Feature: Street Structures - Finding home on bivouac beds

Published: April 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 3

photography and text by D. Glies Clasen
EDAR photographs by Julie Yurth Himot

Mark Hedrick plays his harmonica trying to relax after a long day on the streets.Each night around 9 or 10, the traffic slows, and most weeknights, the city falls into a slumber.

That’s about the time the homeless men and women in Denver begin moving toward their campsites. 

They set up their bivouacs, temporary encampments under little or no shelter.

The lucky ones might have a tent or roof. 

They try to find some solace at the end of the day, as well as comfort between layers of blankets. 

It is all one long end of the day routine, and an attempt to fall asleep and hopefully stay asleep for the night.

“I can never calm down. Each night is another fight to relax,” Mark Hedrick said. “I generally try to play my harmonica each night to wind down.  But, look around.  There’s always light, cars, noise.”

Sleep can easily be a direct function of one’s sleeping conditions. And those who go sleepless suffer the groggy consequences. For Denver’s homeless the bivouac, the street-home, is a science all on its own in providing some respite and rest. From cardboard to pop-up tent like devices, Denver’s homeless find ways to make the streets home.

Mark, who has lived on the street with his wife for more than three years, said he spends a lot of his day walking around tired. 

Kathy Hedrick sits in front of her shopping cart and every possession while trying to raise money on a street corner.

His exhaustion plays tricks on his mind.  He can’t keep track of time or think straight and needs to wait for “second winds” before getting up to walk from place to place.

Nate Michaels, the volunteer and work therapy coordinator at the Denver Rescue Mission, said he sees men come into the downtown facility exhausted.  They have vacant stares and are tired from being on the street all day.  They often even drag their feet when they walk.

“I think some of their tiredness just comes from what they’ve been subject to on the streets,” Michaels said. 

The entire experience on the street wears the men and women down, not just the weather. 

“Its the paradigm they live in, what they see, what they hear, what people say about them.  It’s all draining, physically and emotionally,” Michaels said.

Samuel Johnson, who has lived on the streets for the past five years agreed with Michaels about the entire homeless experience wearing an individual down.

He has joined a church near downtown and is allowed to sleep under an exterior staircase of the church building each night.  On unusually cold nights the pastor often lets him into the church offices to sleep.    

“There is no structure you can make to stay safe.  You just try and survive,”  Johnson said.  “I try to put as much under me as possible like layers of cardboard or plastic, because the concrete or ground will suck the heat right out from under you. A lot of people, that’s how they die.”

Johnson’s little corner was quieter than others’ campsites, even though youth passed in and out of a side door for a church event just feet from Johnson’s campsite. 

Johnson didn’t have much of a problem ignoring his surroundings.  He dozed quickly, lying on only a pile of cardboard and bundled in multiple layers of winter coats. 

His sleep didn’t last.  His eyes blinked then opened.  He stretched and yawned loudly. His weight shifted.
The cold concrete and cardboard of the bivouac structure was rigid and bruised my hips, elbows and knees while I sat with him for an hour.  Sleeping there for days and months must wear at his body.  But Johnson no longer noticed the discomfort, he said.

Instead, he was focused on survival, and building a structure that gave him the best chance of living through the night. 

He used the word survival multiple times.

Johnson said on the good days he can build a cardboard shelter around him to stay warm.

“If I can get enough materials I’ll build a cardboard house,” Johnson said.  “If I can get a couple of dish washer boxes I’ll pull one over my legs and one down around my torso.  But even then I’ll put something under me.”

Such cardboard constructions are luxury for Johnson.  The norm: cardboard on concrete with no roof.

“Layers of cardboard on the floor, that is home to me,” Johnson said. “The place I sleep in each night—it’s not a home.  It’s horror.  It’s horror.”    

Kathy Hedrick said she and her husband Mark don’t use cardboard as insulation.  Instead they carry their home in a shopping cart every day. 

“We have six blankets in our cart,” she said.  “People think we’re crazy for carrying the thing around with us.  But we need it all.  We need the blankets and food.”      Packing and hauling around a home has its disadvantages though.  It’s almost as exhausting as not sleeping, Kathy said.   

"I know other people stash their stuff during the day,” Kathy said.   “I don’t know how they do it.  Things get stolen, found, thrown away.  We can’t afford to lose anything.  This is not just our lives. It’s what keeps us alive.  We can’t risk to lose it.”

The shopping cart that Kathy and Mark haul around is a bit of an engineering marvel. 
It needs to be tied down at every corner by two ropes.  It is a 30-minute process of wrapping, tying and tucking.  The cart stands nearly six feet tall when loaded and takes two people two pull it.

While the wheels work, it would be bold to try making a tight turn without the risk of spilling 100 pounds of possessions all over the pavement.

The shopping cart works for Mark and Kathy to store and haul their possessions. But there is an organization that has been trying to address the problem that Mark and Kathy face every day.      

They build something that is part home and part storage all in one shopping cart.  It is the high tech of the homeless world.

Everyone Deserves A Roof is a nonprofit in Los Angeles that developed a burly shopping cart—the EDAR. 

The EDAR and the nonprofit trying to get the EDAR to homeless individuals were developed in 2007 by movie producer Peter Samuelson.  Samuelson is most famous for producing “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Arlington Road” and “The Libertine.” He has produced 21 other movies, and is currently producing “Need” starring Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts.

During the day the EDAR stores private possessions.  One can stash the EDAR, allowing individuals to attend appointments, seek jobs or support services.  It is a mobile home and storage facility.
When the sun goes down the EDAR converts into a tent like waterproof sleeping shelter.  The wheels lock in place and one is safe for the night.

“We have 60 units in beta testing in L.A. county and Ventura County and Orange County,” said Julie Yurth Himot, program coordinator for EDAR.  “We’ve placed an order for 110 units and are fundraising for 1,000 more units.”

The goal is to work with other nonprofits in the L.A. area to either get EDARs on the street or to be used as private cots for families inside emergency shelters, Yurth Himot said.
L.A. is an ideal place for the EDAR. 

Los Angeles laws allow a homeless individual to sleep on the sidewalk between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.  The weather is also accommodating all year.  There are even organizations that are willing to lock up the few EDARs that are on the street to keep individuals’ possessions safe. 
But the program will have to continue to grow in different directions in L.A. to continue to succeed, Yurth Himot said.

The nonprofits long-term goal is to get EDARs into other communities, she said.  Finding the right communities is the first step for expansion.

“I am interested in looking into Denver because I have seen individuals with carts and on the street and wonder if the EDAR may work there,” Yurth Himot said.  “Though I don’t know what we would need to have happen to make it work.”

Most important for getting EDARs into other cities, she said, was the need for community support.
Right now, Yurth Himot and EDAR are focused on succeeding in L.A. before expanding, so it may be several years before one may see an EDAR in Denver.  But there are people working to find creative, inexpensive alternatives to help the homeless find structures that can provide them safe places to sleep and stow their possessions.

When Johnson heard about the EDAR he wasn’t sold on the idea.  He liked that it would get you off the cement in the cold, but didn’t think that hauling a shopping cart around the city would help him.

“One of the keys to surviving homelessness is that 60 percent of the time you have to look non-homeless,” Johnson said. “I stash my stuff, I hide my things.  Then I go back out, find my stash and I crash. Johnson said he also carries a backpack with some plastic bags in it in case he can’t find any and is caught out in an emergency, as well as clothes, food and his Bible.

Kathy disagrees with Johnson and said she and her husband wouldn’t survive without their shopping cart.  She talked about living on the street as though they had surviving figured out.

“My husband and I pile high under blankets,” she said. “It’s OK when we’re under the covers and gotten used to the cold at night, until I have to get up and go pee-pee.”

No matter how hard the two try, though, the streets are not a home to Kathy.  No structure they make is enough to give her a sense of security she said.

“The toughest thing is you never have a home,” Kathy said.  “You have to leave in the morning before people show up for work and can’t set up camp until everyone leaves at night. The way to survive is people, friends.” 

Kathy’s greatest strength is her husband.

“It helps to be with Mark, my husband,” she said.  “He keeps me up.  He makes my bed for me.  We play cards at night.”

Moments later Mark walked up and gave her a daffodil.

She smiled, then turned to me and said, “See.”

Kathy’s worries aren’t about the weather but being attacked or arrested at night, so she and her husband move camps every night.

“Last night we were woken up at 2 a.m. by a kid, and told to leave his property,” she said.  “It’s hard enough trying to sleep without being woken up half way through the night, having to pack up and move to a new site.” This was possibly an ominous statement because a few hours later Kathy and Mark were woken and ticketed for trespassing.  Kathy was arrested for a probation violation. 

The police could not give Kathy or Mark any information about how long Kathy would be in jail because it was a Jefferson County charge.  The Denver Police would first take her to the Denver Police Jail where she would be expedited and charged in Jefferson County.

“She got arrested for pawning a camera and they gave her a felony and probation,” Mark said.  “We didn’t know what to do.  You can’t afford a lawyer so the system’s stacked against you. They promised her if she accepted a felony she could be out that day on probation.  I said don’t do it.  But she just wanted out.”

Constant exhaustion and having to haul one’s possessions all over the city make it difficult to keep up with one’s probation.

“In all honesty she lost track of her days and missed the probation hearing,” Mark said.  “She realized it a few days later.  I tried to get her to go to the judge, but she was scared.  What do you do?  No one believes you and you don’t have a lawyer.  She was sure she would walk through the doors and be taken to jail.”         Instead she was woken from her home on the street by officers and arrested.

Mark said Kathy’s arrest is just one of the dangers of moving and setting up a home on the pavement each night.

“You always sleep with one eye open.  You always sleep with other people,” Mark said. “There are all kinds of dangers out here.”

Tracy "Smokey" Kimball (left) and Mark Hedric (right) both try to sleep.Johnson feels the biggest danger is never getting off the street.

Working from the streets is just not feasible,” Johnson said.  “Your clothes don’t look right, you get fired.  You’ve really got to have a base to work from.  I’m not lazy.  I’m a hard worker.  But if you’re on the streets, you’re spinning your wheels, tired and killing yourself trying, only to be fired because you’re homeless.”

Nate Michaels, the volunteer and work therapy coordinator at the Denver Rescue Mission, agreed with Johnson, a cardboard home is not enough to get or keep a job.

“If you are homeless, and don’t have a place to stay, it is hard to find the consistency to get good sleep every night, or consistent transportation,” Michaels said.  “To keep a job you need to have a level of emotional well-being that comes with consistent sleep and safety.”

Michaels also said he believed there was a distrust of the transient workforce in Denver.  The possible presence of such prejudice prevents a large number of homeless from getting menial jobs.
Johnson is not sure of his future.  He hopes to work and get an apartment.  His American dream is some place quiet and warm.  If he ever gets that dream he is sure of one thing.

“When I get off the streets I won’t allow cardboard in my house,” he said laughing. “I will never allow a piece of cardboard or a piece of bologna in my house again.”

Mark and Kathy aren’t seeking such grandeur hopes at this point.  Mark is just trying to find Kathy in the legal system and get in contact with her.

If that happens they have some options.  The most promising would be Kathy accepting an apartment.  The hitch is that Mark wouldn’t be allowed to live with her and would have to sneak in because she would live in a woman’s housing facility.

Both said this is not an acceptable solution to their problem.

“We would go from spending every minute of every day together,” Mark said.  “To her having an apartment and me possibly getting a ticket or arrested every time I visit her or spend the night.  That’s not marriage.”

For right now, Mark would rather haul their shelter in a shopping cart from site to site each night.  Their shelter of blankets is more acceptable than being separated.

“We choose to sleep in the cold and work a corner to be together,” Mark said.  “We just hope something better comes along that gets us off the streets, and lets us be together.”•