A community hidden but close
NO-WORK GARY, Liberty Justice, Big Larry, One-Arm Larry, Uncle Joe, Little Joe, Tanker John, John John, Duckman, Screaming Eagle, Diamond Dave, Just Randy, Josey Wales, Whiskey, Beef Jerky, Home Guard, Papa Smurf, Pops, Pappy, Pyro, Chaka, Modoc, Magoo, Butch, Tiny, T.J., V.T., R.D., W.C., The Flying Dutchman, The Mayor, Pretty Girl, Snowman … they’ve all lived in Kansas City or live here now. But none is officially here. They are nearly invisible because all of them are homeless.
Ron and his feet Ron Aerts doesn’t have a nickname, at least not one he’ll reveal. But he does say he grew up in De Pere, Wis., near Green Bay, where his family was in the wholesale liquor business. He wanted to be a priest when he was in high school but the ’60s got in the way. He came to Kansas City in 1975 for love.
It lasted more than four years. He bounced around from job to job, not making much headway. Ron didn’t save any money, and he was estranged from his family.
In 1996, he lost his job at a delicatessen. It was tough finding another job. With only a high school diploma, he was competing against college students less than half his age. Eventually, he ran out of money.
“So I graciously moved out of my apartment,” he says, laughing. “My landlord was a good guy. Why cause him a lot of trouble?”
Ron means it when he says “out.” He moved outdoors, into some bushes near Indian Mound, a wooded area on Cliff Drive on Kansas City’s northeast side. He had been homeless before, so he knew how to hide himself and feed himself out of Dumpsters. Later, a friend and former deli customer invited him to camp out with him and another guy.
Ron was there three years, gradually turning a canvas lean-to into a home furnished with a bed, a chest of drawers, and a few other pieces of furniture. He scavenged everything; the place even had a little patio.
“I had a really beautiful river view. It was a high-dollar estate,” Ron says.
Ron supported himself by picking up cans three times a day, seven days a week. He’d walk three separate routes, starting around 3:30 each morning during the summer and finishing around midnight. Sometimes he’d pick up discarded pizza and sandwiches along the way. In between routes he’d nap, play with his little dog, Missy, clean his camp, and drink. Can money was for vodka and tobacco. He was polishing off about a liter of vodka and smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. His cigarettes were (and are) hand-rolled — standard for the homeless.
Even without plumbing, Ron says things were good in the summer because he could wash up in the river. In wintertime, clean socks are a luxury that must often be foregone, and Ron would pay dearly for the lack of that amenity.
“In the winter you wear the same clothes for maybe two weeks in a row. You take off your coat and boots and climb into your sleeping bag,” he says.
His socks had gotten wet from constant perspiration — a lot of perspiration. Ron is 6’7″ and wore a size 15 shoe then. His feet hurt and he was walking on them all the time. He finally decided to get some clean socks from Uplift, an all-volunteer organization that helps the homeless.
“I pulled off my socks and half of each foot was black. I had been walking around on them about a week that way. Sure they hurt, but I didn’t care. That’s the alcoholism,” he says.
One day, Ron went to the hospital and got his 15 minutes of fame. Hospital officials showed medical students his feet. A nurse took pictures of them, saying his frostbitten feet were worse than the ones shown in medical textbooks. Eventually, half of each foot was amputated. It took two operations in two days; the surgeons couldn’t get it all with one operation.
Things are much better now, even though Ron has no income. He’s trying to get the minimum Social Security disability payment so he can get a room somewhere and maybe some job training.
Ron could save the government $2,500 a month by getting off Medicaid and into the Social Security system, but he says he’s been denied disability status because he didn’t get frostbitten badly enough. Ron can walk only for short periods of time, using a cane. He can’t walk at all without prosthetic shoes.
Ron is philosophical about his Kafkaesque situation, if a little bemused. He says his life is 400 percent better since he quit drinking. He’s now a volunteer at Uplift, which he says gives his life a clear sense of purpose.
“Cardinal (John) Glennon (of St. Louis) has been great to me, just great, but they have to follow the state’s rules,” he says of his home. “But you know, they’ve got some nice bushes out in front. Maybe they’ll let me live there.”
Then Ron laughs again.
Momma Jo Jo Lecount, Uplift volunteer coordinator, is known as “Momma Jo” to hundreds of Kansas City’s most powerless residents.
“They’re my friends,” Jo says. “It’s people helping people.”
Not that she doesn’t have other nicknames. A group of junior high-schoolers, at Uplift for a recent service project, dubbed her “The Guru of the Homeless.” Catholic groups mistakenly call her Sister Jo. Although she’s a volunteer, her employer, the Lee’s Summit Hobby Lobby, has been understanding of her work with the homeless from the beginning.
Uplift delivers about 100 meals, water, and other necessities Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday evenings on three routes. When the temperature goes below 30 or the heat index is above 95, Uplift volunteers hit the streets with snacks and drinks. Last December, Uplift was on the streets 22 straight days, making sure no one had passed out or was frostbitten.
“We help the homeless as a whole by networking,” Jo says.
Many agencies downtown help the homeless with their everyday lives. Homeless people can get a hot meal every day. Sack lunches, clothes closets, and basic services, such as phones, lockers, showers, and washing machines, are also available. There are shelters for bad weather. Everything is done by churches, church agencies, or religious-oriented institutions.
But Jo and Uplift know who the homeless are. Part of Uplift’s mission is to care about the homeless, not just keep them alive. Again and again, Jo will identify people congregated half a block away in an alley, a doorway, or a bus shelter. There seems to be little doubt about the people the homeless feel closest to.
Back at Uplift’s headquarters and warehouse after a night’s work, Jo opens a little card that has been pressed into her hand at a bridge where she delivered several meals tonight. It says simply, “Thank You for loving us.”
Everybody talks this way about Uplift. Butch says it’s the best outfit on the street. Oliver and Pappy say it’s wonderful. For the most part, when they say Uplift they mean Jo Lecount, though she denies this.
“She’s Momma Jo. It’s momma and all her children,” Lee Richardson says.
“She is one of the most godly women I know,” says Rev. Jacquelyn Moore, senior pastor of Grand Avenue United Methodist Church.
“Jo is God’s gift to the world,” Mike Hendrickson says.
“She’s a good lady,” James says. “She helped me get my cane.”
“Jo helps us with everything. She helped me with my glasses,” Christmas says.
“She’ll bend over backwards for you,” V.T. says.
“If anybody ever needed a mother, Momma Jo is it,” Uncle Joe says.
Butch and the cops Darold “Butch” Nash has just finished his day’s work unloading onions at the River Market. He goes down to the River Market almost every day to see if he can scuffle up some work. Every Sunday, he unloads a garbage truck. He prides himself on not taking welfare (“Never bothered to apply for it”) and not stealing from other tramps.
“Some days I get lucky and get 15 bucks. Some days only 7 or 5. But they’re pretty good people down at the market. They’ll get you something to eat if they don’t have any work,” he says.
But Butch refuses to take any money from me. We eat doughnuts and drink orange juice while Butch talks about his life.
He’s a farm boy. Now 53, Butch did two hitches in the Marines and went through two marriages, but “drinking broke them both up,” he says. Butch rode the rails for 20 years but says either it’s too dangerous or he just got too old for it. Now he’s homeless in Kansas City.
We talk in a metal tool shed behind a 114-year-old River Market building. It’s someone else’s property, but it’s Butch and Teddy’s home. Butch says the guy who owns the place doesn’t mind having them around, because they keep an eye on it for him. He’s called the police for the owner when there were people Butch didn’t know hanging around the guy’s other building.
“Actually, we’re not homeless. We’re houseless,” Butch says, quoting his old friend Monahan. Monahan fell off the Paseo Bridge a couple of years ago. It was really hard for Butch when Monahan died, because Monahan was his running buddy. But now he feels a little better about it and carries some of Monahan’s ashes in a little bottle. He keeps it in the pocket near his heart. He still talks about Monahan a lot.
“There ain’t nothing special about this life. It’s a dead-end street, is all it is,” Butch says.
Butch doesn’t hear much from his family, but Taffeta makes it easier for him. She’s half-cocker and half-golden retriever. A very sweet-natured animal, spoiled and loving. She looks like she misses a lot fewer meals than her master. After a dog kiss or two she plops down on a visitor’s feet and gets busy with her nap. A current rabies tag hangs on her collar.
Teddy comes out and tells Butch their mirror is broken.
“I should get another mirror so I can cheer myself up in the morning,” Butch says. Then he mimics primping in front of a mirror. He has a classic hobo mug — piercing eyes, lots of exploded pores filled with dirt, and no teeth. It looks like he’s trying to put eye shadow on. It’s funny as hell and pretty soon we’re all laughing.
“Let’s not break it,” Teddy says. He takes some OJ and heads off to the market.
Butch talks about drinking and the law. “I drink pretty heavy,” he says, but the cops don’t bother him. They’ll roust everybody out once in a while if they’re looking for somebody.
Police attitudes toward homeless people vary widely. River Market cops regard street people with simple contempt. Other cops watch out for people in their patrol area. This seems to be especially true if either the cop or the homeless person is a woman. Local homeless people don’t seem afraid of the police.
Railroad police, the “bulls,” have a more complicated relationship with hoboes riding the rails. They’ll make hoboes get off a train and write them a ticket without hesitation. But they also might tell a rail-jumper which train to catch. The bulls in one of the downtown yards brought a box of sweaters to a hobo jungle last Christmas. Former hoboes on the street say the bulls are not necessarily a problem. They tell of bulls in other cities helping out, providing ice and fried chicken in the summer.
The bulls’ tickets are like parking tickets. There’s a fine and a notice to appear in court. The charge is criminal trespassing. These tickets seem to be universally ignored. Multiple IDs are a fact of life for hoboes, and their nature is to pass through, not stay in one place. The bulls know all this.
The Mayor This being Kansas City, The Mayor is talking barbecue. Another barbecue is coming up in the park and some ins and outs are involved. Actually, several people live in this park, off and on. It’s one of the safest parks around for people to live in. Its population is a little community, like a family, one of many non-biological families on the streets of Kansas City.
These families get made and unmade. They’re extended and they contract. But it’s natural for families to eat together, so when someone gets a little extra money, there’s a barbecue in the park. The problem is keeping the riffraff out. This can be tricky for homeless people on public property.
In the public’s eyes, these family members are the riffraff. Society’s reflexive disdain puts homeless people at a disadvantage when dealing with society at large. This disadvantage is enshrined in law, because by definition a homeless person is trespassing.
Also, people in general seem afraid of the homeless. This vague fear causes continuing indignation and hurt feelings, especially among homeless women.
There’s one significant exception to this fear. Invading a homeless person’s privacy seems to come naturally to many people. Homeless people may actually need more privacy than non-homeless people. It’s a stressful life and takes time to digest.
Homeless people have the same right to privacy as anyone else. But many times you’d never know it, because people ask them the damnedest questions. Reporters are the worst, the homeless people say.
This all seems to cause and reinforce the societal invisibility of homeless people. They’re right there in plain sight. But it seems that people tend to look at homeless people and not see people like themselves.
One ploy that has kept the riffraff out of the park in the past is the “bickering newlyweds” routine. This seems to be a park specialty. The Mayor and Miss Lamb demonstrate it.
The routine is a long, intensely complicated argument about their 15 sons. He took them to Oklahoma, and she wants them back. The Mayor is black and in his 50s. Miss Lamb is white and about 18. Think of it as the MacNeil-Lehrer Report hosted by Tonya Harding in an angry mood. Think of a no-contact WWF Homicide Match. Leave in the moronic absurdity but take out the S & M costumes. Miss Lamb’s gown is by Uplift. Travel arrangements provided by ATA.
They should forget about selling plasma and just sell tickets to this. It would easily raise enough to buy carryout at Jake’s for everybody. The Mayor says that “bickering newlyweds” has gotten rid of people they didn’t like the looks of.
They tell homeless strangers not to bother women who come to the park. “We want women to feel safe when they are here,” The Mayor says.
He’s an interesting man, The Mayor. He has a B.A. in elementary education with a mathematics minor. He taught school but had five kids to send to college. Four of his five daughters are college graduates and he’s still in touch with one or two of them. But The Mayor had an attraction to banks.
“So I, uh, well, I robbed a few banks,” he says. “I did 12 flat, mostly at Leavenworth.”
The rest of the time he was at El Reno in Oklahoma. He spent a lot of time in the hole there: eight months. It sounds both like a lifetime and not a lot of time.
“I would tell kids that crime does not pay,” he says. “A kid selling rock on the street is going to have a bad day. But how do you tell that to a kid who is making $600 a day?”
He jokes about charging the other homeless people rent for their benches.
“Only $3 a night, and that’s for the prime locations,” he says, eying V.T. and his bench. V.T. eyes him back. He’s been on the street as long as The Mayor has.
Their friend Geraldine died of exposure one night on V.T.’s bench. The Mayor was doing 180 at Leeds when it happened. When he got back home his friend had been dead for weeks. He said the group lost four to the cold last year.
The Mayor is a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress syndrome. He estimates that veterans comprise 90 percent of the homeless. That may be. There are lots of vets on the street. There are lots of alcoholics, drug addicts, abuse victims, illegal immigrants, people with serious mental illnesses, and runaways, as well as a number of American Indians.
Nonwhites, in general, seem to live on the street in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the general population; but there are no reliable population studies to tell for sure.
Because of his criminal record, The Mayor doesn’t know whether he’ll get a job with a local school district. He doesn’t know whether he’ll move out of the park some day.
“But hey, life is good,” The Mayor says.
Dining in the park The Uplift truck is delivering tonight’s meal. It’s tuna casserole night, food that’s easy to chew, swallow, and digest. Uplift cooks have to keep in mind is that there are a lot of missing teeth on the street. People lose them to years of poor or nonexistent dental care. Fights and disease also take a toll.
Community groups take turns cooking the meals. Among them are church ladies, Girl Scout troops, and Misia Hollenbeck’s special education class at Indian Trail Junior High School in Olathe.
Eating on this night are Rick, Josey, Daniel, Jahi, V.T., Willie, Oliver, Pappy, Pops, R.D., and Mike Hendrickson.
Willie Johnson, or “Baba,” is deaf and mute, but he reads lips. He’s slightly built, animated, and energetic. Willie comes up with some tamales from somewhere and shares them with V.T. They’re buddies. V.T. is a very large guy with a pleasant manner and a long, deep scar across the left side of his head. He’s been on the street since 1989 and been around Baba for seven years. They look out for each other, V.T. says.
Rick is new in town. He and his buddy got in last night on a “grainer” from Lincoln. They found Uplift on the first day. Homeless people are very knowledgeable about available social services.
“A grainer is a Cadillac,” Rick says. “There are holes in the end of it you can ride in. They block the wind, plus you’re invisible.”
Rick’s buddy disappeared as soon as they hit town. Then Rick got drunk. The cops came but they didn’t arrest him. They took him to City Union Mission rescue shelter instead. Presumably, that’s where he heard about Uplift and the park.
Josey and Pappy say railroad engineers have helped them a lot. Josey’s been on the road for a year and just got back to town. He adopted a dog on the way. Josey is an engaging American Indian, a rail-hopper who carries what looks like a purse. Josey’s got style, no doubt about it.
Pappy was in Des Moines one winter; it was so cold he couldn’t hop the freight because his hands were frozen. His body was too cold to obey his brain. Then the train started pulling out and Pappy was suddenly in real trouble. But the engineer or the brakeman saw him. They stopped the train and got him into the cab. They kept pouring hot coffee into him until he was okay again.
“I’ve been a lucky man most of my life. Hot coffee made the world come true,” he says.
Jahi and Daniel are discussing books. Jahi’s just finished Jim Goldberg’s Raised By Wolves, a book mostly about homeless kids in L.A. Daniel likes the Bible better, but he doesn’t like church people. He’ll talk to Jo. He knows she doesn’t judge anyone or preach. He suggests I read Jeremiah 5: 3-9 to understand life on the streets better. It turns out to be a text on universal corruption.
“I’ve had enough pain to feel the pain,” he says.
Oliver Basey is one of the most colorful of Kansas City’s street characters, which is saying something. He’s 61, and yet another ex-Marine on the streets. Oliver is Falstaffian, a Kansas City native with almost no fat or teeth. He’s been out on the streets since March 1980.
“I’m part Seminole Indian, Ethiopian Jew, born Roman Catholic, ex-master cement finisher, universal person that I am,” he declaims.
“I’m something else too,” he adds. “I’m bad.”
Oliver needs a root canal. He seems worried and uncertain. These are not his typical states of mind. He talks to Jo for a long time. He’s another person she connects with on a deeply personal level.
Oliver is interested in this story, one he might appear in. He gives me some friendly but stern advice: “Don’t let these people pounce on you and try to give you a different direction.”
Rusty the hobo Homeless people don’t always go to shelters. Veteran street people tend to speak rather badly of shelters in general. One local shelter has the reputation of being controlled by the homeless thugs who stay there. Another is said to be run by an organization that has “left the people business and gotten into the money business,” as one hobo put it.
It seems that going to a shelter often violates a homeless person’s sense of freedom. Their stuff gets stolen in shelters. Sometimes, they themselves are robbed, usually by another homeless person. Kansas City’s homeless community is not that big. People tend to know one another, at least by reputation. It’s a lot harder to avoid the bad guys when everybody’s in the same room.
All the shelters are Christian-oriented, and many homeless people don’t like being preached to. Chapel is voluntary at one, but if you don’t go, you don’t eat.
Homeless people are coming to fear the growing drug problem in shelters. Local shelters are working with law enforcement agencies to address this issue. But the shelters want things to happen much faster than they are.
But in the shelters’ defense, they’re trying to do an important job without the built-in force of law, sometimes without enough money, and always in a situation with great potential for burning out or even getting harmed. Shelters have volunteered to take on a thankless, never-ending task that nobody else in society wants — saving the lives of people nobody else wants. The task only gets bigger and harder each year.
One way or another, a shelter usually makes room for everyone. Having to “sleep” while sitting in a chair in a warm room or on a mat on a crowded floor is a lot better than being outdoors in frigid weather. If you’re homeless, there’s no substitute for a shelter when you need it.
Rusty needed one. Jo Lecount found him passed out on the street and got him to a shelter that same night. Rusty is 52, a Kansan, a hobo for 20 years with no family relationships, a veteran drinker. He was having trouble getting along at home and he had just gone through a divorce.
“A train came by one day and I just thought, ‘Why not?'” he recalls. He took off, but now he says he thinks rail-jumping is a thing of the past for him.
“Now people get beat up a lot just for kicks,” Rusty says. “They’ll throw you off the train now at 50 miles per hour if they want something in your kit.”
He had some good times. Rusty says the “high line,” across the northernmost United States, is a beautiful ride. And he got exposed to hobo culture, which he says is a kind of subculture. For instance, hobo nicknames relate to people’s personal traits or experiences.
“Magoo had very poor eyes. He was trying to hop a freight and instead he ran into it. Gave him a bloody nose,” Rusty says, laughing, but not in a mean way.
“Diamond Dave got his foot cut off and all the hoboes thought it was the railroad’s fault and he should sue. But Dave didn’t because he thought it was his fault. So he got to be Diamond Dave because he turned down a diamond.”
Rusty had some black spots on his toes when he came into the shelter. A bad sign. If the tissue’s black, it froze to death. Without medical intervention, it’s prone to gangrene. He’ll find out in a few days how many toes he’s going to lose to frostbite. If Rusty loses his toes to frostbite, his body will want to pitch forward every time he tells it to take a step. He may be looking at a future of learning all over again how to walk — this time in prosthetic shoes.
He doesn’t know what he’ll do when he gets out of the shelter. He doesn’t like it there, but he has been able to dry out some.
“I couldn’t be too picky, with my work history,” he says.
Good news-bad news situation Many people ask why homeless people don’t work. Jo Lecount says many of them can’t work. Frank McLaurin Jr. is only in his early 30s. But still he’s had two heart attacks and two strokes. He’s living at a homeless shelter and waiting for his disability money to come through.
“Every morning it’s just a blessing from God that I’m still alive,” he says.
But many can work, and do. Pastor Moore at the Grand Avenue Temple cites a recent government study that indicated 44 percent of those homeless people surveyed had worked in the past week and that about 20 percent were college-educated.
Downtown day labor offices pay $5.25 an hour, or $27.50 a day. The good news is that you get paid the same day. The bad news is you have to show up before 6 a.m. to have a chance to be sent out. The really bad news is you’ll get up at 4 a.m. to do that because you’ll probably walk to work. In other words, before you start your day’s minimum-wage job at 8 a.m., you’ll have already put in half-day’s work.
“They won’t show you how to do something more than once, either, ” V.T. says.
If you’re like V.T. and others, the good news is that you might get a day’s work, but the bad news is that you don’t know how long you’ll be out, because the labor pool won’t tell you. The really bad news is that you’re at work and a storm might be moving in. Shelters fill up quickly in bad weather. So if it’s snowing when you get off work, you might end up spending your $27.50 on a motel room somewhere.
The good news: There’s plenty of work. The bad news: You’re female and most labor pool jobs are for men. This is a continuing aggravation for homeless women like Miss Lamb and Pretty Girl.
Not speaking English is bad news because if you don’t speak English, you’re not from here, and you can’t get caught being here. Too many people back home are depending on you.
The good news is that somebody wants to hire you. The bad news is, you’re homeless. That means you don’t have an address or a phone. The good news is somebody wants to hire you, and they’ve gotten the word to you. The bad news is they’ve gotten it to a lot of other people too, more than they need.
It’s not a dirty labor pool trick. It’s a hazard of casual day labor, because in this labor market, employment news travels on the grapevine. And no job means panhandling and selling plasma. Panhandling on the street is fairly rare in Kansas City. It’s legal unless the panhandler gets aggressive. The pay’s about $15 to $20 for four to eight hours. But panhandling for $20 can be a lot of work.
“It’s how they get their booze money,” Jo says.
It usually takes two to three hours to sell plasma, and it’s usually worth about $30. But it costs money to get the check cashed: $1 here, 50 cents there. Check cashing fees can be a tidy little side income for merchants near plasma centers. But it’s a typical experience for homeless people trying to earn some money.
Joe and Susie On the Missouri River’s south bank, there’s a small sand beach. A little downstream, a stone jetty sticks about a quarter of the way into the current from the north bank. The Broadway Bridge is upstream, the ASB downstream. This is where it all started for Kansas City, with this river and its tiny beaches. Some people still live nearby. Uncle Joe is almost within spitting distance.
Joe built himself a hooch down here about four years ago and he’s been living in it, off and on, ever since. He fought in Desert Storm and may have learned camouflage from the Army. He just has the knack. His hooch is not that easy to see from the direction people would approach it. It’s plain as can be from the opposite direction, but nobody comes that way.
“I think I should have made it about a foot higher,” he says. We’re sitting inside, smoking, drinking vodka, and talking about what it means to be homeless.
Joe is a tenderhearted man. He feeds the rabbits who live around his hooch and he can hear them at night, eating what he’s left for them. That’s about all the sounds he hears, besides the trains.
“If I could get an acre down here, I’d be the richest man in the world,” he says. One suspects he’d cover it with good things for little animals to eat.
Joe’s campfire is made with a couple of big forks that hold the spit and iron bar. The forks look like train parts. It’s hard to imagine them
being anything else. The usual camp detritus is scattered about: bags of clothes, a few pots and pans. There is very little to get out of order. Joe says he’d like to make it all disappear. Homeless people are not materialistic.
“Please excuse the mess,” Susie says.
Joe is from Independence. He lived there for 10 years. Then his dad lost his job and after that Joe went to live with his grandparents in Kansas.
“Growing up as a little boy, I had to learn a lot of different things. My grandmother taught me how to cook and sew and do a lot of useful things,” he says.
Joe says now his family, except his little brother, doesn’t really want to have anything to do with him. “I don’t know why. It’s funny, but I survived,” he says.
Joe suffers from the usual discomforts of the homeless life. He has four years of a college education, but he can’t find a job. Without a job, a person’s daily routine can easily slide into aimlessness.
“Being down here and being homeless is a rough life. But I’m down here because I’m tired of what is going on up there, like in Jurassic Park,” he says.
Jurassic Park is a public park on the edge of downtown that is notorious among street people for its drug dealing. Everybody stays away from Jurassic Park. Joe likes keeping a low profile, like his hooch.
“I just live back here like a little hobbit, nice and quiet. That’s just how I feel. I’m dug in like a Alabama tick on a dog’s ass,” he says.
Inside the hooch he has canned goods and bedding, a liter of vodka he bought for about $6, and his tobacco.
“I can tell you one thing about the homeless. You never find too much tobacco. We smoke a lot. We don’t like to, but we do anyway,” he says. But Joe is bored.
“It’s so damn boring to be homeless! It is boring as hell. I’ve been struggling here for five years,” he says.
So what is Joe’s dream?
“I would like to see a lot of homeless people who are true to themselves get off the streets and be the person they have to be,” he says with emotion.
He then composes himself. “I’m Jewish. I know what hatred is. I don’t want to see it, because I’m a lovable person,” says Uncle Joe.
Grand Avenue Temple
The Grand Avenue Temple is Kansas City’s mother church of methodism, keeping alive the spirit of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. The congregation was founded in Kansas City in 1865 at the southeast corner of Ninth and Grand. In their day, George Bernard Shaw and Helen Keller lectured at the Grand Avenue Temple.
There’s a lot of peeling paint now. The roof used to leak, and signatures of that remain. Probably half the light bulbs are burned out. Like the ceiling, the organ is having some lean times and is appallingly expensive to fix. One panel of stained glass is missing. The wall looks like it has a chipped tooth.
This voluntary poverty is Grand Avenue Temple’s greatest glory of all. A significant fraction of what little money remains at Grand Avenue Temple goes to feed Kansas City’s homeless in body and spirit. The church is where Kansas City’s homeless people go to worship on Sundays, along with many middle-class people. Other downtown churches help feed and clothe the homeless, but they really don’t seem to welcome them into the sanctuary. They are welcomed here.
Most people show up on time for the 10 a.m. service. The homeless bring along their possessions in backpacks, gym bags, and plastic bags. The east aisle looks like a baggage terminal at the airport.
Rev. Moore greets people at the door by name and talks to them during the service. Sometimes she has to tell them in a nice way to pipe down, since part of her job turns out to be crowd control. But she can do it because she knows who they are and they know her.
Some familiar faces are here on this morning. There’s Uncle Joe and Susie. Johnnie Mae McCullough is here. So is Lee Richardson, wearing a suit coat.
The musician, Jeff Nichols, demonstrates the Skinner organ’s entertainingly horrifying noises at the pastor’s request, then plays a Bach-like prelude on the piano. He plays it well, but clearly it’s organ music and it sounds a little strange. Most everyone listens politely just the same.
There are some announcements. Moore does what she can to provide jobs, and there’s always upkeep to be done in a building this old. So there’s usually something about casual labor in every Sunday service at Grand Avenue Temple. She always makes sure to let people know whether she can pay them.
As poor as homeless people are, they’re aware that plenty of people in the world are a lot worse off and they respond generously. Moore touches on this by reading a letter from a bishop in Mozambique.
The congregation had sent a couple of goats there, purchased largely with pennies from the homeless. According to the bishop, the goats are presumed to have gone to Goat Heaven and more are needed.
“Do we send everything extra now to Mozambique?” she asks, and the answer is a strong and enthusiastic “Yes!” The penny collecting will start again.
There are requests for prayer. Some come from the church’s prayer partner, Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Lee’s Summit. It means each congregation prays for the other’s intentions every Sunday.
Moore then preaches with verve. Today’s text is the story of Jonah. Moore has been preaching for 20 years, 13 of them at this church.
“Can you imagine what Jonah must have smelled like after that whale spit him up on the beach? Blecch!” she says. Everybody laughs. “Fish! Like fish!” someone calls out from the back.
Grand Avenue Temple’s official membership numbers only about 100 or 150 people, but it manages to serve thousands of meals a year to people who can least afford them. Effective membership is much higher than that, according to Moore.
It’s easy to leave the work of dealing with the homeless to social agencies. It seems much harder for most people to go one-on-one with them. But today’s meal volunteers from Valley View United Methodist Church don’t see it that way.
“I found out they’re just like me,” Linda Becker says. She feels that God asked her to come and do this. She explains all this while she dishes out spaghetti into big metal bowls.
Marissa Flynn’s here too. A senior at Notre Dame de Sion high school in Kansas City, she’s doing a service project.
“I love it. It’s really gratifying, even though it can be really sad,” she says. She tells the story of a guy who showed up last week with a serious cut on his hand. Someone managed to stop the bleeding and get it bandaged. Moore was preparing to take him to the hospital when he suddenly refused to go.
A lot of the communicating was done with sign language. He speaks almost no English and has to remain invisible as long as he can.
Randy, Pretty Girl, and Snowman At River Market it’s very early morning. The farmers and merchants start their day. It’s a peaceable free-for-all in half-light and a half-dozen languages.
A few blocks and a world away, another community is starting its Saturday morning. But it seems separated in time and place from the world around it.
There are lots of trees and a couple of fire barrels. Cut firewood is stacked about 3 feet high between a pair of saplings. A bow saw hangs on the branch of one. There’s a semicircle of tents a little farther into the woods. There are chairs by the fire barrel, made of two tires each with a seat on top for a cushion. They look comfortable.
It’s what used to be called a hobo jungle. Three people live here — unless more come in for a weekend — Snowman; Just Randy; and Pretty Girl, Randy’s wife. For now, it’s Randy’s and Pretty Girl’s hooch.
The refrigerator’s outside. There are ashtrays and lots of books. There’s insect repellent. There’s a mirror. There’s another mirror on a tree out by the fire barrel. There’s an inside thermometer. There’s beautiful handmade jewelry Snowman made. On the wall, Pretty Girl has drawn two freedom roses and a hemp leaf. Randy has printed, “Here for a good time, not a long time.”
The TV’s on. It runs off a car battery. There’s a tiny white mailbox with “Randy and Rayna” neatly lettered on its side. Coats are hung on the three pegs over the chair.
The kitchen is filled with canned vegetables, jars of spaghetti sauce, pancake syrup, pancake mix, pasta, ramen, cornflakes, nonfat dry milk, macaroni and cheese, Parmesan cheese. There are condiments and a spice rack. There’s coffee and a Coleman propane ring. There’s a wood stove made from a barrel with a nice draw. It’s shirtsleeve warm inside.
Outside, it smells terrible. There must be an open sewer nearby. But Snowman can’t smell it because 15 years of Sheetrock dust have left him with chronic sinus problems. There is constant industrial noise nearby. Still, it’s kind of nice, comforting.
“We’re not homeless,” Randy says. “We can have a home whenever we want.”
“Oh, it’s so dirty!” Pretty Girl wails.
This cozy, spacious and remarkably comfortable hooch was built entirely with found materials. Everything — the walls, the tent roof, the furniture — was found. Randy says they started with nothing but their packs when they got here four months ago. A guy in the next camp lent them a hammer and showed them where to cut wood.
Traveling with five or six people draws too many cops, Randy says. Two or three is the best because you can remain fairly invisible but you have better prospects for bringing money in.
Randy grew up in a carnival family. He rode trains as a child and may have acquired his love of travel then. He’s been traveling for 16 years.
Snowman’s from Virginia. He’s been on the road for 20 years. From time to time his rich Tidewater accent comes out briefly and then disappears again. It only happens when he warms to his subject, such as The War Between the States and some of its consequences.
“Nobody wants me, not even my mom,” he says. Then he quickly adds, “You have to get used to our humor out here.”
One time Snowman was traveling in California and a group of businessmen wanted to know when the next train was going back to L.A.
“We call them weekend warriors,” Snowman says. “They’re just doing it for the experience only. It’s not a lifestyle choice, just a diversion. Generally, they ask me what to look for.” But he resists the suggestion that he could start his own business called Snowman Tours.
Snowman has been a businessman. He hated the paperwork. But he knows a great deal about Sheetrock contracting: How much everything costs, how much everyone is paid, how much of what kind of material is needed for a given size job, what kind of tools are required, how much he’s going to make.
Pretty Girl grew up in Washington state on a peninsula only 27 miles long. She’s been on the road seven years.
“There wasn’t much to do. Pool tournaments in bars were very big. Mainly, we’d wait outside the bar on Saturday night and see if we’d get into a fight with the kids from the next little town down the road,” says Pretty Girl.
She wears steel-toe shoes. It’s said she wants to get her money’s worth when she kicks Randy. The comment has the flavor of an ongoing joke.
Harley and Ola are the camp dogs. Harley looks like a chow, but he’s pretty laid-back. Ola looks like a pony keg in a girl dog suit. She is very pregnant. “Go have your puppies, Ola,” various people in camp say to her. She ignores the suggestion.
Brothers might be coming in tonight. Two big cardboard signs are on either side of the camp. They look like they might have been mattress cartons. One says, “Need firewood.” The other says, “Brothers and sisters welcome,” meaning fellow rail-riders.
Pretty Girl says she’s going to make a spaghetti dinner when she has more than three people to cook for. They had steak and Rice-A-Roni last night.
“I swore I’d never travel with a woman or a dog,” Randy says. Harley looks up sharply when he hears “dog,” then decides nothing is happening and plops back down to his nap. “Six months ago I was jumping a train with six dogs and a woman,” adds Randy.
“We were never in school for more than six weeks at a time,” Pretty Girl says, “and then our mom would take us out and we’d go live in the woods and build hooches and stuff. Now she can’t understand why I’m an outdoor person.
“I’m not stupid. I’m a certified (railroad) wheel-bearing inspector.” Pretty Girl learned it in Ogden, Utah.
“I was a certified day-care provider. But I’d come home at night and my kids would say, ‘Why do you want to spend all day with other kids but not us? Don’t you love us?’ I’d say ‘No, that’s not the reason. The reason is, we have to eat.’ It just got too hard.
“I miss my kids,” she adds. The words flit by very quickly, like catching a glimpse of a little creature by the roadside that peeks out and then quickly disappears back into the bush. The eldest of Pretty Girl’s five children is the only daughter, and she too rides the rails.
Pretty Girl brings out their picture, sharing them with obvious pride. She keeps these pictures in a safe place, together with all the things that are most precious to her.
“I haven’t seen them in two years,” she says, very softly.
Jo Lecount thinks that if a person has been on the street for about two weeks, it can sometimes be very difficult to get them back off it because of the freedom it offers. Homeless people have very few, if any, of the responsibilities of conventional society, and they gain a certain sense of freedom in return.
“We’re not a subculture,” Oliver says. “There’s people out here trying to extricate themselves and there’s people who are trying to make it as hard as they possibly can. You want to talk about diversity, we got it right here.”