Imagine living the past two years of your life at an undisclosed location in a county full of affluent homes and millionaires. Everyday people pass by without knowing you even exist. Now imagine being told you have five days to move. Five days to take all your possession off the land you've occupied for so long.
This is not a political issue, or something based on right or wrong. I'm sure some would say they are squatters and trespassing, therefore they should be removed. We could debate the legalities and land ownership rights (which they know they are on someone's land). Aside from that, where do they go?
I had heard there were homeless camps in Waldorf, MD and often times they would be forced to move as new developments were being built. My thoughts of homelessness were probably similar to the images that most people conjure up. They were people with mental illnesses or someone pushing a shopping cart around with all their worldly possessions. I didn't think of the working poor, those people who went to work each day but for whatever reason couldn't make ends meet or some other circumstance forced them out into the streets.
Feeling the call to make a difference in my community, I began volunteering at Our Place Waldorf, a local soup kitchen that provides a hot meal every Thursday to those in need. I had the chance to meet some of the clients we serve and to talk to those who have served the community by providing the meals. In an effort to raise awareness to this problem in our community, I started talking with some of the volunteers to arrange for me to visit some of the people living in the camp. After a few months, a meeting was set up and I was introduced to "Red" and about ten other people who lived at the various camps around the city. I wanted to know their story so we could shine light on this problem within our community. Just as we were getting to know them and had even started bringing Sunday dinners to them, out of the blue and for reasons still unknown, they were told they had to leave the area. This is the story of those of those last days.
Many of the residents have departed, some moving into Safe Nights, a program that gets the homeless off the streets during the winter months, others have simply moved on-taking what they could. Like those caught up in the housing bubble, they too have packed up and in many instances simply left their "homes" behind.
"Red" begins the journey of gathering his belongings and moving off the land he's called home for the past two years. He has been living in the woods for over five years and this is the third or fourth place he's had to move from. "I'm getting tired of living out here and I'm not moving no more" he says. But the reality is, where else is he going to go.
The only moving truck he has is the tiny wagon and the two wheel barrels used to move his belongings from one site to the next. He is nearly brought to tears when I come and help him move his television, generator, and other large items out of the old campsite and to his new home.
Fortunately, the rain had stopped as we moved through the woods carrying his mattress set. Before he moves it into his tent, he places it outside covered by a tarp so he can finish setting up his tent.
Moving his wagon along a muddy path, Red and his friend load up for another trip to get their stuff out of the camp he's called home for over two years. "Living out in the woods is about survival but its not that bad. You learn to listen out for the two legged creatures as well as the four legged ones." Red tells me. "it gets hard sometimes, but then I don't have to worry about some things that most people worry about. All the stress from wondering how i'm going to pay for everything. that can be too much." When we talk about the upcoming winter and what he's going to do, he shrugs his shoulders and says "I'll be alright. You remember last winter when it was so cold, they came out here and got me, but after a few days I couldn't take it no more and came back home." "Yeah, it was cold, but I just grabbed some extra blankets and had one of those little heaters", he points to a small Coleman propane camping heater, "and man let me tell you it gets toasty inside so I had no worries.
Over the course of two days, I helped him move the big items to his new home. Each time we left to get another load, we simply piled it on the ground and covered it with a tarp so things wouldn't get wet. As we moved between campsites, items were gathered from things left behind. "I'm going leave my tent here, cause I got me another one when someone who living at the camp left it behind when they moved on. "That one is better than mine cause I can lock it when I leave and no one will get into my stuff." He and his friend would argue about what was to be taken and what was staying or what they could leave behind and come get later since they didn't want to take up too much of my time. As I watched them move the mattresses and prepare to settle into his new home, I find it hard to accept that in our country and in this day and age, there are people living in the woods, not because they want to, but there aren't enough places for them to go or what's available is not affordable.
While this story is about a homeless man, there are others out here; couples, families, women, young adults, many of them working jobs everyday yet they struggle to survive. I realize I will not be able to save each and everyone of them, but I can do my part and so can you. When you see that homeless person on the street, you don't have to give money, you can buy them something to eat. You can carry little snack packs with food & water in your car to give them. Instead of donating clothing to Salvation Army or Goodwill (which resell the items), consider giving them to a local shelter.
At Our Place Waldorf, where I volunteer, we believe in the power of the community to take care of our community, so that is what we do. You can learn more about us by visiting the website. This has been a humbling experience and through it all, I realize I am my brothers keeper and I am fortunate to be able to help those less fortunate than me.