Local Man Lives Outside the Shelter

by Kevin E. Cleary

     There is a certain stigma attached to homeless people who live outside the shelter system. They are often stereotyped as mentally ill, but often these individuals have very good reasons for refusing to stay in Cleveland’s homeless shelters. They often suffer from a forced transience brought on by life on the street. Many seek shelter under bridges or in abandoned buildings.

     Joseph Smith is one such individual. He tried to stay at the 2100 Lakeside shelter a number of years ago, but found it difficult to sleep and had very little privacy. Unhappy at the shelter, he lived instead under the Carnegie Bridge for a while until March of 2001, when work on the bridge prevented him from dwelling there any longer. It was then he moved into an abandoned factory building near the Flats.

     Mr. Smith collects scrap metal and other assorted items to earn a living. He has used many of these materials to rehabilitate the property that he has been occupying for more than 4 years. Hidden in an expanse of rubble and overgrown shrubbery, the building is most noticeable for its decrepit condition and graffiti.

     Much of the graffiti was written by Mr. Smith himself; hoping to warn away trespassers who would intrude on his privacy or threaten him. He sheepishly explained a particularly offensive piece of graffiti “I hate fags,” was written not out of homophobia, but in an attempt to intimidate individuals who had threatened to rape him.

     All of his worldly possessions resided with him, discarded items for which he finds use or the occasional profit. Mr. Smith is both enterprising and largely self-sufficient. He made improvements to the building through ingenuity and sweat. He transported items to his home in a shopping cart he kept chained to a nearby railing. He wrote poetry and musings on his pantries to keep himself occupied during cold winter nights.

     His four years of hard work will soon be down the drain as Forrest City Management plans to tear down the property that was Mr. Smith’s home. Forrest City could not be reached for comment, but Mr. Smith believes his home is being torn down merely to evict him. Since the building was never intended for residential use and Mr. Smith was effectively squatting on the site, he had no legal recourse to challenge his forced departure. As of this writing, he is en route to Kentucky and plans to make his living through subsistence farming and odd jobs.

     He was previously planning to move toward the front of the building in the Flats in preparation for winter. He had added metalwork to the front roof and inner wall and brought in a stove for warmth and heat, and was trying to find appropriate ductwork for ventilation.

     His comings and goings over the past four years had generated little controversy, though he states that some of the employees of an adjoining facility had recently taunted him about his forced departure, which he attributes partly to jealousy.

     “The dude told me, ‘I got a mortgage and you don’t.’ That’s just ridiculous. This place ain’t worth a mortgage. Anything that’s good in there, I put there.”

     While he was concerned about losing many items he had collected over his 4 years in the building that he couldn’t afford to transport those to Kentucky, he still seemed optimistic about the move. He expressed mixed emotions about leaving.

     “The cement’s cold in the winter. There aren’t any boots you can find that’ll keep you warm in the winter . . . And now since I’m fixing it up they don’t want me in here. It was fine as long as I was suffering. I just wanted a nice place for the winter.”

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 71 August 2005 Cleveland, Ohio.