In Providence, Rhode Island, joblessness and recession have pushed homeless shelters beyond capacity. But in the audio slideshow below, some families are turning things around, one day at a time.
Photos and audio by Brian Snyder
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island – At 65, Bill Robinson never expected he would end up homeless.
Yet three months after losing his apartment, here he is at around 7am at Harrington Hall, a shelter for the homeless in Providence, with few prospects of moving on.
“Before I became homeless I had no idea how fragile I would feel without four walls of my own,” he said. “One you lose that enclosure you lose a sense of security.”
Up until three months ago he was living in Virginia, where he had a place to stay in return for taking care of other apartments. But when his landlord fell on hard times, Robinson decided to come back to Rhode Island, where he is from. A friend had promised to help him, but that friend has since disappeared.
His social security payments of $670 per month are not enough to pay rent, medications for a heart condition and buy food.
“I’d like to find someone to share with, but even that would be a stretch,” he said.
Now Robinson spends his days trying to fill in time between nights at the shelter. He can stay here from 7pm at night until 7am in the morning, then he is on his own for the day.
“I spend my days trying to be invisible,” Robinson said. “As a homeless person if I become visible I can get arrested for loitering.”
So he ends up spending time in his car instead.
“I tend to park my car at shopping malls during the day,” Robinson said. “There are lots of cars there, so nobody notices me. But I find the days very difficult because 12 hours is a lot of time to fill when you have nowhere to go.”
He feels that optimism that the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s is over is more than a little misplaced.
“There’s a lot of denial about the economy,” Robinson said before heading out into a chilly November morning. “Don’t let anybody kid you. This is a depression, my friend.”
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island – For John Freitas and Barbara Kalil, the hardest part of being homeless is having to spend each night apart.
“We were rather naïve when we became homeless,” Kalil, 50, said. “We thought as a couple that we would be able to stay together or they would put us up in a hotel.”
“The reality was quite different.”
Freitas, 56, was laid off from his manufacturing job at a wire factory in 2005, and Kalil lost her job as a licensed practical nurse around the same time. They became homeless in 2006, a shock for a couple who had spent their lives working.
Each night he has to sleep in a shelter for men, she in one for women.
“You lose all your dignity in the shelter,” she said. “After 10pm you can’t even go to the bathroom without asking for the key. That’s a very private thing, so having to ask for the key is humiliating.”
Being forced to sleep apart was the main reason that early this year they decided to become part of the “tent city” movement here in Providence, where more than 100 people camped out on city land until a court ordered them to move in September.
“We decided to live in a tent because we decided we couldn’t stay in the shelters anymore,” Freitas said. “Now we’ve had to go back to the shelters and we’re stuck sleeping apart again.”
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – With no work, no home and few prospects, all Roy Hawkins, Mark Corbett and Drew Everhart have is each other.
“We’re pretty much what you’d call a brotherhood,” said Corbett, 48, sitting in the makeshift camp he set up in the woods about an hour’s walk from the center of Charlotte in January 2008 and which has been his home ever since. “We look out for each other and we share what we have.”
Hawkins, 44, has been with him on and off since then, since he received his prosthetic leg three months ago. He lost the lower half of his leg in an accident in April.
“When you lose your leg, you lose your livelihood,” Hawkins, an electrician, said.
Everhart moved into the camp about three months ago. He ended up in Charlotte around a year ago after an accident on a construction job. Corbett is also a construction worker, with few possibilities for full-time work because the U.S. housing crisis and the recession it spawned have wiped out many construction jobs.
“There’s nothing out there for us right now,” Corbett said. “But things will get better soon.”
We met these three homeless men at the Urban Ministry Center where they had turned up for a meal at the soup kitchen, and they agreed to let us follow them around for the day.
That day included following them to the library in Charlotte where Hawkins fills out job applications and checks whether his application for disability benefits has been approved.
Then we walked more than an hour in the hot sun with Corbett and Everhart to their camp. Hawkins goes by bike, because he cannot make the distance on foot.
As we walk, Corbett and Everhart tell us about the day laboring work they do for an agency, which sends people out to work as unskilled and semi-skilled laborers — usually construction or demolition work. If they get a day’s work, they get $40 after taxes.
This involves walking two hours from their camp to be at the agency by 5:30am; otherwise there is no chance they will find any work.
“If we’re lucky, we get one or two days of work a week,” Everhart said. “Sometimes there are 50 or more guys out there and maybe 10 of them get work.”
He added that standing in line at the agency is often a tense experience, as some men push in line. It’s not easy to know which ones to push back against, as they may be armed.
“If you’re not careful you can get stabbed,” Everhart said. “We’ve seen it happen. Some guys are desperate to work and it’s best not to get in their way.”
The men said they often lose out to younger men, who are preferred by the temp agency for the physical work they do.
On the days when they don’t get work, Corbett says the three men have different “hustles” or ways to make money.
“But I won’t do anything illegal. If you let your standards go out here it’s a slippery slope,” he said. Corbett’s hustles include collecting aluminum cans for money, or offering to do odd jobs such as mowing the lawn at homes around Charlotte.
Everhart has an ex-wife and has to pay child support, so some desperate days he “hangs the sign,” standing by the road with a sign saying “hungry and need work” or a variation on that theme.
“It’s risky to do because it’s illegal and you can get arrested,” he said. “But I have to pay my child support or they’ll throw me in jail anyway. I haven’t missed a payment yet.”
The camp is just off the road in the woods amid a working class neighborhood. They keep a low profile and are not visible from the road, though Corbett had his bike stolen last week. He paid $60 for it, a day and half’s wages.
“I only had it two weeks,” Corbett, who sports an impressive handlebar mustache, said. “It was nice to be able to get around without having to walk everywhere.”
“But I was used to walking before, so it wasn’t too hard a change,” he added philosophically.
On the way back to the camp, Corbett finds a pan that someone has thrown out, which he says would make a good wok. He takes it back to camp.
There are three tents in the camp. Washing hangs on lines strung between trees and all the furniture they have – a table, cushions and crates to sit on – have been retrieved from dumpsters in the area.
Hawkins and Corbett have larger tents, while Everhart has a little one at the entrance on the path.
“I’m the guard dog,” he said with a grin. Everhart has a pony tail and is clean shaven, and like the other two he takes care of his appearance. “I’m the lightest sleeper so if anyone comes to the camp in the night I’ll hear them.”
Getting out of this camp and into a home is a long, hard to climb.
“If you want to get an apartment, you need deposits for rent and utilities as well as money for your first month’s bills,” Hawkins said. “You’re talking about $1,500 to $2,000 just to get started.”
“That’s tough when you make $40 a day,” he added.
Hawkins said that even though they are working whenever they can – he himself is limited in what he can do because he cannot stand for long periods on his prosthetic leg – prospective employers look down on them.
“They think you’re unreliable just doing day work,” he said. “They don’t see it for what it is, just doing everything you can to get by.”
All three men feel left behind. In their 40s, out of work and living in the woods, it is not hard to see why. Though Corbett is clearly an optimist.
“If we just keep working hard, things will turn out alright,” he said. “We’re not going to be out in the woods forever.”
Photo and video by Carlos Barria