It's hard telling when the last Marine stood watch along the banks of the Arkansas River, but considering Fort Smith, Arkansas, was once the last fortified outpost along the U.S. border with the expansive Oklahoma frontier territory, odds are there've been plenty. Unlike the military men that were once stationed adjacent to bordellos and trading posts, this 21st century Marine sentry hasn't worn a uniform in quite some time. But that doesn't make him any less duty bound or his imposing stature any less intimidating.
Lucky -- no I'm not making this up -- will turn 69 in March. He has an awful cough and no easy way to get the prescription that he thinks will cure it, or at least kick it back a notch. There are clinics in town that might help Lucky with his medicine but it's hard to imagine him walking the five or more miles to get there, and he's a little gamey to be sitting in a healthcare facility's waiting room.
Fort Smith has homeless advocates that performed the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Point-in-Time count on Tuesday Jauary 22nd. Each year HUD picks one night when they send housing agency social workers and administrators all across the nation to homeless camps, under overpasses, and inside shelters to get a handle on the number of homeless people living in the country. The whole process -- well intentioned as it may be -- provides the same sort of accurate figures that one might get when flicking the light on in a barn in order to count the mice living in the hay. Sure if you have a few in a cage those numbers will be good but only the weak, sickly, or foolishly brave will still be there once you've lit up their space.
When Fort Smith School Department Homeless Liaison, Jeanne Carroll, ventured down into the North Camp to count the folks living there, she got Lucky. He may have been willing to be counted because he was sick and couldn't scurry too fast -- or maybe this aging Marine is just one of those fearless critters who knows that things can't get any worse even if he comes out into the open. It seems homeless veterans are often more visible, not just because they're unafraid, but because they've been trained to endure hardships that routinely traumatize the civilians who end up on the street.
When Jeanne brought me down the next day, Lucky took a few minutes to explain the conditions under which he lives in North Camp. Invisible to the street and located on private property, the camp sites are squalid -- more like a garbage dump than a human habitat. The 35 or so inhabitants -- that number according to Lucky, not according to HUD -- could have kept the place cleaner if they'd humped out trash with them when they ventured into town. But discarding trash in someone else's dumpster is illegal and so the refuse stays in the camp. As such, the waste was a fitting metaphor for the people that lived there. Unpleasant to have around -- unhealthy even -- but no one wants anyone cleaning it up at their expense.
And besides, it isn't all trash; the bicycles conveyed campers to their jobs, the tents keep the rain off folks while they sleep, and the toys -- well maybe no one wants to think about kids actually playing with those toys.
No one asked Lucky why he stays in the woods, sleeps on the ground, and tends to the dozen or so dogs that bark warnings of approaching outsiders. Lucky just volunteered his reasons, "[as a veteran] I could walk down right now and get me a room and get me what I need to do to take care of myself." Lucky went on to explain that he'd have to live by someone else's rules and he fears those rules would prohibit alcohol. Lucky feels it's his right at this stage in his life to spend as much time under the influence as he wants. Still, Lucky rocked his head as he explained his different take on the folks who live in the woods with him, "These guys with their lifestyles," lucky pauses, "at their age, I was raising babies."
Not wanting to invade the privacy of the folks hiding from sight, I asked lucky if I could take some pictures. Lucky said, "I don't allow nobody to do stuff. It's open." Tossing a glance over his shoulder to folks unseen, he continued, "Some folks is cranky but they're living on private property too." He figured if they could confiscate the space to live, I could have the pictures. Pictures of the North Camp are available at Epic Journey's Facebook page.