By Bethany Kohoutek
Homelessness in Ames
Lurking underneath the seemingly affluent, professional surface of Ames [Iowa], there is a subculture of people whose problems are life and death and stories are rarely heard. While the ranks of homeless are spiraling out of control, mercilessly leaving less fortunate people behind, the same economic forces are propelling other Ames residents to wealth and prosperity. This is a story about those who aren’t making the cut or don’t want to in the first place, a story of the ups and downs of life on the road-or the street.
Homelessness is a word that the average Iowa State college student probably doesn’t think twice about. But even as students gripe about waiting for CyRide buses in the cold, someone is sleeping under a bridge only blocks away using a plastic sheet to keep warm. As students complain about small dorm rooms and shared bathrooms, one family per day is evicted in Ames because it can’t make rent.
Students from larger cities may scoff at the notion that homelessness and poverty are major issues in Ames. Although there is no one begging for spare change on Lincoln Way, homelessness does exist in Ames. The fact that it is less of a problem than in other, larger cities just makes it worse. Because it isn’t thrown in your face every day, it’s easy to forget about these people.
“If a tornado came through Ames and blew away a dozen homes, it would be front-page news,” Moss [Vic Moss, executive director of the Emergency Residence Project] says. “And yet when we have this kind of devastation happening on a daily basis where families are being broken apart by this, it’s not covered at all.”
Moss estimates that there are around 50 homeless people each night in Ames. There is no one way to stereotype this population. Each situation is different, and Moss says the shelter sees everyone from “saints to sinners.”
Life on the Road
Some people living in Ames without a home do have options. But according to them, street life is the best option.
At 4:15 on a Saturday afternoon, there are seven men congregated in the living room of the Emergency Adult Project adult shelter. They have just come back from work, and the atmosphere is laid back and comfortable as the men chat amiably with each other.
This population of single, transient men (and the occasional woman) makes up the majority of the shelter’s clientele. These men come and go, with no intention of staying in Ames for any substantial amount of time. However, they make up a large percentage of Ames’ homeless statistics. The difference between this population and other homeless children and families in Ames is that most of the men in the living room do not want to get into permanent housing, even if it was provided for them. They insist they’re homeless by personal choice, not because of any particular hardship. The self-bestowed title of ‘hobo’ is a term of endearment to them. Some have road names like Duke and Bullet, and speak of fellow travelers with names like Little Lizzie, the Road King, and Dakota Butch.
These men usually come to shelters to take a temporary rest from their travels to “bathe, eat, sleep, be at peace, and still make a little money,” says Bullet.
“There’s a difference between ‘without a home’ and ‘homeless,'” Bullet explains. “Most people don’t even know what a real hobo is. A hobo is without a home because he chooses to be. He is a man who is a traveler at heart. He works. He has clothes. He has money in his pocket. If he wants prime rib for dinner, he can reach into his pocket and pay for it.”
The men have various reasons for being on the road. Some have been on the road since their early teens, and it is all they know. Others may have gone through a divorce or lost a job. Still others may have had a steady job and a family, and simply “burned out” on the routine of day-to-day life.
“We don’t want to settle down and accept the political society,” says Bullet. “No president, no government is gonna tell us what we’re gonna do. We will not be told ‘You will get up at 6:00. You will get to work by 7:00. You will punch the clock by 7:01. Then you will punch out at 3:30.’ It’s monotony. With us, that just doesn’t work. Everyday is a new adventure. We are one of the last signs of real, true freedom.”
Duke, who is 57 years old, “rides the rails” to get from place to place.
He left home at 14 because he wanted to travel–to see the country, meet new people, and because “it’s a lot easier and a lot more mellow this way.” He has four children and seven grandchildren who live in various places around the country. He occasionally sees them when he is in the neighborhood. If he gets bored staying in one place too long, it doesn’t take much for him to “kick mud”, to move on. He says he has been to every state in the contiguous United States as well as Mexico and Canada. He likes Iowa because people seem outgoing and friendly to him.
Shelter stays are fairly uncommon for him; he would rather sleep outside in his tent, even in the winter.
“I’ve been out here so long, I know how to live out in this. It’s all just experience,” he says.
Wherever he goes, he carries a 65-pound pack on his back that holds his tent, a change of clothes, campfire-making materials, a flashlight, string, a bedroll, a tarp, and a folded up sign that says “Will Work For Food. Thanks. God Bless.” Most of his money is spent on groceries and tobacco, and besides his smokers’ cough, he says he rarely gets sick.
Others have entirely different reasons for traveling.
Tim, who is one of the younger men in the shelter’s living room, graduated from Iowa State with a degree in English. He actually had two religious poems and a short story published in Ethos. He said that in the future he plans to settle down, get married and have a family.
“I’m a Christian; I hitchhike by faith,” he says. “I am being led by the Holy Spirit wherever I go. I share my faith with other people. I’ve met a lot of great people, and I’ve learned a lot from them. In fact, these pants were given to me by a family in Texas. My coat was given to me by a guy in Wyoming. Things like that. You meet so many neat people. I can’t complain.”
Hearing Tim talk, Bullet is quick to interject that things aren’t always so easy going on the road.
“Everybody always tries to glorify it. You don’t hear about the nights under the bridge, or sleeping alongside the interstate in the rain and cold. You don’t hear about standing out there on a ramp when it is 35 below zero wind chill, and you got frost formed to your mustache and your hair. It can be real tough, lonely, scary. That’s the downside.”
“I think Bob Seger said it best,” says Bullet, “‘Turn the page.’ Life’s a book. Each day you turn the page to something different. It could be great, or it could be a real sh*thole.”
Moss says that usually during summer months, there are some people who live under bridges, along the railroad, and in the wooded areas of Ames.
There is one such place under a bridge not far from campus. Plywood and plastic sheeting have been set up to make a little lean-to against the girders of the underside of the bridge. Bags of collected cans and bottles surround a green sleeping bag that is neatly laid out on the dirt. Nearby is a blackened spot in the dirt, which still smells of charcoal and lighter fluid, and various food cans are scattered around the fire pit.
There is a greening picture of Jesus looking heavenward duck-taped to the cement that forms the back wall of the makeshift dwelling. A six-inch angel statue, in perfect condition, is standing upright on the ground nearby, surrounded by other miscellaneous items–Hy-Vee Charcoal Starters, an empty pack of Camel lights, a few bottles of Hawkeye vodka, an old pair of jeans, and a few T-shirts.
Issue 3, Volume 52
Iowa State University
[Originally published by Digihitch.com]