I live in a small rural Indiana community that moves slower than its nearest neighbor, the Ohio River. Madison Indiana has a split personality. The hilltop is what some call the commercial district, buts it's really where families and businesses live, shop, work and play. It's like any other small town America that let its zoning be led by local buddy favors instead of strong common sense oversight; it's a cluster of signs. chain big box stores, fast food restaurants, small businesses - some thriving and some not and a failing infrastructure created by small town politicians too afraid to make big decisions. In contrast, the downtown has its own issues; it has an expensive habit of clinging to the past by trying to maintain one of the nation's largest historic districts while at the same time also having one of the nation's highest rates of poverty, suicide and drug use. While the district is lovely in some,areas, the lack of income and interest in old houses has left gaping wounds of blight throughout the district. There is an overabundance of useless shacks, garages that sit in the middle of no where and run down homes too dilapidated to repair but protected by a small but devoted group of "preservation" activists. Contaminated, empty factories with their broken windows and unhinged doors have become havens to an ever growing cartel of "meth" businesses. Businesses struggle "downtown" because the district is dependent on tourism for its revenue and tourists like lovely destinations, with thriving shops and fun things to do. Everyone keeps saying "Madison has the potential". But even the locals don't shop downtown; many haven't come to "Historic Madison" since the shoe store, Hallmark, dress shop, Knobels Men store and the five and dime closed more than 30 years ago. Poverty has taken up residence and hovels abound, some collapsing, others just teetering on the edge of junk pile. This is a place where even burned out buildings, complete with death traps, can stand for more than a decade, creating hiding places for anyone who wishes to enter and that's where this story begins.
Madison Indiana has a "homeless problem" or maybe our problem is our attitude about those less fortunate. Either way, the riverfront, our too numerous shanties, abandoned buildings and run down "historic" structures make great places for the homeless to shelter from weather and the glaring eyes of disapproving citizens. I was asked by the owner of local internet news site to report on the community's homeless people. I could spew out my usual numbers, data and research in an effort to stay "non-controversial"- because I was taught no one really can disagree with the facts. However, I've come to learn the hard way that in this small town not only can they argue with the truth, they can ignore it too. I wasn't born and raised here, but I had heard the phrase, "small town, small minded." Here in Madison, we sometimes seem unwilling to stretch ourselves and accept difficult challenges, which is truly sad for me because we have so many bright people, who have so much to contribute. We have the human capital, the brain power and the courage to confront difficult challenges, but we don't. Maybe we are small minded, maybe we are afraid to even try, or maybe we just don't believe in each other. I don't know. So instead of relaying all the facts most already know, I will tell you about my day with the homeless and share their story with you.
There is a place called Fireman's Park; its shelter house has a beautiful view of river. The towering Kentucky cliffs just across the watery, state line makes a stunning view. To the east it's a stone's throw to an open "storage yard" that collects unused concrete barriers, river docks and assorted rusty equipment when not in use. Apparently our little tourist town is proud of our junk and displays it along one of the most trafficked areas downtown. To the west there is a beautiful children's park restored by some of those bright people with courage I mentioned before and just to the north of the lovely park is what appears to be low income apartment buildings. Just across the street from that is "Bicentennial Park." It's a green space meant for festivals but local officials argued more about who got their name on a plaque than what design was best in the long run. Still there are restrooms and although not always clean on the inside, the outside looks great and it closes at dark. Along the way there is a cute walk up ice-cream shop that I'm told also has a pretty good hot dog and one small house that's tidy and clearly habitable. I like their flower beds, but the flower beds across from Fireman's Park are weed filled, a little over grown and clustered along a walkway with uneven surfaces, missing bricks and plenty of litter. Mud is piled where it rained recently; the sidewalk isn't level so the dirt washed into the low spots and there it sits, 3 inches of crusty, cracked yuck just in case our visitors want to ask, " I wonder why they don't clean that up?"
Maybe the mud and litter are like the burned out buildings, no one does anything until after ten years- I don't know why. But when one sits at Fireman's Park and glances east you can also see several homes just to north and a few yards away. Small duplexes sport three foot weeds and dilapidated decks. Across the street, a little farther up sits a well maintained and beautifully painted Victorian style home. A little further up the street is the post office and only downtown gas station; right between them is one of those burned out houses I spoke of early. The good news is someone is attempting to restore it now that those devoted, historic preservationists have removed the stop work order. None the less the location of Fireman's Park lets me see directly into several backyards and despite the overgrown jungle it's easy enough to see some "rundown" out buildings. It occurred to me that without that "jungle" I might be able to see the old scrap yard. A much larger grouping of run down buildings surrounded in debris situated in the middle of low to moderate income houses, most in desperate need of repair or at least a coat of paint. All in all it's clear it isn't the homeless "ruining" anything. We as community and the preservationist have decided rundown, dirty, sub-par and haphazard is just fine.
I parked right across from a solitary figure sitting in the shade of the Fireman's Park shelter house. Nothing seemed out of place to me. I wasn't even sure I was where I was supposed to be to "find" the homeless. So I grabbed my paper and pencil and headed to ask the solitary figure if he knew when or if the homeless might meet at Fireman's Park. I opted to stroll the grass instead of jump the crumbling stones of a collapsing wall that I recall has looked that way for many years.
I had no idea what I did or how I looked that caused the solitary figures reaction, but I know I saw fear. It was a deep, anxious fear, the kind you see in the eyes of a cowering dog that's been kicked too many times when an angry owner yanks on its chain. I saw him think about leaving; he actually moved as if to rise and run away. I was so ashamed of myself. I had terrified this person and didn't even have enough common sense to know why. But I learned.
It was about 10am on a Tuesday morning, a little warm but the sky was blue and birds noisy. I sat down next to a man who looked a lot like a cross between Kenny Rodgers and Santa Claus. His shirt was a black and gray stripe and neatly buttoned but on close inspection clearly needed a washing. His gray hair dropped in combed, clean curls just to his collar. His beard was trimmed, long but not too long. His pants were plain jeans, the kind my gentleman friends wear; there were no holes or grime and he had no odor. There was a back pack sitting near him but no bottle to be found. The shelter house was clean except for a few cigarette butts like you find carelessly tossed to the sidewalk from one end of Main Street to the other. I saw no evidence of dirty, drunk men, throwing trash and relieving themselves in or near the shelter. So I introduced myself and explained people were asking about the homeless here in our small town and would he please talk to me. He immediately smiled and said, "Of Course".
He said, "I can remember the day they called me up from the mines and told me to sit in a chair. I knew there was something wrong right away. That's the day they told me my house burned ". He took a deep breath and his voice shuddered as his eyes teared and he added, "then they told me my wife and the baby girl died in the fire." He looked at me and finished his story as his voice lowered to a shaky whisper and said, "I lost everything that day and I've been homeless ever since." Needless to say there are probably crueler things to do than rip open such painful wounds just because "people want to know." But for the life of me I couldn't think of a single sin I had committed worse than what I had just done to this old man.
Still he wanted to tell the rest of his story so I took notes and scribbled as fast as I could to keep up, adding questions here and there as he plodded through the memories of his life. Like so many others I wonder why the homeless just don't go home to where family and friends might be helpful. He said he hated, "that place and would never go back, not even to be buried". He said one day he got into trouble after his wife and baby burned. He said he had spent time in prison. I asked what for; he said he killed a man. I asked why and shifted my position while checking my surrounding's, wondering if I'd remembered to tell anyone where I was going. I hadn't and I looked at the now very important, unopened backpack and chastised myself before asking Ricky to tell me why he killed someone.
Ricky said, "I came home one day and my little girl was crying; she was only 12 at the time when this neighbor came over and raped her." In a past life I was a therapist who for a short time was assigned to perpetrators; the sexual predator kind, molesters' and rapists. So stories about a 12 year old little girl being raped by someone she knows are not new to me. Still every time I hear these recounting my breath is lost to a rage filled sorrow and my mind scrambles. He must have seen something in my eyes because he said, "Maybe I shouldn't talk about such things to a lady." I said no, I think people would want to know why you went to jail. He said after he saw his little girl, "I didn't stop; I went and picked up my gun, walked over to the neighbor's house, knocked on the door. When he answered I just shot him." And that's how a widower with three children ends up in prison.
He said the boys "was mostly grown" but added, "My little girl has to live with that every day the rest of her life." He raised his voice as the anger swept away the grief and defiantly added, "I would do it again, that aint right, that's not what children are for." He spoke his son's names, Ricky Jr. and Daniel Lee. Not once did he say his daughters name but instead repeated, "She has to live with that every day, the rest of her life." It was obvious that Ricky had been living with it every day of his life too. Fathers are odd people. Little girls steal their hearts and daddies are our heroes. Ricky had never forgiven himself for something only a father understands. He blamed himself for his daughter tragedy; he repeated he was "not at home." I wanted to tell him daddies can't be everywhere, all the time, but I wasn't sure where he had been when his daughter had bee`n raped by the neighbor. Thankfully it was Ricky who changed the topic as I wondered silently if he was one of those violent homeless men that everyone seems to talk about. He had four children, one died in the fire. The sons were in Indianapolis and West Virginia he thought. He said he had done the best he could as a father, he wasn't perfect but he tried. We moved on.
Not only did Ricky not smell of alcohol or have a body odor, his hands were clean and nails trimmed. We talked about sleeping on the river, what he does when it's cold, how he eats and where he goes to restroom and showers. He hung his head and said again, "Maybe I shouldn't say these things in front of a lady, but I go to the park over there and take a whore bath." I told him not to worry I used to work with alcoholics and drug addicts and I knew all the four letter words and was great at finding ways to put them together. Still he wanted to prove to me he was clean. He reached for his back pack and again I cursed myself as my anxiety fed my imagination. I wondered if he had a knife and hoped he had long ago sold his gun. But Ricky didn't pull a weapon; he proudly displayed his four deodorants, a bar of soap, and bottle of shampoo. I saw the disposable razor resting atop what seemed to be a flannel jacket. Later he would show me what was underneath. I asked if he had everything he needed. He said he could use some money for a new shirt and pants and maybe shoes. But added shoes were expensive. I told myself I would take him some new shirts, pants and a decent pair of shoes. He said he wore "extra-large shirts and size 36 pants". I forget to get the shoe size but hope to do so when I drop the pants and shirt. I didn't give him any money.
I asked Ricky what he had done since prison. He said when they told him he could go, he asked to stay. He said he had not "drank a drop" while in prison. But when they "kicked him out", he went to Greensburg to work in an auto plant and during that time he remarried. And then Ricky began talking about the Lord and how he didn't understand why the Lord had him suffer as much as he has his entire life. I listened for quite some time to twists and turns of his everyday life, about loving God, going to church, missing his sons and then he said, "Yeah everything was going along good with my second wife, we had a little apartment and was making it on our own but then she upped and died too." I carefully asked how she died, remembering the neighbor he shot then said "she got cancer after 8 years" and then he wept. He said life was never going to be good to him and as he relived his sorrows, I noticed a hard deep scar on his right arm. I asked if he was a veteran. I thought perhaps the war had left this man damaged in places no one could see but Ricky whenever he closed his eyes. Perhaps mixed in with the horrors of soldiering and a "mean drunk of a dad" there was some explanation for his plight in this life.
Ricky looked at me again, and leaned forward to say, "No honey that's a snake bite" and right then I figured I'd made a good decision not to visit Viper Holler. But before I could make another note he pulled the collar of his shirt down and said" this scar's from a gun but it's not from no war." He said he had the gun on the floor and was using a stick to hit the trigger; he was aiming for his heart but missed and hit his shoulder because the gun kicked and he didn't have a "good hold on it." I'm not very proud of myself because as harsh as it sounds , my first thought was geesh the man is one horrible tragedy after the next and if I were him I wouldn't want to live either. Instead I asked how long he had been depressed and suicidal. He cried the kind of grown man cry no woman wants to see or has any idea how to comfort. I touched his knee and reassured him as best I could. It seemed to help.
He couldn't remember the last day he was happy. He spoke briefly of a man who brought him some fresh banana bread and of someone who had dropped a case of bottled water at the shelter but later the "prison ladies took them." He said he stays in Madison because he likes it here with the river, people are nice and he has a place to go that's "out of weather when it's cold." He still needs his sleeping bag though. I didn't ask where he kept his other belongings, but I imagined there were plenty of old factories sheds and abandoned buildings from which to select. I recalled several years back a local combat veteran froze to death with his honorable discharge papers at his side. I wondered if Ricky would face the same fate. So I asked him if there was a place to go for help would he go.
We spoke about the new county jail and the possibility that a treatment facility and maybe shelter could be in the "old" jail. Ricky said no matter what the county did with the old jail he wasn't "going to go in" and informed me very harshly that I could not make him. He raised his voice and pointed his finger sharply to indicate I had somehow crossed a line by asking if he would use a treatment facility or homeless shelter. He said, "You're a nice lady but don't lecture me about my drinking "cause it's the only thing I have to help with the pain." I am sure he meant the wounds inside his heart. I apologized and said I had not meant to offend, but that people were worried and some wanted to know if they could help. I also said it was true that some were angry with the homeless. He said he knew that. I told Ricky I had noticed he didn't have a bottle on the table and that he hadn't taken a drink during my visit. With a hushed voice he informed me he needed to be honest.
Once again Ricky reached for his back pack, and despite my best efforts to be a decent, caring human I was once again frightened of a tearful, old man that looked a lot like a country and western version of Santa Claus. He moved the flannel jacket and carefully lifted a bottle just enough for me to see but without taking it from the back pack. It was a bottle of Colt 45 the preferred beverage of old alcoholics and long term homeless. He confessed he drank all the time. He has since he was young boy. "But only beer, never the hard liquor" because he said, "that stuff's bad for you." Denial is a dangerous thing- I suppose that's why the first step is admitting you have problem, not claiming you're making good decisions about your alcoholic beverage choices even when you stay drunk sun up to sun down.
I began an argument quietly inside my mind- I told myself not to feel sorry for this man who had most likely been just as unkind to his children as his father had been to him. For a moment I told myself he was probably out drunk when his daughter was raped and maybe the story about the job after prison was just a story - not the truth. Basically, I sat there and gave my excuses for not caring about another human being. I justified my thoughts by saying he deserved what he got- but inside I truly know, Ricky is by no means the worst person on this earth. He is child of an abusive alcoholic, born to the coal mines, trapped in poverty and tragedy. His anger for his daughters rape was justified and maybe he deserved the hell he condemned himself to for not being home. I told myself for all I knew, he was out drunk while some slob crawled on top his virgin daughter ramming himself into her while ripping her body and spirit as he pumped away in great delight, celebrating his achievement of destroying the life of 12 year old girl. I wanted to believe if it were my daughter that I would have been more careful; the neighbor would have been drunk when I led him to the hog pen and let him pass out while the hogs ate him alive- except for the bastard's teeth, because according to my grandpa, hogs eat everything except for teeth. But he would have been eaten alive none the less; justice served and no one the wiser. Guns seem too messy and obvious an approach. But it was his daughter and he "settled the score" the best way he knew how.
In the end all my circular thinking brought me right back to my starting point. Why are people homeless; is it their fault or is it misfortune? Can we help them even if they can't or won't help themselves? My questions and doubts served to benefit me, they lifted my guilt and reassured me I didn't need to do anything because Santa Clause deserved the life he was living. If my father is right and my hopes are too, then there is a God and I wondered would that God frown upon my selfish thoughts. The words in red- are important; I was not a good person for such uncaring and coldhearted thoughts. It didn't take long for my disappointment in myself to sink in. However, once again I was saved from any self-confronting as a red scooter, skirted across the grass, carrying a jolly man with a big toothless grin, who yelled out. "How ya doin Ricky" ? Ron tossed me a curious glance as he dismounted his brand new, shiny scooter and smacked his half bottle of colt 45 on the nearby pic-nic table.