Juneau’s got the Boy Scout Camp, Methodist Camp, Running Camp, 4-H Camp, Discovery Camp, Bible Camp, Science Camp, Fine Arts Camp and Dance Camp, but for teaching life skills in hardcore self-sufficiency nothing comes close to Homeless Camp. Homeless Camp is pass/fail. Nothing is provided. Show up in town with no money and figure it out.
A few nights ago a group of us were at dinner when the resourcefulness of local homeless people came up in the conversation. We were in the warm dining room of a nice house that had electric lights and a bathroom with a flush toilet. We had all been dry that whole day. In a few hours we would be safe asleep in our beds. The food was excellent. Everyone at the table had considerable camping experience. Their respect for the mental and physical toughness it takes to make a go of Homeless Camp was uncontrived, coming from people who have crawled into a wet sleeping bag when it’s cold and raining, and they are on their own to take care of whatever may come their way in the dark.
Boot Camp is a piece of cake compared to Homeless Camp. Everyone who’s been in the military knows that what makes Boot Camp tolerable is on a certain day this crap will be over. Even special warfare training, unlike homelessness, has the clock ticking. When it’s done you get your Green Beret or Budweiser Trident and you’re off to the next thing. People admire how tough SEAL training is but the candidates are young, strong, and, on most days, they have showers, reliable food and a roof over their heads. If they get sick or hurt someone takes them to a doctor. You want tough? A homeless guy camped out on the beach at the bottom of a rocky trail off Thane Road fell and broke his shoulder (in the dark, alcohol involved). He made it to the hospital himself. It was a nasty break requiring surgery and beefy steel pins about four inches long. He got out of the hospital, went back to his camp, ran out of medications, got drunk, fell down again and noticed one of the pins was protruding from his shoulder. He pulled it out with a pair of pliers and soldiered on. Not the brightest bulb in the arcade maybe, but compared to respectable citizens who show up at the ER after lighting fireworks off their rear ends or hooky bobbing in their bathing suits, who am I to judge?
To earn a five-star rating an ideal homeless camp requires the following: 1) invisible from the road and air so you don’t get harassed by people with homes, robbed by other homeless people, or picked up by the cops, 2) a stream nearby for drinking water, 3) within walking distance of the soup kitchen, 4) multiple exits in case you have to run for it. Based on these criteria you can predict with reasonable accuracy where most of the campsites are. Once found, suitable real estate is developed. Compared to a new ten thousand square-foot McMansion, or a row of condominiums, a homeless camp is easy on the earth. It’s non-permanent, uses few resources and most of what’s there is recycled or repurposed. When the owner leaves someone can pick it up in an hour. A year later you’d never know it had been there.
CLEANING UP AN ABANDONED HOMELESS CAMP
If a camp is still in use someone’s life depends on it. Taking a homeless person’s tent and sleeping bags is as bad as robbing a hunting camp. For that reason camps under a bridge or the docks should be left alone because it’s hard to know if the person is coming back. In the woods it’s a different story. You can safely assume a homeless camp is abandoned when the tent/tarps are flattened or gone, everything is soaked, animals have scattered stuff around and substantial leaf litter has collected on the site and on the trail leading to it. There is a forlorn aspect you can feel and an apprehension, too, in case there might be a dead body under a sleeping bag. There probably isn’t but you always think of that.
An abandoned homeless camp is like an anthropological dig. You wonder about the person. How did their lives come to this? How long were they here? Where did they go? Were they happy? What were their days and nights like in this place? Successful homeless people are surprisingly dialed in to things like preventative foot and dental care. In an expert camp you might find half a dozen pairs of shoes and toothpaste, brushes and those throwaway plastic dental floss/toothpick things. With no stove and the fire pit rained out, keeping warm and dry is impossible but campers do what they can. Usually there will be lots of plastic garbage bags and tarps. The tarps are inevitably dumpster finds, worn and leaking to begin with, but better than nothing.
Picking up an abandoned campsite means you’re going to need a place to offload the stuff. As of press time I haven’t found a city-wide, no-cost, designated disposal plan for random, big junk disposal. If I do, I’ll publish that information in the online Capital City Weekly. Meanwhile, if the load is coming in by water call the harbor office, in advance, and make sure it’s okay with them to throw it in the dumpster. Things to bring on the actual pick-up are: help, heavy gloves, a rake, burlap bags or contractor bags (these hold a ton of stuff and they don’t break open when they’re loaded), a small, sturdy, bright colored bag for stuff like wallets, credit cards, medications and whatever else you might want to drop off with the police.
UPSIDE OF HOMELESS CAMP
For their own reasons, a lot of homeless people choose to camp out. Some have developed creative, almost comfortable lifestyles (including one couple with a self-built boat boasting a scavenged kicker motor) but even for rough ones, Homeless Camp has a lot of perks. It’s Camp! There’s fresh air instead of recirculated indoor air. There is no computer, television or election coverage. You don’t stew about what a jerk your boss is because you’re the boss. When the fish are running you can catch them all day long. Camp offers time to think, to read, sing, carve, get high, observe animals and watch beautiful sunrises, sunsets, stars and northern lights that house dwellers miss.
Monday, October 10, 2016 we observe World Homeless Day. That’s a day to reflect on the reality that some cataclysmic blip in the universe, be it economic downturn, a head injury or a vanishingly slight chemical imbalance could make any of us homeless tomorrow. Thanks to the Glory Hole, St. Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army, Juneau Coalition for the Homeless, the Medical Community and all who provide services to the homeless. You are terrific. And to people living in Homeless Camp as the big fall storms turn to winter, I’m sure the community joins me in wishing you strength, a peaceful heart and some warm, dry socks.
• Dick Callahan is a Juneau writer. In April 2016, he won first place in the Alaska Press Club Awards for best outdoors or sports column in the state.