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Homeless experience opens Gazette reporter's eyes, heart

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Neil Johnson
March 10, 2013
It was 10:02 on a Tuesday night. The temperature with wind chill: 9 degrees below zero. I shoved the laptop into my briefcase, shouldered my backpack and stuck my hands into the ends of my rolled-up sleeping bag.


I huddled against the cold, metal wall outside Piggly Wiggly in Milton, trying to finish a city council story on my laptop computer.
The frigid wind stung my face and numbed my bare fingers.
I plugged in my wireless Internet card, booted up my email and sent my story to editors for the next day's paper.
Story filed.
After a 12-hour workday, I'd made deadline—albeit from a sidewalk covered with ice and snow.
It was 10:02 on a Tuesday night. The temperature with wind chill: 9 degrees below zero. I shoved the laptop into my briefcase, shouldered my backpack and stuck my hands into the ends of my rolled-up sleeping bag.
In 28 minutes, the transit bus back to Janesville would arrive at Piggly Wiggly. I paced the empty supermarket parking lot under streetlamps that illuminated the blowing snow but offered no warmth.
A lone car passed through the lot. Its driver did not slow.
In the car's window, I saw my reflection: a man with a two-day beard, wet, dirty jeans and a faded denim coat. All my belongings were slung on my back. I had a $20 bill in my pocket and $59 to my name.
Bone weary and alone, I listened to the wind blow and trucks rumble on Highway 26. This was it.
I was homeless.
To understand
When I decided to walk out of my Janesville home Sunday night and into GIFTS Men's Shelter with nothing but a plastic tote full of clothing, belongings and a little cash, I thought I knew what I was doing.
I was going to go homeless for a week. Actually, it would be only five days—Sunday night through Friday morning.
With the blessing of GIFTS board members and some accommodating and trusting church volunteers, I was being allowed to stay at the GIFTS shelter site, which that week was being housed at Emmanuel Free Methodist Church off of Highway 14 on Janesville's far northeast end.
I wasn't trying to change the universe or even Janesville. I simply wanted to learn what it's like to be without a home in a small town. I wanted to experience how it feels to string together a workweek while living in a shelter.
To turn a phrase badly, I knew a five-day span in a shelter would be a poor man's version of homelessness, but I wanted to try to understand.
I started out assuming I had no savings, no car and no support from family or friends. The one tangible element grounding me was my job as a newspaper reporter. It shaped my day and gave a sense of routine. It also offered a paycheck.
Caseworkers at Rock County Crisis Intervention and the Janesville-based social service nonprofit ECHO told me the average employed homeless person has a budget of between $75 and $150 a week.
I decided my paycheck (from here on out, I'll refer to it as my budget) would be $150.
With my budget, I needed to figure out how to eat, how to get to my office four miles away in downtown Janesville and how to travel to newspaper assignments. I wanted to see how far I could get under my own financial steam, with minimal public aid.
In other words, I sought to learn how “easy” it would be to bootstrap myself—and sock away financial savings—during a week of homelessness.
Blowing money
First off, I needed a sleeping bag. So, just as “easy” as that, I dropped $21.99 at Wal-Mart. The bag came with a handy carry-along stuff sack, which immediately tattered to pieces while I was walking in the wind.
I ended up carrying the bag under my arm (and using it as a large hand warmer) the rest of the week.
Next, I decided I'd track my cellphone use as though I'd purchased minutes on a prepaid phone; another $9.99 down the drain. I also needed toiletries. To save money, I limited those to a bar of soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant.
Because GIFTS shelter sites close during the day and do not serve lunch, I also needed lunch fixings: lunchmeat, bread, bananas, pretzels and tomato juice. Nothing fancy, but it all cost $20.
I also needed a week's worth of Janesville Transit Service bus tokens. Those cost $12.
Some churches that house GIFTS provide toiletries, and a limited supply of bus tokens are sometimes, but not always, available at GIFTS. Federal programs pay for prepaid cellphones, which the men at GIFTS call “Obama phones.” Local agencies such as ECHO and the Salvation Army provide lunches and meal assistance. Some of the homeless at GIFTS are on food stamps.
But I was attempting to provide for myself as much as possible. Hence, before I'd even made up my sleeping cot at the shelter Sunday night, I'd already spent half my budget. I was down to $75 for the week.
Big Steve, a ruddy, redheaded Janesville man who is homeless and has stayed with GIFTS all winter, saw me agonizing over my budget Sunday night. Big Steve's cot was perpendicular to mine, about two feet away. He was one of six other men with whom I shared a room at the church.
We didn't talk much, but I think Steve got it.
“I don't know why you want to do this. You've got to be nuts, right?” he said.
Big Steve didn't see the days of planning I'd put into the project, but he had an idea how things would unfold.
No wheels
“You got a car?” Bob, a 79-year-old homeless Janesville man at GIFTS shelter, asked me.
I told him I did, but it wasn't with me. I explained that I wanted to hoof it in the elements, ride the transit bus and integrate my work schedule with one of the major logistical complications for many of the homeless in Janesville: having no vehicle.
Bob asked me three more times that week if I had a car. Each time, I wished more and more that I did.
Every day, I trekked between three and four miles, mostly to and from bus stops. My “commute” to work took about an hour, and I was late getting back to the shelter three nights that week. One night, I missed dinner.
It's a mile walk from Emmanuel Church to the closest bus stop—Pine Tree Plaza, along Deerfield Drive.
I took the Ice Age trail to the bus stop. The trail earned its name that week. Tuesday morning was the worst. Overnight, it had snowed about four inches on top of frozen rain, and the wind was howling.
At one point Tuesday, I veered off the trail into a farm field and huddled in a gnarled cluster of hickory trees. I wanted to get out of the wind long enough to dig a ski mask out of my backpack. Somewhere in the thicket, I got caught in a knot of barbed wire that must have been at least 50 years old. It tore my pants.
That's what you get for trespassing.
At work, my colleagues took mercy. My news editor, Sid Schwartz, kindly let me borrow his red Ford Focus on one of the sloppiest rain/snow days of the year so I could get to a news assignment 20 miles away at Lake Koshkonong.
I felt bad that I got dirty, wet footprints all over the floor mats in Sid's car, so I put $10 of gas in the tank. Another hit to the budget.
Other days, I had to ride the Janesville Transit Innovation Express bus for evening assignments in Milton. That route doesn't accept regular transit tokens, so I had to shell out cash on top of tokens I'd already bought.
Late one night, with no other way to get back to Janesville from Milton, I stepped onto the “Innovation Express” with a $20 bill in my wallet.
The female bus driver had no change. She just stared at me. Finally, a man with a factory-subsidized bus punch card got up and paid my fare.
“I'm just tired,” the man told me. “I just want to get home.”
Yeah. Me too.
Another issue: I ran out of cellphone minutes midweek, and I had to spend another $19.95 for more minutes. The main culprit: phone interviews and contacts to editors and colleagues for news stories.
Work couldn't wait just because I was homeless.
Others at GIFTS that week had circumstances more difficult than mine. One homeless man, Brian, an out-of-work journeyman carpenter who splits his time between Washington state and Janesville, said he was installing tile at house a local Realtor was flipping.
Brian had just gotten out of the hospital with pneumonia and still was wearing a hospital bracelet. He showed me the three medicines he was given: two strong antibiotics and cough medicine with codeine. Brian told me he was being paid minimum wage for the tile job, spending all day breathing tile dust into his already inflamed lungs.
He gave a painful, phlegm-laden chuckle.
“You see how desperate these homeless guys are to make a buck?” he asked.
Rough days
It's not that the GIFTS shelter was an uncomfortable place to sleep. The temperature in my room at the church was set between 65 and 68 degrees, warmer than I keep my own home at night. It was quiet. Lights out at 10 p.m., and I had earplugs (although none of my roommates snored). My shelter-issued cot was reasonably comfortable.
The issue: The men at GIFTS go to bed early. Many were asleep by 8 every night, about an hour after dinnertime at the shelter.
The other, thornier issue: Many of the men at GIFTS were up and bustling by 4 every morning. A few were up getting ready for work; others were grabbing an early shower before the rest of the 27 men at the shelter began to bombard the church's two shower rooms.
I'm wired to go to bed at midnight. Needless to say, that meant I got about four hours of sleep a night at the shelter. Exhaustion, all day and all night, seemed to hang around me like a gray aura.
I managed to stay on the ball enough to get to breakfast and check out from the shelter by 7:30 each morning, and I was able to snag exactly two showers—one on Sunday; the other on Thursday.
I made sure that I had clean clothing on the first two days, and on Wednesday I took the bus to a Laundromat. I did enough laundry to get me through the week. That cost $6, but it was necessary.
At all times, I was carrying 40 pounds of belongings on my back. Despite wind-chill temperatures that dipped below zero early that week, I was sweating. A lot.
GIFTS does not clean the men's personal laundry, although some churches will transport the men to a Laundromat, according to men at the shelter.
Still, many men at GIFTS take pains to stay clean and presentable. For some, it means keeping a duffel bag of toiletries and fresh clothes with them in case they need to spruce up for a meeting or a job interview.
One homeless man at GIFTS, Gerry, said he was recently at Hedberg Public Library when a family walked past him. He believes the family knew he was homeless. He said a few of them cut an exaggerated swath around him and pinched their noses.
“It was an insult. It's unfair. We don't smell,” he said.
I don't know about my personal odor, but more than one person did notice my tiredness.
Tuesday evening, in the midst of a workday in which I'd clocked four miles while catching three buses without dinner and on four hours sleep, I found myself at Milton City Hall, covering a city council meeting.
Instead of my usual attire, a shirt and tie, I was in dirty jeans and a faded flannel shirt. I had just cleaned up a little with hand soap in the bathroom at City Hall. It was my second public restroom “bath” that week.
Most of the city council had heard I was “homeless” for the week. One official remarked on my appearance that night.
“Neil, you look brutal,” City Administrator Jerry Schuetz told me.
Schuetz didn't mean it as an insult. I had caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror during my pre-city council “bath.” I really did look awful.
I hadn't shaved since Sunday, my clothing was rumpled and wet, and the bags under my eyes made me look like a punch-drunk boxer.
But it got worse.
Later that night, I developed bright red frost nip on my ears and nose while writing the city council story in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot.
Caffeine blues
The only luxuriant creature comforts I allowed myself for the week were coffee and Mountain Dew. Because I was clocking four hours of sleep a night, I was buying a lot of both.
Call it a splurge or, if you prefer, the hedonistic spending of a filthy addict. But amid the other challenges I faced, I was not going without caffeine.
I talked to a few of the homeless men at GIFTS who smoke cigarettes. I asked how they afford to smoke. Some collect smoked cigarette butts around town. Some run out and beg them off other men at the shelter.
Scott the Painter, an affable, quick-witted homeless man at GIFTS, told me he buys bulk cigarette tobacco at local smoke shops for about $6, rolling papers for about $2. He rolls his own smokes with a little plastic machine the size of a pack of cigarettes.
“Less than 10 bucks, and I can smoke like a banshee all week,” Scott said.
According to my records, I spent $7.50 on coffee and soda in a single day. All told, my caffeine consumption drained more than $20 from my limited budget.
How much more than $20 I don't want to say, but by Thursday morning my budget was down to about $17.
Finding a ledge
By Friday, I had $3.75, three slices of salami and a piece of bread.
The GIFTS breakfast of pancakes and eggs was a godsend. I ate seconds. As I sat at a table in Emmanuel Church's sanctuary, I thought about men such as Mike, an out-of-work factory worker who has lost everything but the clothes on his back. It's incomprehensible how these men trudge on week after week.
A few nights earlier, Mike sat down at a baby grand piano in the church and played a section of “Exodus.” Nobody knew he could play the piano. His playing sounded like Liberace.
Later that night, while falling asleep, I cried.
I thought about John, a Janesville native who says he was orphaned when he was a baby. John is a writer. He told me about a story he wrote as a child. It's called “The Golden Staircase.”
The story chronicles a child who climbs a golden staircase to the sky and finds a chest full of treasure. He crawls inside. The chest turns from gold and jewels to a dark cave with no bottom.
The boy falls, but in his fall, he scrapes his hands along the walls of the cave. He finds a ledge and clings to it. He looks up, and by the ledge is a doorway that leads to twisted catacombs with a light at the end of each. The boy follows one.
“See, you can always find your way back,” John told me.
I thought about Scott the Painter, who is fighting alcoholism and depression with humor, intelligence and a rough-edged kindness. When I was leaving Friday, I saw the smile fall from Scott's face. He knew I was going home.
I had less than $4 left in my homeless budget, but later that night, I'd go home to my wife, my dog, and my house with the cozy fireplace in the living room. I had a light at the end of the tunnel.
In my life, I have a ledge much broader and much more stable than the homeless men with whom I shared space for a week.
Yet, all I wanted to do was lay down my head and sleep.



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