Madison, WI - The treatment of Madison’s homeless population has recently been in the spotlight, as the city has forcible evicted Occupy Madison and a homeless encampment from several different locations. This cruel and callous government treatment of the growing homeless population has prompted Madison activist Chaous to embed herself with the city’s homeless population in an effort to receive a firsthand account of what life really is like for a Madison’s homeless population. She is secretly documenting unusual or negative interactions with anyone outside of the homeless population via a Ustreaming (live online video) application on her phone. This “Homeless Chronicles” series of Chaous’ experiences as an embedded homeless woman will be featured here on Occupy Riverwest.
First Night Out
My first night out as a homeless person was fairly uneventful but heart warming. I carefully chose my layers. I needed to stay warm but also needed the ability to move fast if needed. This is Madison but lets face it, its really not as safe as people like to think. I couldn’t wear my warmest jacket either as it is pretty noticeable. After getting ready I tossed my backpack and sleeping bag into the truck and headed up town.
Once I reached my destination I decided to forgo the sleeping bag. I had a pretty busy day ahead and knew it would be more of a pain in the butt. Grabbing my backpack I was off. I walked down state street and back up. I stopped in at the fountain to let Craig know what I was up to and what area I would be in. I was quite amused by the fact no one recognized me. Like an idiot I stayed long enough to have a root beer. Then I started at Veterans Plaza.
Madison’s homeless population often sleep standing over building heating vents to try and stay warm in the winter months.
It was spitting snow off and on but it wasn’t too cold yet. If you could get out of the wind it was almost warm. I think the temp was around 35. One guy was sleeping standing up under the oven heat vent for ians. You have to sleep standing up most of the time because the cops will get you for loitering if you don’t. One guy was on the other side wrapped up in blankets and a tarp. I sat down in the plaza and did what most do. Stare at nothing and watch everything.
The bars were starting to close down at this point and I watched a drunken couple dancing a waltz across from me by the bus shelter. Young, old, suits and ties, tattered jeans, high heals to tennies. They were all pretty trashed. But did the cop slow down to check out any of them? No, he slowed down to watch the dangerous homeless person sitting down trying to keep warm and minding my own business.
A young college girl walked up and asked to bum a smoke. I thought to myself that they give tickets to homeless people for this very thing. She sat down next to me and said her boyfriend told her to ask me for one. She told him she couldn’t ask a homeless person but he goaded her into it. I just smiled and gave her one. She offered to pay me for it but I said no. She reached into her pocket and tried to give me 7 bucks. I told her to keep it and if someone asked her for one later on in life to give one to them. That was payback enough. She kept asking if I was sure then once satisfied with my answer she then asked if I needed a warm place to sleep for the night. I again convinced her I was ok and she finely left.
Madison police squad that was patrolling State Street’s homeless population.
The cop comes by again slowly. By now the cold has definitely creeped into my clothes and my toes were getting quite cold even with -60 socks on. I think I will write to the company and tell them their socks suck!
Another lady comes by and started giving us homeless people five bucks. She came up to me but again I refused the money. I told her other people needed it more then me and sent her to the car campers.
After a bit I got up and walked around the plaza a little trying to warm up. I was considering going back to the truck for my sleeping bag. The temp was down to 32 which isn’t really cold unless your in the cold continuously. I work outside but I wasn’t working.
The guy rolled up in the tarp woke up. He walked over wanting to know the time so I told him. He wandered off in search of a bathroom but no one seemed to let him use one. He came back over to me and asked if I needed a blanket. He had extra and was willing to let me have one so I didn’t get cold.
At this point I started to need a restroom myself. The Fountain was closed along with the other bars. The only place still open was a pizza place and they wouldn’t let me use theirs. I wont tell you much more about it except if your homeless and a woman, do not be an idiot and drink anything. Especially root beer at the Fountain.
Besides the cop coming around again and again it was uneventful. I ended up moving away from vets plaza because I didn’t want my cover blown yet. I did notice though that it seems like the ones who care seem to be women and other homeless. I will keep a tally and see which category wins the caring more for others title.
So far the tally is
After working 14 hours I headed for home and got all snugly in my pj’s and climbed into bed. I lay awake for a bit listening to “the mouth” chattering away to his mom in a nearby room. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep. I’d been going so hard that anything over three hours of sleep seemed to be too much. So I donned my “street” clothes and headed up town.
I parked my truck and and again laughed at my stupidity. I had attended a family function last Saturday and to make room in the truck for Sara I tossed my sleeping bag into the back. I knew that I wanted to be warmer than the other night and it was quite damp out. So there was my sleeping bag in the back of the truck, all covered in snow. As I brushed off the snow I could only hope the cover was water proof. Dodging snow and slush as much as I could I walked up to my “spot” and looked around. The two guys who were there the last time were there again. I was relieved. For one, familiar faces gave me comfort and two, I knew they were okay and no harm had befallen them. This time the top of State Street was quiet. The snow had pretty much quit but it was misting and very damp.
A cop cruised slowly by.
I sat down and pulled my sleeping bag out of its sodden cover. My fears were realized; the sleeping bag was soaked. I could only hope I had enough layers on to keep me dry as I wrapped myself up in it. I figured it could at least break some of the wind, or that was the logic behind my thoughts, even if it was flawed logic. I hadn’t had much sleep. That was my excuse and I am sticking with it. Funny how it didn’t seem to be windy when I was in my nice warm cozy plow truck.
As I felt the water from the sleeping bag slowly seeping into my clothes I thought about this latest development. I know from my own past that its hard to stay dry when you live outside. From Tami’s “pot luck” every Saturday we know this is an issue. Street people come to her and Connie asking for either a different sleeping bag that’s dry or maybe some quarters so they could dry them in a laundromat. So what, Dear Reader, do we do about this? Wet sleeping bags will not keep you warm or dry and can be very hazardous to your health. We could get water proof covers but those only work while the sleeping bag is in it. Garbage bags rip eventually and only work if they cover the bags. Maybe small tarps to wrap around the sleeping bags as they sleep would help? I think that this is something we definitely need to work on.
The cop cruised slowly by again.
Wrapped up in a soaking sleeping bag I snuggled up to the nice hard cold cement wall and ducked down as much as I could to escape the wind. Very few people were out and those that were kept there noses down into their scarfs, looking down at the ground and scurrying off to their destinations. Off around the corner I heard one of our city plow trucks clanking away down State Street. I watched as they drove by intent upon their job. I couldn’t see who it was and knew they wouldn’t recognize me even if they had looked over and I waved. I never understood how loud those trucks were till I tried snatching a few minutes of sleep out on the street. I could hear it from a few blocks away.
The cop stopped this time and stared right at me. He continued on after a few moments. I knew that it was only a matter of time until they tried and roust me from my “spot”. I was ready for it though. My phone sat with me locked and loaded, ready to ustream at a moments notice.
The belongings of a homeless person sleeping on State Street.
About 4am my clothes were totally soaked from my wet sleeping bag. Not moving was better than moving. Even though the clothes that were touching me were bone cold, the area that wasn’t touching was even colder. I needed to get some type of sleep before going to work but I really didn’t want to walk the few blocks to my truck. I just knew I would get colder once I got out of the sleeping bag. I finely just bit the bullet and climbed out into the wind. And yes it was much, much colder.
Think back to when you were a kid and had gone sledding. Remember how wet you got and how cold and miserable you felt walking home? But you got to go home, put on dry clothes, and drink something hot. You didn’t have to stay outside in the cold with wet clothes and nothing warm to drink. You got to go to a nice warm bed instead of waking up and wondering if you would ever feel warm again.
As I sit here typing this I wonder about another thing. Can lack of sleep make you go nuts? I’m a snow plow driver and I’m used to getting very little sleep. I am awake but things are very bright and crisp. Even I will need to play catch up soon. So how do the homeless do it? You do not get any real sleep when you have to worry about what could happen to you. Jerks throw things at you,and you live with the constant fear and threat of rape, or cops chase you from place to place because you can’t loiter. Noisy ass trucks drive by throughout the night, and you wonder if you’ll even wake up the next day. That’s life on the streets. That is the night soaked to the bone on your cement bed.
I will be out there again as soon as I can in order to tell these stories.
Where Can We Live? from Occupy Riverwest on Vimeo.