Earlier this year, a class of LSU student journalists at the Manship School of Mass Communication interviewed more than a dozen people who were homeless or in danger of becoming so.
Reporters had little way to confirm the accuracy of everything said, but there emerged broad strands of truth in every person’s tale. Some interviewees chose anonymity, which is noted. They all signed a permission form allowing us to publish their story and photo.
Special thanks to the directors and staffs of the various shelters and outreaches in East Baton Rouge Parish for their support on the project.
St. James Episcopal Church downtown is a stately red-brick building where stained glass windows peek out from the masonry. Inside an ornate iron fence is a tranquil garden with softly running water. It’s serene.
In the long shadow of this sanctuary, behind the manicured bushes, a homeless man named Terry is spraying himself with water from a garden hose, cooling down in the brutal Baton Rouge summer heat.
He is a survivor of the urban jungle, drifting from church to church to shelter accepting lunch handouts. On this day he is in a nicer area, meandering among stately churches, shining corporate offices and granite bank buildings.
He doesn’t talk much.
Asked why he is homeless, his reply is blunt. “Drugs.”
Asked which ones, he waves his hands vaguely. “All of them.”
He’s clean at the moment, he insists, but it’s hard to tell. He never looks at the same place for more than a second, constantly shifting his weight, eyes darting around.
Terry says he had a job once, seven years ago. He’s 53 now, his wiry hair graying at the temples. His dark skin is wrinkled, too wrinkled for his age.
He is surprisingly nonchalant about his situation. “Oh, no, no, there are plenty of places to go get help,” he says. “I don’t want help. I don’t need no help.”
Terry says he makes money begging for change and doing occasional odd jobs.
Most of the money, he says simply, goes to feed his addiction.
“What do you want me to say?” he asks, bristling. “It feels good. It makes me feel good.”
For food, he does rely on help, making a daily circuit among various shelters that distribute brown-bag lunches and hot breakfasts.
Terry acknowledges his life is sometimes hard and often dangerous. He lives in an abandoned building, but he won’t say which one. He doesn’t want company. “It’s dangerous, man. The roof is going to cave in at any time. The place is crumbling. I have to sleep with an eye open because of some of the people there.”
He tries to stay off the streets at night.
“Bad stuff happens out there. Bad stuff,” he warns, shaking his head slowly. Like battles over small plastic bags of drugs which sometimes end in knife wounds or worse.
Just another night on the streets, Terry notes.
For now, he’s off, a disheveled stranger drifting down the sidewalk in the shadows of well-groomed trees and immaculate buildings.— MATTHEW ALBRIGHT
Homeless at 16
To many, he seems like a normal teenager. He has a family with a home. He watches television after school. He loves to play video games. He has friends.
But Jamey, 16, technically is homeless, residing with other homeless youths at Youth Oasis, a facility for homeless children and teens.
“I have no control over my emotion,” says Jamey, who began cutting himself a year and a half ago. “I thought it [cutting] would be fun.”
Jamey, who asked that his last name not be used, was a resident at Youth Oasis in the spring.
The first time he cut himself, he used a rusty boxcutter and gouged a spiral that ran from his shoulder to his wrist. After his mother found out he was cutting himself, she sent him to a hospital, and he stopped for a few months. But he started again and was in and out of three different hospitals in as many weeks before his caseworker placed him in Youth Oasis.
Executive Director Melissa Keaster says Youth Oasis serves homeless children, runaways and those in state custody. “We provide therapy and counseling. We go to school for teacher conferences. We really are their family. We are who they go to,” she says.
Jamey says he doesn’t find it hard to be away from his birth family because of his early childhood. When he was 2 years old, both of his parents were on drugs, and his biological mother broke his arms and legs. After that, he was in and out of foster homes until he was adopted at age 5.
“Everything was going well until I cut myself,” Jamey says. The scars show on his left arm.
Jamey also has an anger problem, something he has dealt with since he was younger. He says he used to be able to control it but can’t anymore.
“When I get angry, I’m completely unpredictable. Usually I hold in my anger until it explodes. My eyes turn black, and I’m lost.”
He says he has dealt with depression for a while, but the past two years have been bad. “There was no trigger. It just happened. I used to be able to control it but not anymore,” he says again.
Jamey dreams of going to school so he can one day create videogames.
“Videogames are more than just a passion for me,” Jamey says, adding that gaming helps him relieve his stress and anger. “I need something to relieve my stress, and knowing I can go home and play videogames lets me concentrate in school.”— CATIE VOGELS
School of hard knocks
Amy can never stop smiling.
The grin leaves her face only when she trails off, thinking about the answer to a question. It is unclear whether her smile is a cover for nervousness or proof she has not lost her ability to be happy in the whirlpool of poverty and homelessness that has gripped her life.
“In a given day, do you think about that? Who would have thought it would happen to you?” she asks, knowing well the answer that plagues her daily: How does someone with a college degree end up on food stamps and government assistance?
After graduating with a degree in communications, Amy, whose last name is withheld at her request, got married. “I wanted the family, the white picket fence,” she says. Ten years into the marriage, Amy’s husband couldn’t handle stresses at work and health issues, and he left Amy and her four boys, who were all younger than 9 years old.
A decade out of the workforce, Amy struggled to find a job. For the past year and a half, she has worked to regain her confidence and her livelihood.
Amy receives childcare assistance and food stamps, and with help from Catholic Charities, she is able to pay rent for a small apartment. She also receives emotional support from her mother, and she remains steadfast in her desire to maintain independence.
“I have up days, and I have down days, and on those days, sometimes I think, ‘What if I just quit and relied on the system?’ But I’m capable. I mean, life craps on you, but you have to take some responsibility,” she says.
Amy found a clerical job, but it’s barely enough to keep her children in daycare or school. She can only work so many hours each day before she has to pick them up in the afternoons. If she finds a job that pays just $5 more, she’ll lose most of her government assistance. Amy is caught in a negative cycle, but she holds on to the hope that things will get better.
It is a day-to-day struggle to make ends meet. With daycare expenses exceeding $1,000 a month for just two of her boys, the challenge of paying for all four of them during the summer is daunting.
“What am I supposed to do? If you look at it on paper, even if I make $12 or $14 an hour, can I really afford to raise four children, to take care of myself, to just live?”
Amy spends her nights researching job opportunities and sending out her résumé to potential employers. Recently, she received a scholarship from the University of San Francisco for an online marketing course.
Amy’s ultimate goal is to find a permanent house for her children.
“My résumé is not going to sell me, but I know if I could get in front of [employers] I could. I try to keep moving forward. I may take a couple of steps back before I go forward, but I’m okay with that,” she says.
“I have those four boys that stare at me every day,” she says. “I want something better for them.”—EMILY SLACK
Clinging to hope
Having seen the world and the darker side of life, Roy Andrus has settled on sobriety. Like many in his position, drugs were the genesis of his problems.
“I always had a problem with drugs—never really owned up to it,” says Andrus stoically. “They say that it’s an aggressive disease that deals with a lot of bad character traits.”
Andrus folds his hands on his lap, stares at the table for several long seconds and continues.
“I guess a time came when I couldn’t manage life anymore. I couldn’t manage anything anymore. The only thing I could manage to do was get drugs when I really wanted them,” he says.
The Opelousas native left home in 1981 to join the Army and was stationed in Germany as an administrative clerk for the majority of his tour of duty.
His father died when Andrus was 8, so he never got to know his father’s military side. Still, he reveres the hardships his father endured. “If someone paid me $50 million to go back to where my father was, I couldn’t do it,” he says.
In the 1980s, the armed forces started administering urinalysis tests as a means of discovering and discharging those who were abusing drugs.
Andrus admits to using drugs while he was in the Army and says that at times he was open about his use, so he could be caught and end his service prematurely. But he had a superior officer who made sure he didn’t take the easy way out.
“He knew what was going on, but he wouldn’t let me take the tests. Whenever we had to take them, my name was never called,” Andrus says.
Eventually, though, Andrus was shown the door, discharged after four years of service under honorable conditions. The military description for the termination of his service was a “failure to adapt.” He departed Germany and headed home, but after just a week, he was back in Germany as a civilian. He had made some acquaintances there, and he decided he would rather be there than home. That decision lasted 16 years.
In that time, he worked as an entertainer, performing in German nightclubs with a variety of instruments, experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and had a daughter.
Finally, when family problems arose at home, Andrus packed his bags, said goodbye to his daughter and made his way back to Louisiana.
“Two of my older brothers died one month apart. I didn’t see the necessity to come home right away when my brothers passed, because I wanted to remember them the way they were,” Andrus says. “Then my grandmother and grandfather died, and I said, ‘Look, Mom’s starting to get a little old now. It’s time for me to go back home.’”
Andrus was home, but all was not right.
“When I got home, it was everything but the right thing,” he recalls.
Drugs took over his life and brought him to his current situation. He knew he needed help, and he tried to get it, talking first to Veterans Affairs. He pleaded for a place to stay that would slay his demons. Unfortunately, some veterans who have problems adjusting to civilian life or who have problems with drugs find VA care can be less than satisfactory.
“(The care) was impersonal. They didn’t care about my individual situation,” says Andrus. “They tried to handle (my problems) in a systematic military manner, and that just doesn’t work.”
He left the program but not the problem. He was at his lowest point, and he was homeless. Ultimately, Andrus found his way to the Salvation Army in Baton Rouge.
He now feels he has reached the point in his life where drugs aren’t necessary. He has a support system, and for what feels like the first time in 49 years, Andrus has hope.
Though he has tried to reach out to his family, including his daughter in Germany and a son in Colorado, the lines of communication were broken during his down years. Andrus understands, but he holds out hope he can rekindle his relationships.
“It’s my belief that in God’s time, if it’s for me to be reunited with my family, which is one of my goals, then that’s what’s going to happen,” he says.—LUKE JOHNSON
John does not deny his homelessness was a result of alcoholism and an unstable lifestyle, but he also has nothing to hide. Sitting in his counselor’s office in Baton Rouge’s O’Brien House, he shared his whirlwind story with this preface:
“The only thing that can hurt me is what you don’t know about me.”
John, 52, originally is from a broken home in Philadelphia. He developed a street mentality early in life. His father abandoned his family on Christmas Eve in 1958. His mother began working full-time, leaving John and two older siblings to be raised by his grandmother.
The summer before he entered high school, John was introduced to drugs and alcohol. He never had a drug of choice, mainly using “booze and pot.”
“Used to call it a ‘garbage-head,’” he says.
Always concerned with “the outside and weekends,” he didn’t apply himself scholastically, although he was active in sports. But he never felt supported by his family. “They were always focused pretty much on my brother and my sister and figured I could take care of myself.”
Next stop was Ocean City, N.J., where, in his sophomore year, he became involved with a motorcycle gang called the Pagans. Identifying with the surfers, the ghetto and the Pagans were his “mood adjusters,” along with alcohol and drugs. He got his GED after dropping out of high school his senior year.
By the time he was 26, he had received two DWIs in Pennsylvania, two in New Jersey, one in North Carolina and one in Florida. After he was slapped with a third DWI in New Jersey, a judge there gave him the option of six months in jail or 30 days in rehab.
“Obviously, I took the rehab,” John says.
Starting in-patient treatment at Seabrook House in southern New Jersey, John continued to Colonial Halfway House in York, Penn., and his hard shell cracked when a night manager named Jim reached out to him.
Following 18 years of sobriety, a marriage, and a job paying between $95,000 and $120,000 a year in New Mexico, John was served with divorce papers in October 2002. Discovering his wife’s infidelity with his second AA sponsor, he walked away from his Alcoholics Anonymous support system.
Bankruptcy followed divorce, and he returned to the bottle. It happened in a strange way. During the winter of 2003, John and two other project managers working below him went to a gentleman’s club.
“Got a double shot of Jack Daniel’s. That was my first drink since Jan. 22, 1985,” he says.
His high-profile life started to deteriorate. Losing three consecutive jobs, his home and his family, he ended up in the streets of Albuquerque in the winter of 2003.
“There’s not a lot of support for the homeless in Albuquerque,” John says. “I would go four, five days in that world, not even talking, not saying one word. Homelessness is a 24-hour-a-day job. It’s a heck of a lot harder to live on the streets than it is to bounce around corporate America.”
He met Eric, a fellow homeless man, and got a job at a toilet-paper factory. After making enough money to buy a van, he packed up and headed to New Orleans to find a Katrina clean-up job and steady pay. He never made it.
Becoming financially stranded in Lafayette, he found a more structured homeless society. “Believe it or not, the homeless were always kind of a clean world. They’re real paranoid and obsessed with cleanliness,” he says.
Spending his day on the streets of Lafayette, he would spend about $10 to $15 a day on cigarettes and alcohol. He never panhandled, working low-paying jobs instead.
“The homeless develop their own society, their own sub-culture,” he explains, adding that the homeless world and “normal” society never overlap.
John suffered esophageal bleeding and a colon infection, and his liver began to shut down. “You get a pint of vodka, and that’ll last me eight or nine hours before I started getting the shakes.”
Another year of homelessness in Cajun Country passed before he decided he needed to change. “I just decided I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I changed because of my health,” he says.
In October 2010, he began his current path toward sobriety. Going from hospitals in Lafayette and New Orleans to Baton Rouge, he medically detoxed and entered O’Brien House (OBH) in Baton Rouge on March 23, 2011. He attributes his tough-love healing to a special friend: “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today.”
John is focusing on addressing issues from 2003, when he first hit the streets, to the present. Currently in Phase One of the OBH program, he is looking forward to staying in Baton Rouge and finding a job saving animals.
He looks back on his homelessness with a sense of acceptance. He wants others to learn from his mistakes, not their own, insisting that “experience is the best teacher.” He has no expectation or fears for the future, allowing himself to “see how God works” in his life through “people, places and things.”
If readers take away anything from his story, John wants it to be this: “Become a wise man, not a smart man.”—LESLIE LEAVOY
Under the shelter of a concrete overpass, Harry huddled within a sleeping bag, struggling to resist the winter wind and a staggering pain in his chest.
Not only was Harry homeless, he was HIV positive.
“It was cold and wet, and all I had was a sleeping bag,” the 48-year-old Baton Rouge native says. “My side started hurting real bad, and I knew something wasn’t right.”
Harry, who had been homeless for nine months, brought himself to the nearest hospital. “I had no money, but I needed help.”
He had severe pneumonia in both lungs and was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. While bed-ridden, Harry met a social worker who changed the course of his life.
The visitor told him about St. Anthony’s Home, a local assisted-living home designated for men and women disabled by HIV and AIDS. The 12-bed facility, which has been Harry’s home since February, offers free medical, educational, social, physical, psychological and spiritual assistance to its residents.
“It’s a good place,” he says now, looking around the quaint courtyard. “I don’t feel locked in.”
The phrase “locked in” resonates with him, and he goes silent. He breaks eye contact and rubs his weathered hand across the brim of his baseball cap. The long pause is followed by a soft confession.
“I was incarcerated for four years.”
Without being asked, Harry explains the events that led to his imprisonment. He says his troubles began when he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. With no diploma or motivation, he worked a series of odd jobs, living on each dollar he earned from baling hay, driving a garbage truck and doing construction.
The employment, however, was always temporary.
Desperate for money to support his girlfriend of 13 years and his two young children, Harry explored uncommon avenues for extra cash. In 2001 he tried selling his blood. “I had donated (plasma) before with no problems, but this time I couldn’t. They told me I had HIV,” he says.
Harry was shocked.
“I thought I was going to die,” he says. “I thought I was the walking dead. You hear rumors about HIV, but I didn’t know much about it. It was my fault. I didn’t protect myself, but here I am, 10 years later.”
Harry says his long-term girlfriend also contracted the virus. She found out at the Health Unit around the same time he did. He does not know who got the virus first.
HIV was more than an illness. It was one more thing to worry about and one more thing to fund. After juggling mediocre job opportunities, he turned to his last resort: deliberately writing bad checks.
“I wasn’t working, there was inflation, and I started writing bad checks. I had no job. I was tired, frustrated and I didn’t think,” he says.
Harry says he learned a lot during his time in the “big house.” He attended church services and group Bible studies and found a new sense of spirituality. He met interesting people and took part in group sporting events. He smiles as he recalls placing second in the basketball tournament.
He was released in 2010 and returned to Baton Rouge. Denied a temporary home by his former girlfriend, his four sisters and his brother, Harry was alone and homeless. He lived in local shelters for weeks but moved frequently because of harsh curfews and limited stay times. After a month, he was back on the street.
“I was sleeping wherever. I would find certain spots I could hide in and sleep. It was hard, but I made it,” he says.
His experiences with fellow homeless produced a series of “good nights and bad nights,” moments of freedom and times of disparity, loneliness and temptation. He says there were nights he considered robbing a bank or convenience store, but he never attempted it. With the help of his friend Will, he could convince himself not to.
Harry said Will served as his support and protection as they traveled together, working as a team to map out relief efforts around the city and learn the system of survival, memorizing the hours and locations of the help centers, free-meal schedules, which churches and volunteer organizations gave away clothes and supplies, where to bathe.
“They treated us so well it was hard to tell we were homeless,” he says.
Harry was able to maintain an appearance that belied his homeless status. He tried to maintain his health, too, by riding a bicycle daily, substituting exercise for his costly medication. This stopped abruptly when someone stole his bike.
Harry will tell you, however, that theft was the least of his worries. The most difficult part of being homeless is the lack of communication with family, particularly the children.“My kids are my motivation,” he says. “A lot of daddies lose their kids, but my kids stayed by my side no matter what.”
Harry says his children, a 13-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl, have never given up on him. Though he has not been the best role model, he says, he strives to give them good advice. They have remained a large part of his life, though he has not always been a part of theirs.
“Without them, there’s no telling what I’d be doing. I love them.”—Syndi Dunn
Cheryl Gregory dreams of a quiet, anonymous life in the countryside, of a welcoming abode “fixed up just right” with a white fence and manicured garden, of spending her days writing, cooking for loved ones and watching from a rocking chair as grandchildren play.
Then she wakes in a cold cinderblock room in a former convent.
She has never been away from the city. She has never met her grandchildren. And instead of cooking for her family, she prepares meals for a group of women made homeless by domestic violence.
Women like her.
Gregory will tell you she has been through it all. She was a runaway at 12 and pregnant a year later. She’s been through multiple abusive relationships, been in a gang and a mental institution and flirted with homelessness.
“Permanent black eyes, new bruises,” Gregory says in a pained but strong voice. “I had guns pulled on me. I was locked in rooms and raped and beat up.”
It was just a lifestyle.
Gregory has an internal evil twin born of anger and hatred that she battles constantly. Sometimes, she terrifies herself.
She has been mistreated by several men, but her most recent relationship drove her to a breaking point when she was flung into a door after enduring months of physical and verbal abuse.
“I used to lay awake thinking of ways to kill him and get away with it,” Gregory says darkly, figuring neither of them would be alive much longer if they stayed together. At 47, Gregory is tired. Her gray, wiry hair and heavily bagged eyes seem to nod in agreement.
No more drinking. No more drugging. No more men.
Gregory bought a discount bus ticket and rode on a Greyhound for 26 hours from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Baton Rouge to escape her past. She had fled from her abusers before, but always to places within her comfort zone, making it easy to run back into the overbearing arms of those very abusers. This time she has no intention of returning.
She currently lives in a battered women’s shelter, where she takes pride in being the designated chef. The shelter houses 65 survivors, some with young children in tow. Bright amateur murals, inspirational phrases and donated pieces of art adorn the walls.
Though Gregory says she loves the shelter, she doesn’t like Baton Rouge. The city scene, where drugs and alcohol are plentiful, is all too familiar. She is determined to settle down, but she is familiar with the quicksand of temptation.
Gregory plans to relocate to Alexandria, where Hope House will make arrangements for her to live in an apartment paid for by her disability income. She suffers from osteoporosis, spinal arthritis, slipped discs and rheumatoid arthritis in her knee.
Once she moves into her apartment, Gregory plans to spend her days writing a children’s book about the types of situations she experienced while growing up. She will finally meet her grandchildren, for whom she wants to set a positive example. She also wants to spend her time growing closer to God, discovering the person he wants her to be. She knows that person is not violent and angry like her evil twin.
Gregory advises other victims of domestic violence to pray and escape to a distant location where they can start over. In the end, she warns, it will be his life or yours, and he’s not worth it.
Despite her experiences, Gregory continues to have faith and a hope for her future. Her goal is finally within sight. “I came a long way to get here. I’m on my path to righteousness.”—EMILY HERRINGTON
There was no welcome mat for visitors to brush off the dirt when they stepped through Carolyn Walters’ open doorway.
But one wasn’t necessary. Dirt and ash covered the floors and lined the walls of the fire-charred house that Walters once called home, where she slept on a sheet and covered herself with a flattened cardboard box when it was cold.
“I remember being so scared, you know, with people passing by and I didn’t have a door. I stayed in fear, and then it got to the point where I would go get liquor and drink until I passed out. That seemed the only way I could get some sleep.”
In addition to the ravaged house, Walters has lived everywhere from abandoned houses and cars to the apartments of friends or family and underneath the Interstate 10 bridge.
There, Walters says, she could see lighters igniting hits of crack throughout the night, frequently causing police to evict her and the other bridge residents.
She would return as soon as they left, often prostituting herself for drugs.
“I had to do what I had to do,” she says.
Walters eventually found shelter at O’Brien House, a halfway home for alcoholics and substance abusers.
“I went from smoking weed to heroin to cocaine to alcohol and, toward the end, it was basically any mind-altering chemical I could get. I just wanted to stay high all the time,” she says. Walters came to the O’Brien House at the beginning of March after attending a detox center. At the time, she was tired, hadn’t eaten for nearly a week and was so weak she crawled into detox.
Walters says she’s been sober the entire time at the program.
“I don’t feel like I want to use. I haven’t felt like that, but I honestly can say I’m not ready to go back on the streets right now,” she adds.
Part of Walters’ rehabilitation is volunteering in the community. A breast cancer survivor, she now dedicates much of her time to working with fellow breast cancer patients.
She also doesn’t forget her roots.
Cancer, acknowledges Walters, was a convenient way to get her fix of morphine, Xanax and Lortab. “Toward the end, I had started using cancer as a crutch to get medicated.”
Walters says her homelessness left her feeling hopeless. “Everything about me—my whole identity—just left. I was just like a nobody.”
She says, “When I look back on everything that has happened, I don’t feel I would change anything, because if I changed anything that happened, I wouldn’t be who I am now—and today, I like who I am.”—KEVIN THIBODEAUX