In Plain Sight
The Faces of Frederick's Homeless Reveal Hurt and Hope
In the chill of the dark pre-dawn, a bundle of rags hidden between a stone column and bushes rustles and settles. At the sound of footsteps on the sidewalk below, the misshapen lump stirs and a pair of eyes peek out over the top of a ragtag collection of blankets. The look contains fear and wariness; the man stands quickly, packing his belongings, leaving his sleeping place, to cross the road and through a creaking gate, disappearing behind a church nearby.
It’s another day in Frederick’s homeless community—a day that teeters precariously between struggle and survival, determination and despair, isolation and inclusion, and hope and hopelessness.
“The homeless face many of the same struggles as us—emotions, feelings. But the biggest pain, far beyond the feelings of hunger or bite of the cold, is the feelings of rejection and not being accepted,” says Tommy Skaggs, director of development at the Frederick Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides meals and other assistance to the homeless community.
Known in Downtown Frederick as “Drummer Guy,” Donny has lived on the streets for a third of his life. Growing up in Green Valley with his father, his only desire was to be a rock star. “Dad didn’t want me to be a rock star, told me to hit the streets and that’s where I have lived since.” It has been a long journey for Donny, first a few years in Florida and then Nashville with nowhere fixed to live, trying to make his dreams a reality before returning to Frederick six years ago. As we talk, he keeps noticing and picking up small pieces of trash, placing them in a garbage can. “I love this town, I try to keep it clean, you know?”
“The homeless face many of the same struggles as us—emotions, feelings. But the biggest pain, far beyond the feelings of hunger or bite of the cold, is the feelings of rejection and not being accepted,”
He is probably in his mid-to-late 40s, although he claims to be 30. As we talk, he fiddles with the canvas duffel bag containing his drumsticks; even now, his dream is still alive. On this day he is filled with hope—someone has offered him a room and he is impatient for lunchtime to arrive when he will meet and collect the keys. “Then I can work on finding a band,” he says. If the place doesn’t work out, he will continue to sleep on the steps until the cold weather shelter opens. “Then I will be locked up for three months in there.” For now, there is the walk to Frederick Rescue Mission to find a meal, and killing time waiting to see if he has a home.
Nikki, 22, has spent the last five years living on the streets. A native of Thurmont where she occasionally stays with her grandmother, she feels more at home living by her means in Frederick. This is what she sees as her real family, people who accept her as part of the community, who stand by one another and help each other out, despite society’s detachment.
“Everyone looks at us as rags and worthless people,” she says. Currently she lives in a tent with her fiancé and others within an abandoned building, earning money when she needs by working South Street. When we meet, she is happy and upbeat, having recently landed a legitimate daily gig for a couple of weeks—a welcome change from the alternative. “When I finish there, I am tired and go to bed, not going out to try and earn money.”
Demonte arrived in Frederick in 2005 from Columbia and graduated from an alcohol treatment program in 2006. Since then, he has struggled on disability, renting rooms when he can and sleeping in the open whenever the weather accommodates. Most recently, he shared a home on U.S 40, but it was destroyed in a fire. Since then, he has slept in a tent on the outskirts of town, saving his disability checks over the summer in order to be able to afford to rent a room over winter.
Willy, a proud man having worked two jobs most of his life, is close to desperation. At 56, he has been homeless a year. Two years ago he lost his wife to lupus, staying with her at Johns Hopkins Hospital until she passed, all the while battling lymphedema, respiratory and kidney illnesses, cancer, and a stroke that put him in Frederick Memorial Hospital.
“They don’t want you on the streets, but can’t help you get off them.”
Life was not always this grim for Will. He served in the Army in military demolition until 1979, then as a chef at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Md., during the ‘70s and ‘80s, before moving to this area and working in the auto body business until his medical conditions began to escalate. “Doctors told me to quit working, took my life away,” he says, tears filling his eyes.
From living in a five bedroom house that he spent his life working toward, his days now are filled with bouncing between the C. Burr Artz Public Library, scouring newspaper ads, and visits to the Housing Authority in search of a place to stay. “Everywhere is filled up or I’m on a waiting list,” he says. So he spends many of his walks around town looking for somewhere warm and dry to sleep for the night. “They don’t want you on the streets, but can’t help you get off them.” He pauses and looks down the street at a “For Rent” sign. “I never thought I would be homeless.”
William has spent the last couple of years on the streets. Originally from Annapolis, he moved to Frederick with his sister eight years ago. They had a house but the landlord kept raising the rent until they could no longer afford it between them. His sister was able to find a much smaller apartment with government aid, due to having children, but there is not enough room for William.
He leans against a wall, brushing at his Big Dogs fleece sweater and wearing a Frederick Keys ball cap that has seen better days. His eye glasses are more tape than frame, with one lens missing and the other fogged. Accompanied by a hacking cough, he tells me that some days his sister lets him stay with her, but he would rather try to get by on his own.
There is some help he receives in the form of disability checks and the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs provides aid toward the dozen medications he needs, but it is tough for him. Sometimes he is able to stay in a motel for a few nights until the money runs out. When I ask what his biggest hope is, his answer is a new pair of glasses. “Medicaid doesn’t cover glasses, and I really can’t see anything with my glaucoma.”
On the surface Kelly and Ryan are the odd couple. There are more than a few years between them. And while Kelly is calm and wanting to talk about their lives, Ryan fidgets, interjecting and dashing away every few minutes to take care of whatever has caught his attention. Yet, they appear content, their simple needs amounting to each other and a tent. They live in a camp on the outskirts of town—“The Enchanted Forest,” as they call it—and wash themselves in the natural part of Carroll Creek.
When I ask what his biggest hope is, his answer is a new pair of glasses. “Medicaid doesn’t cover glasses, and I really can’t see anything with my glaucoma.”
Kelly was living with her parents until last February when her father lost the house. She stayed in hotels for a few months, then started living at the camp in May. Ryan moved here from Chicago in 2007 to be with his girlfriend but lost his job in 2008 and then they lost their townhome. After splitting with his girlfriend, he stayed in a room above a bar, then hotels before landing on the streets at the same time as Kelly.
Their days are spent scouring the streets looking for money near parking meters and change machines. Kelly is waiting for disability checks and Ryan looks for jobs at restaurants and warehouses. He reminisces about his favorite job, driving a forklift. On this day, their spirits are up having just been offered a motel bed for the night.
While talking with Kelly and Ryan, Sam looked on. His bearing is formal, his speech reserved and considered. He has been living rough for 18 months, mainly Downtown—mainly out of sight or behind bushes—but is now sleeping on his own near the canal.
Following a divorce, he lost hope, not able to keep up with payments, culminating in losing his house. Alcohol plays a controlling part of Sam’s life, its effects on his feelings of isolation and lack of hope transparent. Strangely, his appearance belies his condition, with a Carhartt baseball cap, North Face coat, piercing blue eyes and rugged good looks he could pass for a proud working man, perhaps the master carpenter that he once was.
He still has hopes to get a job, get off the streets, find a woman, get a car, and to live the normal life as he once knew. But he is caught in a mental circle of no hope to find the first step.
Maria and Jake are another couple that live in one of the city’s homeless camps, but their story is not as upbeat as Kelly and Ryan’s. They struggle with people they meet, putting them down, and find this attitude difficult not to give up. They are nonetheless determined to overcome obstacles that are alien to most, such as trying to find somewhere to take a shower before spending a day walking the streets asking for a job.
In February, Maria underwent surgery for spinal stenosis at Johns Hopkins. After 30 days recovery in the hospital, she was straight out into 20-degree weather. Attempts to obtain aid to stay in a hotel have been unsuccessful. They speak of discontent at the camp, tents being cut out and bicycle tires slashed out of malice. As they look at one another, they resolve to keep trying, determined to not spend a winter in the cold weather shelter.