Brian Clarey visited the Freeman Mill homeless camps and wrote a powerful story for the 10/07/2009 edition of YES! Weekly. Read “Street Level” online here.
Some quotes, with my notes:
“The tobacco has kept me from killing a couple a people,” [Cotton] says, “including myself.”
When we visit the camps, Audrie and I always ask, “What can we bring you?” Cotton’s answer is always the same: Tops tobacco and Mountain Dew. Nicotine and caffeine help get her through another day in the woods.
Cotton… has trouble getting medication for what she calls â€œmy ADD.â€
When I go and visit her, we swap ADD stories and laugh. It’s familiar pain, but somehow there’s humor in it when you share it with a friend.
[Cotton is] candid about the last 16 years, all of it spent on the street, nine of it in the wheelchair.
“Sixteen years,” she says. “People think Iâ€™m joking. It ainâ€™t no joke. People come out here and say, ‘Glad to see youâ€™re doing alright.’ Do I look like Iâ€™m doing alright?”
I’ve had that same exchange with her. My philosophy is, if you’re still breathing, there’s hope. And I told her that. But reading the words, I realize how insensitive and empty they sound.
Residents call this place the Freeman Mill Campground, a privately owned piece of wilderness along the tracks of the Norfolk Southern Line. Itâ€™s in downtown Greensboro, a couple hundred yards from city hall, our revitalized downtown, all those glass and steel monuments to order and prosperity. There are maybe a dozen folks living hard out here by the tracks…
When you walk into the woods to visit one of the Freeman Mill camps, it’s quiet and peaceful and green. It’s hard to believe that you’re steps away from downtown Greensboro.
[The residents of the camps] themselves out here for myriad reasons: mental illness, addiction, bad luck, bad timing, bad circumstances, bad attitudes. Some are unemployable, others just socially insecure.
Homelessness is a symptom of the problems that led people to the street.
Don is a veteran, a former Navy fireman who saw action when helicopters crashed or torpedoes activated unexpectedly in the years between 1979 and 1985. He made castings for Chris Craft boats in Michigan and worked for a time in Alaska.
Now he collects cans and turns them in for cash. He hefts a 15-pound bag of them, crushed down for the weight.
“I can get maybe three dollars for it,â€ he says. “It turns out to about a penny a can.”
He spends many of his days volunteering at local homeless facilities, cooking soup, fixing things, offering counsel. Don likes to keep busy.
What does it say about our community that we have a disabled woman and a military veteran living in the woods in downtown Greensboro? She makes crafts for her friends, neighbors and visitors. He volunteers, helping other homeless people. What are we doing for them? Or the rest of the people at the camp? All of whom have stories, worth, value.
Read all of “Street Level” at YES! Weekly.
FYI: There are a dozen or so people living in the Freeman Mill camps. They will all be displaced soon when construction on the next phase of the Downtown Greenway begins. As far as I know, none of them know where they will go.