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 continue to be featured here on Occupy Riverwest (Part I of “Homeless Chronicles”)
Everyone was running around getting their supplies for their own festivities, including me. For some reason I bought enough to have a moderate sized party even though I would be spending it alone. As I purchased my items I knew that more than likely I would just curl up in my nice warm bed with a good book. With my dog laying at my side and my cat curled up comfortably on my pillow above my head, I figured that more than likely I would be sound asleep before the clock came anywhere close to midnight. All through the store people were talking about the cold front coming through.
City of Madison snowplow driver Chaous.
I plow snow for the city, and had worked straight through the so-called blizzard up until Xmas. I had to leave the distribution of toys to homeless kids known as Santas Without Chimneys to other people to take care of. We may have had the streets fairly clear but there was still a lot of clean up to be done. The doors to the Streets Department did not close until Xmas Eve. I had really wanted to be out living with the homeless in the huge snowfall so I could write about it. As my plow truck forced its way through the massive amounts of snow I could only imagine what it was like.
Huddled in a summer sleeping bag with a tarp wrapped around you, if you were lucky, is not the height of comfort. You want to pick out a spot as much out of the wind as possible and out of the way of any plows that might come down an alley and crush you. You shiver in the cold with the wind whipping at your back and the snow piling up around your half frozen body making you look like you are a snow drift. The snow at least keeps the wind off you and helps you retain some precious body heat.
The Capitol and the rest of Madison received over a foot of snow in 24 hours.
The massive amount of snow we received kept us working night and day clearing up vision hazards and hauling snow out. The only real day of rest we received was on Xmas day. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around I was exhausted. As I started putting the stuff I purchased away I got it into my head to go out that night and be homeless. What a perfect night I thought. Cold and with lots of drunks running around. It would be a great night to experience and then share. But things do not always go the way they are planned. I donned my homeless outfit and grabbed my summer sleeping bag. Its all I really own. I haven’t done winter camping in a very long time. And really, if I’m going to do this it is going to be with what they have. For some reason I grabbed two sleeping bags and some extra blankets that were given to me to hand out. I had no conscious plan, I just grabbed out of the blue.
I got up town around 11:30 and the partiers were going full force. I stopped in at The Fountain, my favorite local bar, to let my watch person Craig know what I was up to and where I would be. Some of my friends were there and it made me smile when they didn’t recognize me at first. My friends told me to be safe and gave their well-wishes, and then I was off. The first order of business was to look for the person who, according to Craig, didn’t make it into a shelter. Craig has been helping him and mentoring him. He has been sober for a month and did not have a sleeping bag. I looked in all the usual places for James. I knew he would just keep walking to keep warm with the possibility of trying to get in one of the establishments that might be open. In the course of trying to find James I ran across two other individuals who didn’t have sleeping bags. They were huddled together for warmth in one of the back alleys. I asked where their gear was and they said they didn’t know. It was either stolen, or thrown away. I asked why they were not in the shelter. I was told they were all full and none had room. By this time they were suspicious so I had no choice but to tell them what I was up to. They really seemed to like my idea and were then more open. I gave them my sleeping bag and went back to the truck for the other bag and the blankets. Leaving my backpack in my truck I carried the goods to my new friends. They gratefully accepted the sleeping bags and blankets. I knew they wouldn’t stay in this alley for long due to a security guard that always comes along. So I asked where they would be. At first they were reluctant but when I explain I wanted to know for my own safety as well as theirs they told me.
It was still before bar time and my feet and hands were frozen and I now had no gear. I went back to The Fountain and let Craig know I wasn’t sure how long I would last outside now, but promised to let him know when I would head for my nice warm apartment. I went back out and remembered that a friend of a friend had offered his sleeping bag to me for the homeless that I hadn’t had a chance to pick up. So hoping he was up I called. He brought me the sleeping bag and I was set again. I then remember I left my backpack in my truck. You cannot look homeless without the right stuff.
I was damned tired from all the walking, but it kept me warm except for my hands and feet. As I walked to my truck it then occurred to me why we always see the homeless sitting in the sun during the day taking cat naps. After walking all night you need some kind of sleep and it has to be in catnaps. You never know when the cops will try to roust you, or someone will try and take your stuff or try to harm you. As I got to my truck I looked around and spotted another. He was in a window sill with three blankets so thin I wouldn’t give them to my dog for a bed. I walked over to him and he was shivering violently. I made him take the sleeping bag after convincing him there was no catch. I stood their as he got into the sleeping bag. As he pulled the blankets off I noticed he was using an old trick to help keep him warm. His boots were off and both feet were shoved into one plastic bag. As I watched him rolling around and getting settled I wondered if he would even make it through the night. At that point I didn’t know how cold it was but knew it had to be close to zero degrees with the windchill well below zero.
I ran back to The Fountain. It was getting ready to close and I asked for a large cup of hot coffee. They gave me two big cups and I ran them back to Belaire, the man I had just left. Again I stood watch and made him drink the hot liquid and while he did he told me his story…
Homeless people will try to find spots that are sheltered from the strong winter winds.
He wasn’t out of the shelter because it was to full, but because he had psoriasis. At the shelters, they wash the blankets maybe once every two weeks and you don’t get the same blanket every time. Some people are not very clean, or may have a bad cold or some type of infection. Belaire told me he watched people blow their noses on the blankets. Between that and the bedbugs and lice, he said that for his own health he stays away.
By this time I was worried about getting hypothermia myself. I couldn’t feel my feet or my hands. The cold had finely gotten into my layers and I was trying not to shiver.
Belaire also has PTSD from childhood and from being a vet. He cannot stay around large groups of people. He also told me that men frighten him and he wont talk to them. If I had been a man offering him a sleeping bag he would have turned his back to me. He doesn’t “drink smoke or do dope,” his words, not mine. He gets some money but has to choose between eating good food or having a place to sleep. His choice is to eat well. He calls himself a camper and hiker for life. He is a born and bred Wisconsinite. He actually knew my family from the Lafarge area. I was worried about the temperature and so I also gave him my emergency truck blanket. His shivering had slowed but not enough to satisfy me. I asked him where his gear was and he told me it was a good 9 blocks away hidden somewhere. He didn’t think he would have been able to make it there to retrieve his gear. He made the choice to stop where he was and try to stay warm and out of the biting wind.
I knew I couldn’t stay out any longer. I was getting dangerously close to hypothermia. I also couldn’t leave these people without one more call for help. I called the guy who brought me the sleeping bag and asked for three large cups of hot water. As hot as he could make it. He brought the water with tea bags to me in three large thermos cups that he didn’t want back. I made my rounds. Even walking at this point wouldn’t warm me up and it was also difficult to walk when you can no longer feel your feet. I took two of the cups to the original guys. They told me that they didn’t think they would have made the night without the hot tea. They assured me that now they would make it. I made my way back to Belaire who still didn’t look good and gave him the tea. I was now stumbling a little and I’m sure I looked like i was drunk. I stayed until Belaire drank the tea and told him I really had to go now. He didn’t want me too but I was moving beyond my safe point. Before I left I asked one last question.. “Are you worried about not waking up the next day?” He answered thoughtfully, “No, if I don’t wake up then I don’t wake up. If I wake up then I wake up. They both amount to the same thing….”
I got into my little red truck and cranked the heat and drove home. I live 20 minutes away from Madison’s downtown. I never felt the heat from the lil red truck and the whole way and my hands hurt. I got home and the feeling started to come back to my feet. I checked myself for frostbite and it took an hour before my feet quit hurting. Two hours, even after a hot bath that they actually got warm again. I took a two hour nap and woke up starving. Your body uses up all your fuel in trying to stay warm and I ate as much as I could. I was then off and running to check on the guys. I needed to know they made it through the night. To my relief they all did, even Belaire.
So instead of playing homeless I turned advocate. Oh and the revelers of the night never noticed a thing except trying to get to the next bar before they got too cold. After all, it was New Year’s Eve.