Someone who had been on the bus drove them to the West End, because he knew that a number of homeless people were encamped under or near various expressway overpasses. Most recently, John and Deborah had been living with his mother in North Carolina. Here they were immediately homeless. They wound up sleeping on a piece of Plexiglas, as they leaned against a concrete bridge support. The weather didn’t welcome them that night. It rained. They spent three nights huddled there, as they began to get the lay of the local land, in terms of how to make it as homeless people.
They found a “tent city” nearby where a dozen people had come together in a loose-fitting community. They found themselves welcomed, in a way, but almost immediately, decided to establish their new lives in a separate space. They found a tree-covered area down a steep hill in one of the highway cloverleaves, and began putting together a camp.
Johnny explained that the reason they had chosen our city was because they had discovered, on the internet, that Cincinnati had some 30 temporary agencies. “Had” is the operative word. When they went looking for work here, they found that most of those agencies had left town or disappeared. Like so many others, they began standing on various street corners with “homeless” signs.
As do many homeless visitors, Deborah secured a mailing address at the Homeless Coalition office on 12th Street. Early on, the couple bussed out to Seymour Avenue to a plasma center. Their plan was to sell plasma weekly so they could afford a small efficiency. Both have been drug free for a long time. But the center refused to buy Deborah’s blood because her address indicated she was homeless.
“She came out of there crying,” Johnny said. “It about broke my heart.”
At some point early on, they both began selling the newspaper you are reading. “Street vibes is the only thing that makes us feel like we’ve got a job,” Johnny said. “It was a hand up instead of a handout.”
Deborah is also part of the street vibes Speakers Bureau. She speaks at schools and Churches (she was a featured speaker at the annual Homeless Coalition dinner in December). “It gives me a chance to help,” she said. She enjoys the role so much that it is her hope to go back to school and eventually get a job working as a full-time advocate for the homeless.
Much of the couple’s time has been spent putting together the camp where they spent the last six months. Johnny did a lot of dumpster diving among the old factories and businesses in the West End. He hauled dozens of pallets over a long distance then used them on the walls, as well as for a bed frame. Plywood and various tarps keep out wind and rain.
For windows, he installed several sheets of plexiglass. “At night there’s enough light from the highway lamps coming through those windows, so we can see OK,” he says. He built a small wood stove in the “main room” using a refrigerator shelf. When they cooked they would slide a window open, but much of the smoke stayed inside. Their clothes have reeked of it all winter. “Wherever I went, people started calling me ‘Smokey,’” Deborah says.
People had dumped all kinds of things off the highway and down the wooded hill behind their camp. They tidied up the area and found lots of usable stuff. The extra pallets were broken up and used for firewood. Deborah laughed as she recalled, “At first we only had an ax and a railroad spike to break up the wood.” Later they found a hatchet.
Johnny used 4” x 4” posts to stabilize the walls. “I cut all them 4” x 4”s with a saw I bought at the dollar store,” Johnny says proudly.
Reflecting on the overall project, Deborah says, “It all fit together like a puzzle.”
And Johnny adds, “I told her the Good Lord’s given us everything we need right here. All we got to do is put it together. That’s how we got our home. It ain’t the best home, but its home. After a while, we stopped holding up signs that said we were homeless, because the Good Lord had given us a home.”
They made it through the heart of the winter there, but in December, Deborah went through the long process of using various agencies to help her find an apartment. It took more than two months. In late February, she has now moved into her own Over the Rhine Community Housing apartment on Elm Street. “I love it, but the first night, it was 85 degrees in there. And that was after all those months in the cold. The temperature has come down some now.”
Johnny, along with Allie, the cat they found along the railroad, still lives in the home they built, explaining that if you leave a nice place like theirs, other folks can come and claim it. The camp is special to them.
Although their relationship dates back to when they were kids, the couple has been apart much of the time. Johnny went to jail for five years when he was sixteen (assault). So Deborah dropped out of school and got married. She had three children (now all grown). She proudly shows off a photo of her three grandchildren. The relationship was on-again-off-again for many years, and then it went off entirely. Finally, she wrote Johnny a letter. “It’s been ten years,” the letter said. “Are you ready to try again?”
He was ready, and they’ve been a couple for the last two years.” Jeni Jenkins of the Homeless Coalition is trying to help them find a way to get married. There are many practical reasons for them to get married, but those aren’t as important as the main reason. “Because we love each other,” Deborah says.
Even the long, dark winter of homelessness was a good thing, both agree. Deborah spells it out this way:
“I think it’s drawn us closer together, and made us find out how much we loved and cared about each other, and made us more determined to be together.”
In spite of all the hardships, they are both very happy they made the move to Cincinnati. “I can’t wait to show my grandkids the parks and the library,” she says.
Times are still hard. Johnny is a very resourceful guy, but he had a bunch of DWIs in North Carolina which make it all but impossible for him to find a regular full time job. He plans put together a little recycling business in the spring. He will also try the temp agency thing again. Both of them have their GEDs. Hopefully Deborah will find a job as a waitress and a way to continue her education.
Deborah believes that going around and giving talks about the homeless is helping to reduce homelessness. In fact, she can prove it. Now that she has her own apartment, she says, “I am one less homeless person.”