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    On Wednesday, Louisville City FC announced plans to build a 10,000-seat stadium in Butchertown. In the center of the development site: a homeless camp.—Ed.

    This story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Louisville Magazine.

    "Where They Don't Belong"
    By Arielle Christian
    Photos by Mickie Winters

    *Subjects didn't disclose full names.

    The cats are back. In a pack. Cat City. Four, five, now six of them crunch fall leaves — low, crouching. They know there’s food here and meow into a growl, then meow again. Nobody at Camp 211, the homeless encampment off River Road on the edge of Butchertown, claims these strays. 

    Younger Matt tears his chicken sandwich into scraps. He rises from his plastic lawn chair and steps off the porch, a found wood pallet in front of his tarp-covered tent where the crew hangs. He walks past the brick-circled fire pit and puts the chicken and bread pieces on the dirt. 

    “You might want to spread that out so they don’t attack each other,” Brandy says. She’s Younger Matt’s girlfriend, the only woman in Camp 211 and the youngest, 24 years old. She doesn’t mind hanging with only guys. Prefers it that way. Always has. Girls can be too much trouble.

    “That black cat’s waiting,” Larry* says. He’s 67, the oldest at camp. Everyone here jokes he’s an old fart and pokes the crusty icing on his imaginary birthday cake. He doesn’t care. He’s happy-go-lucky, always teasing. Doesn’t want to hear no sad shit, OK?

    The cats swarm. Meow, meow, meow.

    “They used to stay up over the hill, in the junkyard,” Younger Matt says. “They don’t stay up there anymore.” 

    “Not since they cut down all those trees by the railroad tracks,” Brandy says. 

    “Not since they run us out,” Larry says. “I had a tent you could put a van in at Campbell Camp, OK? They tore it up when they came through with that Cat (earthmover), shredding things to pieces.”

    Image: One of the homeless camps near River Road.

    Camp 211ers aren’t far from where they once lived in Campbell Camp, which was the largest and longest-running homeless camp in Louisville until its disintegration beginning this past August. Started in 1987, the camp, also known as Tent City, had been home to hundreds through the years, including 37 people when R.J. Corman Railroad Group officials announced it was kicking the homeless off its property. Operational and public-safety reasons. After decades of pedestrians and debris on the track and reports of fatal accidents and crime, the camp had to go. Noel Rush, vice president of finance and administration for R.J. Corman, says the clearing didn’t start until Oct. 6 because the company wanted to give those living on the property plenty of time to make the transition. 

    The transition meant division. You five go here, you guys go this way, we’ll head over yonder. R.J. Corman worked with Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit founded in 1986 with a mission to prevent and end homelessness in the city by working with 29 homeless shelters, plus agencies and advocacy groups. The Coalition provided shelter information to Campbell Campers. Few went with that option. “Two people called to get shelter beds,” says Natalie Harris, executive director for the Coalition. “Those were both women.” 

    The others scattered. Kept to the core groups they had grown to know and found comfortable. For Camp 211, at the nonexistent address of 211 N. Campbell St., that family is seven folks total, including Travis, once he’s back from jail. A handful of people assembled another base, Camp Spider. Some went their own way in the woods or finally got an apartment. Most encampments are near River Road, because of the woodsy hideouts and proximity to downtown homeless facilities, such as lunch or laundry. Kiddie Camp, a collection of mainly 20- to 40-somethings, was around before Campbell Camp broke up. 

    According to 2013’s Louisville Homeless Census, 8,608 “unduplicated” homeless people — both sheltered and unsheltered — lived within the city throughout the year, a 2 percent decrease from 2012. An estimated 1,500 people are homeless, in a shelter or on the streets, on any given night. The census says the number of unsheltered individuals, 228 people, is likely an undercount due to the difficulty in keeping track of this population group. The 2014 attempt at a census count will be on Dec. 31. Harris doesn’t know how many encampments there are in Louisville. Is an encampment one person? How does one define it?

    Campbell Camp’s clearing began with the October shredding. What was once woods became mulch mixed with busted flip-flops and pieces of tarp. Trees, tents left behind, old coolers now cut in half, split plastic bottles, trash everywhere — the same matter multiplied. There was the old camp, completely wide open. Camp 211ers walked through to see what they could find, but the Caterpillar had chopped and demolished everything. 

    On one spot on the Hill, a designated section of the old confines — along with the South 40 (lower grounds) and the Shoot (trail entrance) — lie playing cards. Most are face down in the scattered wood spikes, but a queen of clubs (symbolically, it means non-domestic) and an ace of spades (death) face up.

    Following the clearing came days of debris removal. 

    Then the signs: No Trespassing.


    Camp 211

    A flimsy “No Public Parking” sign jacked from a lamppost balances on some branches. On another tree, a couple sets of gloves cover limbs. Tree hands. A rake leans against a tree’s small trunk. It’s a never-ending cycle out here. The leaves fall, you rake ’em. The leaves fall, you rake ’em. Since it’s been wet, the campers leave the leaves to cover the mud. The yellow, orange and brown hues add to the collection of October on the ground. 

    Most of the items — tents, tarps, sleeping bags, chairs, mugs, silverware, coolers, an old grill — are donations or were found. Donations are how the homeless sustain themselves. The tents and tarps blend with nature. They’re camouflage: dark green, tan. It’s a form of protection.

    It’s Larry’s turn to shuffle. He accidentally deals everybody six cards instead of seven. Earlier they played Rummy. Now it’s Kings Corners. The game is like Solitaire, with people. Larry deals in Brandy, Younger Matt, Older Matt and Nate. Curtis sits back, a little outside the circle. Everybody has beer. The guys drink 24-ounce cans of Milwaukee’s Best Ice and Brandy has a Steel Reserve “Blk Berry.” There’s more beer in a bag by Younger Matt’s feet. It’s a long walk to the BP at South Hancock Street and Broadway — the homeless gas station, as Brandy calls it, because that’s where she says all the hobos hang. Best to have extra. Though sometimes it’s not enough.

    This is the typical scenario in this camp. Drinks. Cards. This round ends when Older Matt puts down his last card.

    “He’s out!” Brandy says.

    “He didn’t finish playing the hand,” Larry says.

    “I don’t have to do that! I’m out!” Older Matt says.

    “If you’ve still got a play on the table, you’ve got to finish the card, OK?” Larry says.

    “I’ve never heard that one before,” Older Matt says.

    “He’s cheating. Lord, he’s cheating,” Larry says with a chuckle. 

    Nate says something, but he speaks so quietly that the others can’t hear him over the hand-held radio tuned to rock. They all give Nate a hard time about this by dramatically moving their mouths without saying words. He says he talks low because he has sensitive hearing, with all sounds intensified: himself, the conversation, radio, a squirrel, plane overhead, the constant city whir not too far away.

    Image: Nate

    “I’ve got to take a piss. May I use your walls?” Younger Matt asks nobody in particular. It’s a joke among them, because: What walls? The closest thing to a wall is the tall hill with an old train track running across the top. It separates them from the gagging stink of nearby Tasman Industries’ cattle-hide-processing buildings. 

    As for the pissing, that happens anywhere. “Go wherever you feel froggy,” Curtis says. Stay away from the tents. Younger Matt jokes that Brandy’s “pee trail” of used toilet paper looks like Halloween decorations. The oversized hoodie she wears is neon-orange, and again Younger Matt jokes Halloween. Fitting, because the holiday is only a couple of weeks away. They’ve got a pumpkin not yet carved.

    Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” comes on the radio and Older Matt lip-syncs to himself, his singing revealing just a couple of teeth. He pumps his left fist and draws it into his chest on “More! More! More!” Almost 49 years old, he must’ve been 18 or so when this song first came out. He’s been homeless for six years and knows that living in an encampment means a lesser chance of being harassed by the police than in a public space or an abandoned house. Knows that everyone here is here for different reasons, but they congregate because they have similar views. 

    The next song is Ozzy Osbourne, and Curtis is excited. He’s a metal and hard-rock fan. Van Halen, Motley Crew and “Kissssssssss” are his favorites. When he worked at Stagehands, a Local 17 union job on Breckinridge Street affiliated with theatrical stage employees, he got paid $17.50 an hour, plus Kiss, Ted Nugent and Skid Row. Can’t beat that. Once he dropped $78 for a Kiss and Mötley Crüe show but didn’t get to see it because three guys jumped him before he got in. They broke two of his ribs, stole the tickets and his half-gallon of vodka. He says he’s had almost all of his ribs broken at some point or another. Now it’s his back that hurts. Compression fracture.

    It’s getting dark. Harder to see the game in its third or fourth round. Larry turns on a small battery-powered lantern. The light is bright white. “Does that help or hurt?” he asks. “Is it OK? I need it to see.” 

    Larry’s glasses are rectangular and thinly wire-rimmed, lens strength weak. Through them you see his ice-blue eyes that are sometimes green. Change with the weather or his mood, he supposes. His hair is gray but thick, puffs out the side of his University of Louisville ball cap. It used to be long and blond in the ’60s, he says, almost down to the ass of him, OK? When he wins at Kings Corners, he does a self-clasping handshake. 

    “You’re blinding us all by moving that lantern!” Brandy shouts. She’s not exactly pushy, but dominant. Tough for her innocent looks: skinny with blond hair. Must be because she’s the oldest of eight siblings. 

    “I’m trying to help ya,” Larry says. “Need some help? Got insurance?” 

    “No!” she says.

    “I ain’t helping you then.” 

    The wheel in the sky keeps on turning and eventually it gets too dark to play. 

    Larry grabs his green plastic lawn chair and Brandy grabs another beer and they head to the fire. Into the pit, Younger Matt teepees sticks Brandy gathered earlier. Curtis, Nate and Older Matt stay near the porch. 

    “I went and got my mail today,” Curtis says. “Got a letter that said I’ve got an audit on November fourth for my food stamps. Five years I’ve had my card; that’s the first time I got one of those.” He gets his mail at the Louisville Rescue Mission downtown on Jefferson Street. He got an “Obama” phone (all of the campers have one, unless they’ve lost it) from a First Links pop-up stand that offers free cell phones to low-income people and the homeless. Curtis gets 250 minutes a month. In mid-October he has 51 left.

    “Telling ya, it’s an election year,” Nate says. It’s easier to hear him since he’s moved closer and because Brandy took the radio with her, flipping it to country. 

    “‘What’d you do with your food stamps?’” Curtis says in a mocking voice. He has a tan complexion, round cheeks, dark eyes, dark hair, dark mustache. “Look on your computer; it’ll tell ya! I went to the grocery store!” With the food stamps, he can’t buy tobacco, beer, cat or dog food, or anything hot from the deli. No hot wings.

    “I don’t think voting does much good,” Nate says. 

    “I’ll vote for whoever gets rid of the mayor we’ve got now,” Curtis says. “’Cause he wants to get rid of the homeless. He got rid of those at the underpass on Brook Street. Got rid of those at the botanical gardens. (He’s talking about the fledgling Waterfront Botanical Gardens, a $35-million project on 22 acres off Frankfort Avenue and River Road. The city is leasing the land to a group called Botanica for $1 a year.) They closed Chaos Camp — the one behind Stop Lite Liquor on River Road. The fire department went back there with fire trucks, sprayed the whole thing until tents collapsed.”

    “Politics,” Nate says. His blue eyes are intense. “It’s all bullshit. You’re getting screwed by one party or the other. You get rid of the group you have now and you’ll have something 10 or 20 years later that’s...”

    “Just as bad,” Older Matt says. The nearby fire illuminates only half of his face and his hands as he gestures his point. The other guys’ backs are to the fire, and they appear as silhouettes. 

    “Just as bad,” Nate says. “Just with a different name.”

    “If not immediately,” Older Matt says.

    “Well, no, it never happens immediately,” Nate says. “Anytime there’s a revolution, you end up with this chaotic mess of years. You’re trying to reorganize the infrastructure itself. Russia has been through it seven or eight times.” History intrigues him, though he says the victor writes it. Nate never finished college in Missouri, studying computer sciences with an emphasis on information technology. No point in trying that again. He says it’d be impossible to get an IT job with a burglary charge. An issue of security.

    “Our president has turned into the Queen of England,” Curtis says. “He’s just a figurehead. Congress makes all the decisions.” 

    “No, not true, not true,” Older Matt says. He lights a cigarette. The fire funnels into a glowing point. “The Bush Administration gives testament to that not being true.”

    “They’re all puppets,” Nate says. “They’re all figureheads.” 

    “I think it comes down to the bankers myself,” Older Matt says.

    “It’s down to an oligarchy,” Nate says. “It’s the monetary fund. You control the money, you control everything. But money doesn’t exist. I mean, it’s a paper thing you can lay in front of you, but it doesn’t exist.”

    “I agree,” Older Matt says. “There’s a quote I love: ‘Control the coinage and the courts — let the rabble have the rest.’ From a book I read. Frank Herbert. Dune. I’m a big Dune-head.”

    “Yeah, money was the fuck-up to begin with,” Nate says. “We were better with a trade-and-barter system. Because then it was determined by the two people bartering what the two items or services are worth. There’s manipulation in numbers. Success is an individual thing.” 

    “You’re a sharp tack there, Nate,” Older Matt says. “A sharp tack. I love you for it.”

    Curtis says, “Y’all read so much, who said this one?”

    “Talk to me, brother,” Older Matt says.

    “‘Quit screwing up my life, and I’ll be happy,’” Curtis says.

    “Why, that’d be Curtis,” Older Matt says.

    Curtis says, “Yep.”


    When Travis returns to Camp 211 from jail, back from his punishment for violating an emergency protective order (he says he was walking with his ex down the street), he tells the Camp 211ers he’s been on vacation. The Keys. 

    “They were sure holding the keys all right,” Larry says.

    Later, Travis says, “Camping ain’t like it is in the brochure. I’ve seen ’em canoeing in the brochure. If I knew they were sending me here, I wouldn’t have come. I’m gonna sue my travel agent.” 

    Image: Nate sits on "the porch," where the campers sometimes congregate.

    Nate used a baseball bat. Bunted it hard into the Army Surplus Store front window, bottom right corner. It was pretty much a straight shot to the bulletproof vests near the back of the shop. He took two of the folded vests and entered the 11:30 p.m. quiet of downtown St. Joseph, Missouri, his hometown north of Kansas City.

    It was one of those “Hey, babe, don’t worry about it; I’ll figure it out” things. Nate had lost his job in shipping and receiving at Walmart. His girlfriend at the time was two months pregnant. Money was tight. He figured he could sell the vests for half price, $600 each, to someone in the “’hood.” But after a week, no takers. After two, the cops. (His girlfriend eventually had a miscarriage at four months.)

    Three and a half years in correctional and diagnostic centers and then parole. But Nate couldn’t do parole. After prison, he says he “didn’t give a fuck.” He smoked a lot of weed. Drank. Nate was back to the crazy ways of the days after his first girlfriend died in a car crash when he was 18. Nate crashed metaphorically. It was a volatile relationship, but it was love. “Brooke ’85-’04” is tattooed on his left shoulder, his only ink. 

    All in all, Nate did six years time and was homeless for an eight-month stint, sleeping in abandoned houses. He says he doesn’t like the dorms in shelters because they remind him of prison bunks. “You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference,” he says.

    It was a long walk from Batesville, Indiana — where he’d moved for a girl — to Louisville, which he picked arbitrarily. The only thing Nate knew about the city beforehand was horses and tiny souvenir baseball bats. He didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket, though he’d been working at a factory on the metal-stamping press. He says he had enough for a couple packs of smokes and a 20-ounce Coke. 

    It rained three of the four days he spent walking. He’d duck in places here or there for sleep. Once he slept for three hours under a bridge by a creek. It was pouring. Mosquitoes kept waking him up. He doesn’t get it about mosquitoes. Do they have a point?


    Usually, Camp 211 goes as a group to Bologna Alley, the nickname for the Cathedral of the Assumption’s Sandefur Dining Hall on Fifth Street, but Larry wanted to get out early this late-October morning. The others decided to stay at camp. Not even 11 a.m., he walked with Nate to Main Street, then alone caught a free trolley going west. Nate kept walking to the Franciscan Kitchen on South Preston Street. Both places are open for lunch on weekdays and serve anybody who’s hungry. Bologna Alley has bologna sandwiches. It’s usually chicken at Franciscan. (The Coalition’s booklet of street tips lists nine places open for lunch, providing the times and addresses for each.)

    The cathedral’s bells ring at 11:30 and already Larry and 26 others are waiting. It’s sprinkling. Some teenagers walk up with their vibrant ball caps flipped to the side or backward. Here it’s a mix of street sleepers, campers and those in permanent housing or shelters. Once inside, Larry eats everything in order: finishes his soup before he starts on the bologna sandwich and ends with cherry cobbler. When he leaves, he lights a cigarette. He’s been smoking since he was 12 growing up in Louisville. He’s got a bad cough that wakes everyone up at camp in the morning. Despite this, he says he’s healthy, OK?

    Despite his past with a dope addiction that sent him state to state to state, breaking into drugstores for morphine and eight-ounce bottles of “cocaine” (actually a numbing agent prescribed for babies’ teething troubles), he says he’s healthy. (He got locked up multiple times for these crimes, including five years in an Indiana penitentiary.) Despite the occasional seizure and once walking out of St. Joseph’s Infirmary in only his hospital gown to drink at Freddie’s on Broadway with the whole ass of him showing, he’s healthy, OK? Despite getting into many fights downtown, many stitches, he doesn’t need any aspirin, OK?

    Once a brand-new car coming out of downtown’s Brown Bros. Cadillac hit him. His legs were so bruised they looked like someone paint-brushed them black. His nurse cussed and cussed him, he says, shouting, “You son of a bitch, you ain’t quittin’ on me!” Thank God for her. He wouldn’t have been able to walk otherwise. He receives a Social Security check for disability benefits each month. Some of that goes toward all that beer.

    Now that he’s older, he uses a cane. Bets he has six of them lying around camp. He’ll set one down in the dark and Brandy or one of the guys will have to help him find it. Today’s is plain silver. He uses it to board the trolley headed home. 

    Back at 211, things are in disarray. Brandy and Younger Matt are the only people here when Larry returns. Usually the group keeps stuff straight around here. But two Louisville Metro Police Department officers came to the camp the day before yesterday and said the campers had to go. They don’t belong here. It’s considered trespassing. Trespassing is illegal. 

    Last night got a little raucous because of the news. Some got good and drunk. Today there are a bunch of clothes in the fire, a couple of lawn chairs. The fire was so big it melted a bit of Older Matt’s tarp. His tent was closest to the fire, but he moved it this morning. He’s gone to a spot in the woods by himself. 

    Nate will too, eventually. He’ll borrow a shopping cart from another camp, load up shop, and walk 45 minutes down the road to solitude. He needs tranquility for a bit. “Peace is an ongoing process,” he says. He’s 29 but an old soul. Though he talks to his mom every now and then with his First Links phone, he never mentions his living situation. She’d worry too much. He says he wants to find a job, save for an apartment, including the deposit and several months’ rent. Enough to get him off the streets; well, out of the woods. He’s applied at Amazon in Jeffersonville. For now his blankets, tarps and tent are folded in a pile, ready. 

    Brandy and Younger Matt are on the porch smoking self-rolled cigarettes. Larry sits down in his chair. Luckily, his didn’t get burned.

    “We’ve got to figure out where the fuck we’re going to go,” Brandy says. For a while she stayed at Wayside Christian Mission, a shelter with many programs and facilities, including a hotel on Broadway where Brandy worked in housekeeping. She says she made $1.50 a day but eventually got kicked out because she and a friend came back Lime-a-Rita drunk after curfew. 

    “They’ll either give us a citation or lock us up,” Larry says.

    “They didn’t give us a time we had to go,” Brandy says.

    “They didn’t give us any time at all,” Younger Matt says.

    “If they come back, they’re likely to give us some time,” Larry says. He doesn’t know what he’ll do. He claims to have been unjustly ripped off by landlords before and doesn’t want to deal with them. 

    Younger Matt has one of 41 single-occupancy rooms at the YMCA on West Chestnut Street, which offers a transitional shelter for homeless men in the community. But he doesn’t stay there because of the bed bugs that he says infest it. This is the most repeated reason across encampments for avoiding shelters. Bed bugs. Lice. Roaches. They say it’s cleaner in the dirt, that many shelters are overcrowded and who knows what comes from where. (Shelters are required to undergo health inspections and a Codes and Regulations check yearly.)

    And there’s never a promise of getting a bed at a shelter, anyway. They always run out of room. In September and October, the Coalition turned away 1,350 people because there weren’t enough beds. “A lot of people will hang out in emergency-room waiting rooms,” Harris says. Especially when it’s cold. Some go to 24-hour restaurants. At 211, there’s always a bed. Even if it’s only the ground.

    Curtis has already moved most of his stuff to a different spot with Travis. His cheeks are red and puffy from being poked and prodded by tree limbs during the move. The tent and the five sleeping bags he had here are gone. He’s back now for little things. He grabs some bags and his portable orange grill, which he’ll use to make fires. Curtis thinks it will be better with just two people. Quieter. Less obvious. 

    In his nine years of homelessness, Curtis has slept many places. For a while, he, Larry and a man named “Pineapple” slept on the downtown library’s steps. Run off by LMPD, he says, they went to a nearby church and slept there until some idiot decided to piss in the church repeatedly, provoking complaints on Sunday morning. Politically disinterested, Curtis stayed in the Occupy Louisville camp in Founder’s Square Park across from City Hall until the city broke up the protest. Then came Campbell and finally 211, which he says is partly a nod to the malt liquor Steel Reserve 211. It’s also a police code for robbery. But Curtis only Steels.

    There are several theories as to how the police found camp 211. Speculative adjectives vary:

    1. Superstitious. The other day Younger Matt found a funeral flag on Campbell Street. He let it be. But it ended up on his damn table the next morning. Travis had picked it up. Then the next day, the cops told them to move. Matt doesn’t believe in bad luck, but: “A funeral flag?” he says. “Really?”

    2. Electromagnetic. The other night they had a big fire going and a helicopter passed over. “There were no search lights on or anything,” Nate says. “But if they were using their infrared, it would show a red spot in the middle of all” — he circles around with his arms wide, revealing trees, trees, trees — “this.”

    3.Vengeful. It could be another camp that called the cops. Most likely, the 211ers figure, it was the first group that moved from Campbell Camp during the beginning of the end. Apparently they don’t like their new spot.


    Camp Spider

    A hula hoop is in the dying bushes. It hasn’t been touched since Camp Spider formed off River Road in September. On its side along Spider’s trail is a plastic Radio Flyer wagon the crew used to transport stuff from Campbell Camp early one morning. One of the back wheels is broken from coming down the trailhead’s steep hill too quickly. The kitchen — a table that was already here propped against a tree — is a mess, with rain-and-leaf-filled pots, cans of soup, ketchup. Five people live here, and they’ve set up extra tents as storage units for donated clothes. This place looks kind of like a campsite, kind of like a home. 

    Spider was named in honor of Spider, who lived here. Spider was in a hit-and-run while biking down Market Street a couple of months ago and is still in the hospital. Spider was left for dead by those snakes in the black Camaro. 

    One camper, Greig, an African-American, says black people don’t go camping. Says he’d never set up a tent before he moved to Campbell Camp. Was living good in Kansas with his wife in a one-bedroom apartment. The occasional tornadoes were the only kind of nature he encountered. He’s 52 years old, says his wife passed away during childbirth less than two years ago. Lost her and the twins. He moved here to be somewhere else. Got a job cutting meat at First Choice Market in the West End. Says he lost that to a bad case of shingles. It’s been a year in a donated tent, including a couple months at Camp Spider. Now he’s trying to find higher ground.

    Image: Greig keeps his tent tidy. He says he bets it's cleaner than "your whole apartment."

    “Remember that trail you said you could get to?” Greig asks another camper, Tony. “I figured out where it goes.” 

    “Does it go to Mellwood?” Tony asks. He’s sitting by the fire with Tammie, rolling a cigarette stuffed with Skydancer tobacco. His camo cap is on backward over dark hair, graying. His pants are camo, too. He lived at Campbell Camp for five years. He’s a country boy, nuhmsayin? He can survive. 

    “Over by there,” Greig says. “There are spots over there too. I mean, good ones.”

    “Lot better than here,” Tony says. “Is it flat back out in there?”

    “Yeah. And the spot I saw has grass, brah! Not dirt. Not mud. Not chemicals. Grass!”

    “I ain’t seen grass since we’ve been here,” Tammie says. Her hair is in a loose ponytail and she is wearing pink slippers. She says she tries to make herself some resemblance to female out in these woods. She has a cross-eye and looks from Tony to Greig and back and around. “There was no grass at Campbell Camp. There’s no grass here. Feel like I’ve never even seen it myself. I don’t think Louisville has grass,” she says.

    It’s been raining three days seemingly nonstop, and they’re getting flooded down in their shallow valley. Dirt dips have turned into mud craters. Everything looks soggy. Eventually Greig will move his tent to the other side of the camp to avoid flooding. 

    Today there is finally sun. Tony throws trash into the pitless fire’s small heap. Empty chip baggies, a shoe, Styrofoam to-go boxes burn. There were meals in there, delivered by one of the homeless outreach teams, maybe somebody from a church — Jean, Tiny or the Chicken Man — but the food’s gone now and the boxes might as well burn. Tony doesn’t worry about the health effects, the toxic chemicals released. 

    When the wind hits, it lifts the ash, blows it around like falling snow. The dense tree cover and kudzu separating the campers from the busy road makes the smoke hard to see. They haven’t really thought about what they’ll do when actual snow falls, when winter bares the trees, exposing them. They’re concentrated on the higher ground. 

    “I went up to the Chaos Trail first. Then I found that dude that came out that trail that one day,” Greig says. 

    They nod as if they know. 

    “I found out where he is. He’s got a virtual fucking city up there. A virtual fucking city,” Greig says, nodding as if in awe. “It’s by the pump station.”

    “But you’ve got to go across the bridge,” Tammie says.

    “No, you don’t have to cross no bridge, honey,” Greig says. He’s not her honey — her honey’s in jail — but out here everyone is honey, baby girl, baby boy.

    “Oh, that’s what I was worried about,” Tammie says. “Where’s the ’bacco at, babe?” she asks Tony.

    “That spot I found today, it’s grass,” Greig says. “And no one will ever find us unless they look for us.” 


    Sheets walks in. Everybody starts hollering. His dad’s been sick back in E-town, and he’s been gone a couple weeks. Gone but not forgotten.

    “AH, SHEETS!!!” says Tammie when Tony points to him entering. Sadity, Tammie’s eight-pound Chihuahua, starts barking. (Sadity is short for high sadity, which is slang for high-class or prissy.) Tony’s 50-pound pit bull, Rocky, is quiet, wagging his tail.

    “My nigga!” Greig shouts.

    Together, Sheets and Greig say, “If he don’t get no bigga, he just be my bigga nigga!” They brotherly hug, then handclap.

    Sheets is a white guy, pale, blond hair. He says he can’t get a job because he’s a felon. Has an emergency protective order violation. He tried to kill his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend, who had given her a hot shot (bad heroine) that almost killed her. Sheets knows martial arts. Broke ol’ boy’s left clavicle, tore up his spine. Sheets says he can’t even get a minimum-wage job. Can’t even work at McDonald’s.

    After some catching up, they light a spice joint. Spice. Not weed. It’s a type of synthetic marijuana. They say it’s legal. Doesn’t scar the system. They buy it from a smoke shop off 26th and Market. Usually only five or 10 bucks’ worth here or there when they have the money. This doesn’t happen often. But it’s a special occasion. Sheets. 

    The spice goes around. They all talk about the tornado that touched down at Campbell Camp in October 2013. It didn’t go directly over them, but the pressure split trees and flattened tents. The tornado sounded like a roaring train. (Go figure, R.J. Corman.) 

    They talk about winter. Last winter, Tony, Tammie, her man Chris, and Curtis (the one from 211) stayed outside all winter long. Six of them in all. Negative-double-digit degrees. Greig went into a shelter the first three days of Operation White Flag, a program to ensure that homeless people find shelter during severe weather emergencies. Not a bed, but at least shelter, no hypothermia. The first Operation White Flag of 2014 was that frigid Halloween weekend.

    How’d they keep warm? 

    “Blankets,” Greig says.

    “Dogs,” Tammie says.

    “Canned heat,” Sheets says. He eats a Fruity Pebbles marshmallow treat. 

    A week or so later, Sheets’ dad will die and Sheets will inherit enough money to get on his feet. Everybody will say goodbye. Sheets will walk out. 


    It’s 6 a.m. and already George is tidying. He straightens up his tent, then starts picking up the trash outside. He has a small ’fro. At Campbell Camp, he was one of three African-Americans, including Greig and Tammie’s man Chris. The radio’s playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” It’s an old portable thing that must weigh five pounds.

    The camp usually goes to bed at 6 or 7 at night and rises at 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning. They listen to talk radio together. Coast to Coast is one of George’s favorites. They drink coffee, the water heated on a donated propane tank. George drinks about four cups between his rise and sunrise. He’s always waiting on sunrise. During the day he can never sit still.

    Image: The kitchen at Camp Spider.

    Once the light is good, they’ll all go for free breakfast and more coffee. Sometimes they’ll go early to wash their clothes at the Louisville Rescue Mission. The campers can take showers there, too. 

    A few weeks ago, George fell off the “bad luck bike.” He broke a metacarpal or two in his left hand. His half-cast turns his hand into a white crab claw. He mocks Mork & Mindy: “Na-Nu Na-Nu.” He won’t see a doctor again for a month, and he’s not sure the kid who applied the cast wrapped it right. His finger looks crooked. “Can’t work, can’t nothin’,” he says. This is almost as limiting as George’s father in rural Mendenhall, Mississippi, where George lived before this with too strict of rules for a grown man. 

    Besides the loud static of the morning commute, things are quiet at Camp Spider this October Monday. George is raking. Tammie lies back down for a bit. Greig’s doing laundry at LRM before a job interview at Sam’s Club. Travis from 211, who they know from Campbell Camp, is hanging out. He left Tony with a Ziploc bag of his while he did time. It’s full of brightly enveloped cards and a photo album, the first few pictures of Travis’ “over the hill” birthday party. 

    When Tony gets back from the scrapyard, the shopping cart is empty. Yesterday, he and Tammie were walking in Clifton and found some appliances thrown in an alley. They stripped the fridge for its wires. Melt wires, you get copper. Tammie says copper goes for $2.50 per pound. Some of the Campbell Camp crew think this is why they had to move. Copper. Two or three people would break into Marshall’s Auto Parts on Adams Street, steal junked car parts for copper. Radiators are full of the stuff.

    They think Herman Marshall, the owner, got pissed and complained to District 4 Metro Councilman David Tandy. (Marshall declined to comment for this story.) A Tandy aide says the councilman received many complaints. “Residents in the surrounding area complained about indecent behaviors in the camp,” the aide says. R.J. Corman’s Rush says LMPD made the company aware of several serious safety incidents that occurred on the property. Lt. Shawn Hensler, of LMPD’s first division, which patrols the waterfront and central business district and deals with the homeless in those areas, addresses resident complaints: “Biohazard everywhere,” he says. “Litter and debris.” Sometimes big wood chunks or beer cans on the track, which could cause derailment. Hensler says he hasn’t had a complaint since the break-up. 

    Sean Burke, the operations supervisor at nearby Tasman’s, the hide-processing plant, has seen the campers walking by. He’s had stuff stolen from his building, including a $5,000 AC unit, but he can’t be sure who did it. Burke can’t tell if less has been stolen from him since railroad officials broke up the camp. Now he’s careful enough not to leave out anything of value. 

    Tony holds up the receipt. 

    They all gather around, see how much they earned from the scrap found in Clifton. 

    The total? $14. 


    Greig got the call when he was at Sunday morning’s service at nearby St. Joseph Catholic Church. He thought it was Jesus calling. Almost. It was Sam’s Club. He put an application in on Friday and already a call. Praise Jesus! Hallelujah! Even though it’s on Blankenbaker Parkway, 12 miles away from camp, it’s the only place that’s contacted. If he gets the job, he’ll bike there until he can make money for a bus pass.  

    Greig doesn’t like being idle. It bugs the hell out of him. Mama made him like this. She was on the school board in Indianapolis. Mama ensured her three sons would get what the white boys got by working hard for it. His dad worked at the post office and on a trash truck for 22 years. Greig’s worked since he was 12 years old, first as a hod carrier for his bricklaying uncle. Has been a barber, concrete pourer, cook. Made $10 per hour as a paid protestor holding those “Shame on You!” signs. (George did this for a while, too.) Spent 25 years in the meat department, the position he’s interviewing for now. 

    Greig’s father said, “Learn everything you can learn. Once you learn it, nobody can take that away from you.” 

    Here’s what Greig thinks about changing the world:

    “You can’t change the world. The world is what it is. What it’s going to be. It’s fucked up, yeah. But you can’t live for the world; you’ve got to life for yourself. If an individual could change the world, it would have changed long ago.”


    Growing up in Paducah, Tammie was scarred by both her mom and step-mom, aka “step-bitch.” Mom would put cigarettes out on Tammie’s back. She says the step-bitch horsewhipped her. She even killed Tammie’s pet goat, Sugar, had it slaughtered and served for dinner. Gives new meaning to “Please pass the sugar.” 

    Tammie married her first husband at 15 years old to escape the horrors of the house. (Dad signed the papers. It was the ’80s, she says. Didn’t really matter then.) Later on she met her “shitty” second husband. A bright tattoo of swirling hearts and stars covers scars he left on her arm. Once separated, he stalked her, and eventually she had to get her name changed. See, Tammie used to be Donna. Donna had a four-bedroom double-wide, two acres in Paducah, and four kids, who don’t talk to her much anymore. 

    Tammie graduated from vocational school a certified carpenter. Used to be able to put a stack of shingles on each shoulder and walk roofs fearlessly. But doing this for 20 years messed up her back. She says she has 85 percent slippage, herniated discs, a crumbling spine. She’s 45 and can’t lie flat on the cot in her tent. Flat is not an option. Getting a job without a diploma or GED? Also not an option. 

    Image: Tammie rolls a cigarette (she's had the ring on her thumb for five years, the longest she says she's ever kept anything).

    A co-worker of Tammie and Chris’, at the formerly named Paula Deen Buffett inside Horseshoe casino, thought he had sold them a lemon. The driver’s side door was jammed on the Mercury Topaz, so he gave it to them for $500. It ran good for a long time, longer than they expected. Then the brakes gave out and it cost way too much for the couple to fix it. When they couldn’t get to work at Amazon in Shepherdsville, they both lost their jobs. No buses go that far. After losing their apartment in the West End, they got as far as Campbell Camp.

    Now Chris is in jail. He’s at least $25,000 in the child-support hole on a kid that he says isn’t his and keeps getting locked up because of it. (He tried to get on Maury in 2000 but says the show’s producer said the situation was too complicated.) The judge says Chris needs a paternity test to prove he’s not the biological father. A lawyer representing Chris must stand before a judge and request the test. Chris just wants justice, but he can’t afford it.

    One afternoon after rain, Tammie’s packing her bags. Everything is soaking cold. Sadity’s now in foster care. Tammie couldn’t continue to watch her dog freeze. “When I had a home,” Tammie says, “Friday was her bath night. She’d jump in the tub and everything.” Tammie even lost the silver “peace and love” ring she’d had for five years. Somewhere in the mud. She says nobody should live like this. She burns the clothes she can’t wash the stink-bug smell out of and shoves the rest in a fuchsia suitcase. Still, she can’t get herself to leave.


    Trouble lives next door, at the front half of the camp. In a nook some 100 yards and many tree limbs away are their tents. Camp Spider tries not to associate. Every time Trouble stumbles over, somebody pushes it away. Tammie says Trouble drinks and fights. It’s bad, but not as bad as it was at Campbell. Those at Spider had a gun line at Campbell. A gun line, like in that movie Life. They weren’t shooting, but they had to stay protected. There was violence. People were cut with axes, beat with hammers and bricks, killed. They had to keep the chaos at bay.

    Lt. Hensler says Campbell had a higher rate of criminal activity than most places in the city. He says he’s glad it’s gone. He expected campers to spring up here and there in Campbell’s place. He says his officers already know of a couple camps they’re regularly checking up on. They won’t move them without complaint. 

    “One person camping in the woods doesn’t bother me,” Hensler says. “Three doesn’t bother me.” If small encampments develop over the years that don’t cause crimes or call for emergency police services, the camp members are in a strong position to maintain their camp for a long time.

    Spider recognizes safety in smaller numbers. 

    But then here comes Trouble with its shirt off and a little vodka on its chin.


    It’s Monday, Nov. 3, and it feels like Christmas. 

    Chris is back. He’s got to check into Wayside by 4 p.m., so the police have an address for him. 

    Tammie has a CD in her hand. It’s the spinal MRI results from Jewish Hospital. She has the Passport Health Plan now, what she calls “poor people insurance,” but this is the proof she needs to get her disability check. She holds it like a present. She doesn’t know what’s going on with Rally’s or Speedway on Brownsboro Road, where she was supposed to start work last week.

    Tony, George, Curtis and Travis sit in front of George’s tent on coolers and portable folding stools. Rum sloshes over the sides of their 12-ounce cups with holly leaves printed on them. Today, Tony got his disability check (some $300), and this afternoon there are two handles of Captain Morgan out. One’s already empty. The other’s half gone. No, half full.

    The first of the month is Tony’s time to drink. He’s usually pretty quiet, will nod in agreement with a shy smile. But when he’s drunk, he’s talkative, with a deep-country stutter hard to understand. He’s talking about his hometown of Coldwater, Michigan. He’s only been back one time and doesn’t want to return. Apparently he’s got a brother-in-law there that he hates.

    Image: Camp Spider's Tony lived at the former Camp Campbell for five years.

    “In my heart, love hurts,” he says. He pokes and pats at his chest with pride. “But love don’t hurt family, nuhmsayin? We’ll see everybody up in heaven. Thank you.” 

    Travis is dressed in a brown dress shirt and some khakis, off from work at Stir the Pot, a small-batch cookery. He’s clean-cut, hair short, and doesn’t use any Pepsi with his rum. He walks back from Trouble Camp and says, “You’re not going to have a problem with any of them again. I took care of it. They were worried Curtis and I. . . .”

    “They were worried?” George asks.

    “They’re scared of me? With a broken back?” Curtis cackles. He’s going to the doctor to get his X-rays this week. Then to a Social Security disability lawyer in Louisville, one of the best in town, Curtis says.

    Travis says, “Don’t have to worry about it anymore. Everything is copacetic.” 

    Everyone’s feeling pretty good and then the guys get to arguing, nice and loud. This time about religion. Travis says he’s read seven versions of the Bible, but he believes in evolution too. Thinks there’s a reason they put horoscopes next to the comic strips. Travis asks, “Who are you going to quote, Einstein or Jesus?”

    “I may not follow everything in the Bible, but I’m going with Jesus,” Curtis says.

    “Jesus, Jesus,” Tony says.

    George is skeptical, starts a point but doesn’t finish it.

    Travis brings up Confucius, Anaximenes, Freud, Jung. Says, “You can’t quote one human without quoting another. Might as well come up with it yourself.”

    Says to write down two words. Priori posteriori. He can’t spell them.


    Trouble repeats itself. Trouble gets drunk. Trouble burns down tents. Trouble gets the cops called.

    Greig will be one of the first to leave Camp Spider. He’s looking for higher ground. He says he doesn’t know what it means to belong.


    Kiddie Camp

    Ashley at Kiddie Camp knows what it means to belong. She says this is her domain. No matter where life takes her, this will always be home. Here, she’s queen. 

    This queen wears no robe, only a sports bra and some sweatpants. Her tum hangs over the elastic lining. It’s a late-October dawn, and she stands on a boulder by the fire, stabbing it with a poker. Ashley is five-foot-two, and the poker is to her chest line. It’s like a scepter without jewels. She uses it to point out her camp’s boundaries: a wide, hilly radius. She’s named this land Kill Yourself Island.

    Beyond the ravine isn’t hers. There are three separate camps within Kiddie Camp, as it’s referred to by outside camps. The impression is that only kids — mostly runaways and nobody older than 18 — live here. Camp Runaway. But that impression is wrong, the name inaccurate. The camp is in some woods near the intersection of Frankfort Avenue and River Road. Most of the group are older than 20, some in their 40s. Near October’s end, 14 people are staying at Kiddie Camp, but the numbers are always changing. People come. People go.

    There’s Kill Yourself Island at the bottom of the hill. Before that, Camp Dog Walk, marked by a “Do Not Enter” sign, camp name scrawled on it. Within, animals stir, eight dogs and many nicknames: Tiger, Mouse, Cricket. You mess with them, they’ll “dog walk,” or beat, the hell out of you. (They moved here from a spot behind the nearby Tumbleweed parking lot.) There’s a Legend in these woods. He stays in the first camp up the trail, sings Rastafarian music.

    Julio, Ashley’s Irish-Puerto Rican “husband” from New York, is squatting by the other side of the fire, unfurling aluminum. He’s her king. The reason she quit doing meth. The reason to live. They’re waiting to get into permanent housing. Got on the list a couple months ago, but they haven’t heard anything yet. If they get the Section 8 voucher from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, they’ll be set free. But numbers are limited. With a budget cut in federal housing funding, from $84 billion to $43 billion since the ’70s, there’s not enough money for everyone. Veterans are looked after first. Then money filters to housing for the chronically homeless. 

    Image: Julio and Ashley, aka King and Queen, embrace at Kill Yourself Island.

    There’s no telling where Ashley and Julio are on the list. Placing is determined by a vulnerability index issued by the Common Assessment program, which analyzes which homeless individual needs housing the most. It measures physical and mental health, how many times hospitalized, the total amount of time homeless, among others things. Across camps, several stay on the list. 

    Ashley isn’t very vulnerable. Hasn’t been since she was growing up in Portland with her older brothers pushing her through walls. That’s when she learned how to fight. MMA, cage-fighting style. Backyard style. No rules.

    Julio takes a sip out of an opened Miller High Life, the single can of beer here. It’s warm. Julio doesn’t really drink anymore. He says he used to be an alcoholic. He caught his first felony robbing a liquor store, back in his New York gang days, his war beads black and yellow. Had a bottle of Bacardi 151 in his hand when the cops saw him. He looked at the bottle, the cops, the bottle, the cops. Then he ran — into jail and then rehab. 

    He says he drank because he was depressed. Lost love, lost kid. Eventually a lost father. Julio was the only son that wasn’t taken from his dad during his parents’ split. His dad played the bass guitar, showed him Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Eagles. Instilled that love for music in Julio. Hip-hop. Wu-Tang Clan, Jedi Mind Tricks. Julio dreams of a career in audio production.

    Julio thinks he suffers distress from his dad’s death from cancer in ’07 at 55. Julio, 35, says that means he has 20 more years to live. 


    "WOOT, WOOT!” Chris calls from the top of the hill. It’s the camp’s greeting call; lets one know someone’s coming and lets the other know someone’s here.

    Chris is back to camp without money. Junkyard George said there isn’t any work today and probably won’t be for a while. Chris has heard this before about day labor, which is what a lot of campers do for work when they work, places like Labor Works on Preston Highway and Labor Express Plus on 18th Street. But, alas, nothing today, nothing tomorrow. 

    Chris starts untangling his necklaces. Has them on a table, picking chain from chain — not an easy thing to do because one of his index fingers is a nub. He was an electrician for 22 years, and one day he blew it off. He’s had most of the necklaces for years. Real silver. One necklace has a small anchor on it. Chris’ life has never been very stable. He grew up in Louisville and ran away from home at 11 and again at 14 because his dad was a violent alcoholic. That’s why he doesn’t drink. He pulls at another chain. He lost Jesus off this one. Doesn’t know how — Jesus just came off.

    Image: Kiddie Campers (including, from left, Tony, Chris and Ashley) burn anything to keep warm.

    His hood is up, the jacket a swirl of colorful skulls, custom-made while he was in California. They’re his designs. He likes to draw. Skulls, black roses. In his wallet, a folded paper of his latest doodle: Celtic knots. Was bored at a library in Boston when he drew that one. He’s been back home in Louisville for a couple months, but he talks about Boston frequently. Shows pictures of the city on his flip phone: sea and gull. 

    He talks a lot about Memphis, too. Was in prison there for eight years for a murder he says was self-defense. He says it was the worst: “There, you had to know which side to go to. Which side to fuck with. They’ve got Peckerwoods, Lightning Bolts. They’ve got the cops marching. Aryan Nation Brotherhood. . . . They told me I wouldn’t make it out alive. But look at me; I’m still standing. Still breathing. They said choose this side or this side. White or black. I didn’t choose either. I rode neutral.”


    Cricket is Cricket because she’s always hopped around. She’s 21 years old and has been through 26 foster homes and six group homes in 12 different states, and was adopted twice. Her last parents kicked Cricket out when she was 18, no longer a government check. They kept everything of Cricket’s, including her bike and car. 

    Whatever. She hated them anyway. Always a slave, cutting hundreds of coupons for her mom, whose back she had to massage for hours. Cricket went to a North Carolina community college at 16 but couldn’t study auto mechanics like she wanted. Mom wouldn’t let her. Mom made her take botany because Mom wanted a garden. In hydroponics class, Cricket says she learned to grow weed. Sold it. Made enough for a bus ticket to New York. 

    She came to Louisville earlier this year to stay with one of her adopted sisters. But sis is strict. Real strict. Freaked about Cricket’s tattoo: a cross on her back. Sis thought it was a gang sign because it’s blue. Freaked about cigarettes. Cricket couldn’t take it. 

    Cricket wishes she could reset.

    “So, it’s official,” Cricket says. It’s a Monday evening in late October. She’s down from Camp Dog Walk, chillin’. She’s blue-eyed, heavyset and loud, every sentence amplified. “I’m getting my name changed in a week,” she says.

    “What? How?” Chris asks. “Who you marrying?”

    “No, no. I’m changing my whole name,” Cricket says.

    “What do you mean?” Julio asks. “Government name? Last name?”

    “First,” Cricket says. “And last.”

    “What’s your last name?” Chris asks.

    “Nope. I’ll tell you the biological name I was given: Audriana,” Cricket says. “Then my stupid-ass foster parents decided to change it.” 

    “So what do you plan on changing it to?” Julio says. “Cause Audrey does go with you.”

    “My name don’t go with me,” Ashley says. “That’s why I go by KJ most of the time.”

    “I got so many names, it’s ridiculous,” Julio says. “Loco. Hootz. Cheeks. Chico…”

     “I have so many nicknames if I named them all, you’d be here all night,” Ashley says.

     “Juju . . . ,” Julio continues.

    “KJ,” Ashley says. “Lovebug. Mamacita. Lil Mama. Angel. Queen. . . .”

    Ashley throws a couple of dirty shirts into the fire. There’s a whole mound of clothes to burn. Beside it, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, coverless, soggy with rain, unread.


    When Ashley returns to camp at dark one night, she pushes the bike she rode in from town on against a tree. Its squeaky thud quiets everyone. Ashley says she’s done with this. Says her aunt had a heart attack and is in the ICU. Ashley barely knows the woman but has been at the hospital with her all day. “Before I went to the hospital, I turned the bottle up,” she says. “We were at Bologna Alley. Drinking with the dude I hit in the mouth.” Seeing her aunt in the hospital bed reminded Ashley of her mom, who died several years ago. Her aunt looked so wasted away.

     Because Ashley has been homeless on and off for five years, she has deep street lineage. She has a street mom who helps her with food stamps; a street bro, Griffin, who helps mediate Ashley and Julio’s relationship troubles; and another street brother who just got shot in the hand. (Her real brothers are overseas in the military.) She even had a street daughter once — a 14-year-old runaway Ashley and Julio “adopted” for a couple weeks. (She told them she was 19.) The girl didn’t know anything about the streets. Ashley taught her what she could until the girl moved on. Ashley says she still thinks about her, wherever she is. Because she’s family. In this world, family forms from necessity. Family comes. And family goes.

    This originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here.

    Cover Image: Ashley from Kiddie Camp, a homeless encampment off River Road, with ragged tarps and torn tents ablaze.

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