't want the homeless loitering around their property. 

The colder it gets... the more creative the homeless are forced to be. Of course, finding an all night eatery like Waffle House is usually good for 10 or 15 minutes, but, with no money to spend and with an eyeballing staff and customers, they are soon asked to leave. An abandoned car, van, truck or bus is great if they're available. It's a long shot to find one that isn't already occupied.

Doorways, alleys, overpasses, boxes, and tents offer superb shelter against frigid conditions and chill factors, but the very best shelter is an abandoned building or house. The problem here is the danger: You are often walking into someone else's territory and, if they're not in the mood to share their generosity, you could find yourself in big trouble. Over the years, the homeless have learned that the further they can get from the heavily populated areas of the city the more likely they can find an unoccupied building that's safe to enter. Some communities are now reporting the discovery of homeless people living in houses for sale or under construction in upper class neighborhoods.

Often the homeless person will sleep in the day when it's warm and at night continue to walk around to keep their blood moving. I'm not sure it's a wonderful alternative to anything, but it does kill another bird and many simply feel safer sleeping in the daytime year round.

While a percentage of homeless people break off into segregated groups of "similar people," most prefer to be by themselves. With that revelation the object is to find a safe place that no one knows about. One of the more creative and illegal options sometimes used in the bigger cities is to find or make an entrance to a factory's attic or basement. There the homeless can sit or sleep near a heating unit. Some have been found cutting holes in the duct and using cardboard or metal to create their own hot air vent.

Every year a percentage of the homeless die of hypothermia and pneumonia while attempting to survive on the streets. They are usually found days after their death and sometimes not found for many months because they crawled into some drainage pipe or ditch in an attempt to get warm. For obvious reasons, the percentage is much higher in the northern states.

Another danger of being homeless is miscarrying a baby should the female homeless person be pregnant. What can anyone say about that? Anyone with a heart could only agree that it's very sad.

Many of the homeless learn during their first winter to be prepared for the next. Almost subconsciously, as they go about their spring, summer and fall months, they'll look for places for the winter and store the information in their memory bank. If you drive through the city at 3AM on a very cold night it will first appear that the homeless people have vanished. While some may think that they're safely tucked away in shelters, the reality is that they're still there utilizing the ideas they discovered in the warmer months.

One of the first things the newer homeless person learns is: Bare concrete or metal is a big "no no" and being it has the opposite affect and stores the cold like a frozen lake it's impossible for anyone to stay warm. The homeless will often lay down cardboard or another blanket that requires two blankets and becomes a burden within itself. 

A superb way to stay warm is to position yourself near air vents that are coming from factories and subways; however, the air often comes with an abundance of pollution. In Philadelphia you will often see the homeless sleeping right out on the streets above a subway air vent and the police are well aware that chasing them away may kill the person; therefore, in most cases, the police turn away and leave the homeless in peace.

London, England has an emergency plan in place for when the temperature goes below a certain point or there's a massive snowstorm on the horizon. Local hospitals, churches, private residences, businesses, etc. are in agreed cooperation to open their doors while local authorities such as police, ambulance companies, fire departments and volunteers round up and transport the people to the buildings. Everyone is properly trained to assure the homeless that it is an emergency and they are not being harassed. This gains their trust and cooperation. I would love to see Knoxville develop a similar program.

Since winter was approaching, Jeaneane Payne, publisher of the Knoxville Daily Sun, saw an immediate need to distribute blankets. We both utilized the Internet to put out pleas for used blankets. No special trips were going to be made to distribute the blankets, and we weren't planning to give them to another organization. The thought was: I'm out there in the crack houses, under the bridges, in the alleys and on the streets gathering information, recording videos and writing about the whole topic. While I'm there I should at least drop off a few blankets. No one has to be there, nothing is going to go spoil, nor do you need anyone's size. I assumed we would get a great response. Everyone has an extra blanket, right? It doesn't matter if it's soiled or has a tear in it. When someone wakes up shivering in the wee hours of a winter morning, they'll be reaching for and thanking God for that blanket.

With only one blanket donated by a Sunday School class member at a local church, Jeaneane took her own money and went out and purchased some brand new blankets. She also included stuffed animals, clothes for kids, plenty of water, and miscellaneous hygiene items. It wasn't long before I distributed all of those items in Gatlinburg and Knoxville. There I was back out on the streets with nothing to offer.

One day shortly after, I received a phone call from Cabin Fever Vacations in Pigeon Forge. They had some blankets for me to pick up. When I went there the following day, I was being greeted by smiling faces. "Are you John?" they asked. "Yeah, I'm here to pick up the blankets for the homeless." Their smiles widened, but I wasn't really sure why. I just thought they were a friendly staff; however, when they came back, they had gigantic bags filled with every different kind of blanket you could imagine. "Good God! I wasn't expecting this." I wasn't sure I could fit it all into the van. I couldn't believe how many they were giving me! We, literally, had to squeeze them all into the van until there was no more room. Naturally, I thanked them a few more times, and I was off. 

A few nights later, on December 3rd, I was downtown covering the annual Christmas parade. It was a cold night. The entire time I was shivering. As the night progressed the temperature continually dropped. When the parade was over I walked back to the van and sat there begging it to warm up. All I wanted was to go home and sit by my own heating system, maybe build a fire and drink a few beers. Then I remembered the blankets and the homeless. 

I pulled the van up to an overpass off the beaten path. I got out and called up under the bridge. "Is anyone up there!?" A female voice started saying something, but I couldn't see her. It was a dark night. All I knew was: someone was there. I grabbed about 5 or 6 of the blankets and started heading up. At that they started getting up to leave. There were about a dozen of them; all ages and all sizes. I was very shaken to find out they were all females. Some who were in the front even began running as I stopped and said, "No, no no! I'm not here to hurt anyone. I'm not a cop! Listen, I'm just here to give you these blankets. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm going to leave them right here. Okay?"

I was half way up the steep cement incline where I put the blankets down and walked back to my car. When I started getting in I heard two or three people say, "Thank you." As I looked up, I saw them gathering the blankets and wrapping them around each other.

The next few hours were spent traveling through Knoxville distributing the blankets under overpasses, in hidden alleys, under bridges and in the crack houses. Other than the women, I didn't see anyone but I knew they were there and the next day it would be confirmed. Many of the blankets were used to block the cold cement and some were used for pillows. Some had been used, folded back up and stored in a different place. Some were missing. 

What a vital role Cabin Fever Vacations has played in our community. I wonder if you know that something that seems small to us can be gigantic to someone else. It may even begin to rekindle their faith in society, make them feel "worth the effort," and at least get them thinking the right thoughts. If nothing else, to take a shivering body and make it warm is a beautiful thing to do.

Published in Knoxville Daily Sun December 7, 2010

Published in East TN News October 9, 2011

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