The Mayor of Boxville
As Mayor Mackie Choice sits with friends on his front porch on a warm March afternoon, he periodically surveys the horizon for danger. The bulldozers could come at any moment, from any direction, to level the entire town. Already they have razed a nearby settlement, and nobody knows what their next target will be.
Lean figures carrying boxes and bags shuttle back and forth among the towering concrete pillars that support Interstate 45 high overhead. They squeeze through holes cut in the chain-link fence or disappear among the stacks of concrete traffic barriers to the south, off to hide whatever possessions they can ahead of imminent destruction. The city of Dallas wants them in shelters, in rehab, anywhere but where they are, front and center in the public eye. Choice has already stashed a shopping cart loaded with necessities behind a nearby building, so all he can do is wait on his porch, a stained carpet remnant fenced off with sheets of cardboard scavenged from nearby produce companies.
Choice is homeless, but if staying power counts for anything, this patch of rocky dirt under the bridge is his home, as it has been for the last 12 years. His seniority is one reason he is looked to as the leader of this camp, but he also has a steady, serene presence, a rare trait in an unpredictable population. He greets his friends with undisguised affection, while outsiders face an icy reserve. "He takes care of us," says camp resident Bonnie Thorpe. "He's like a father figure."
A prison term and drug addiction led Choice to this spot in 1994, but he has stayed "just like my name: by choice." The phrase is one of many Choice keeps in stock to explain his situation, but it also encapsulates the dilemma he and his constituents pose to the city. Dallas is trying desperately to thin the homeless ranks, fearing they may endanger its cherished downtown renaissance. Along the way, the city has drawn the ire of homeless advocates and a climb to sixth on the National Homeless Alliance's list of "America's Meanest Cities." But no matter what combination of carrot and stick Dallas employs, longtime camp dwellers like Choice are unlikely to respond to either.
Ironically, Dallas' climb up the meanest cities list came about because of a strategy for ending chronic homelessness endorsed by Mayor Laura Miller and adopted by the city council in 2004. In its carrot-and-stick approach, the planned carrots will include outreach teams, a new Homeless Assistance Center and adequate long-term housing in place by 2014. But that's all in the future, while in the present the city is already wielding the stick. Destroying the camps is just one aspect.
Last year, enforcement of a public sleeping ordinance was stepped up. Before that, it was bans on panhandling and shopping carts. Even the city's smoking ban seems targeted at the homeless; according to The Dallas Morning News, more than half of the smoking citations issued in 2005 were written at the Day Resource Center, the primary outlet for homeless services. When tickets go unpaid and court dates unheeded, the homeless often wind up in jail.
In February the city began enforcing another new ordinance limiting the feeding of street people to designated areas, on pain of a $2,000 fine. Popular feeding sites near City Hall and under the bridges were designated off-limits. Some mobile meal providers, notably Phil Romano, the restaurateur behind Hunger Busters, were outraged. "We talk about Dallas being the meanest city in the world for the homeless, and man, we're trying to prove differently, but we're having a hard time doing it," Romano says.
In Choice's time under the bridge, the camp has been razed more times than he can remember, most recently on May 10, 2005. That particular incident made news only because the city of Dallas tried a new tactic, warning the residents a week in advance. Workers for the city health department's Crisis Intervention Team fanned out ahead of the bulldozers, offering shelter beds and counseling. After the dwellings of the approximately 100 residents were carted off in dumpsters, the site was enclosed in an 8-foot fence. The efforts were designed to clear Mack's Camp permanently. Most residents, including the mayor himself, were back the next day.
In its current incarnation, Choice's house stands about 4 feet high. The roughly 8-by-10 sleeping area is floored with cardboard and lined with a thick piece of industrial foam and blankets. The roof is made of the same heavy produce boxes as the walls and supported with scrap timber. The carpeted, open-air porch also has two kitchen chairs and an overstuffed, crooked recliner caked in grime but still comfortable.
"I'm always keeping an eye out for something to make it more homey," Choice says modestly. His voice is raspy from cigarettes, a lingering cold and chronic dehydration. At 49, he is wiry but not drug-thin like some of his neighbors. Still, his movements are slowed by years of hard living, which, along with his gray goatee, give the impression of old age. Choice seldom smiles outright, conscious of his teeth destroyed by gum disease, but when he's making a joke, which is often, his eyes twinkle with mischief.
The unwritten rules that Choice is charged with enforcing are few. People prone to violent outbursts are pressured to leave. Any drug use should be discreet and any selling even more so. Litter goes in barrels to be burned. Bowels and bladders are emptied well outside the camp. Adherence to the rules isn't absolute, but it is the norm, and the results are notable. The dwellings are widely spaced. There is little smell or noise, other than the constant thrum of traffic overhead. Choice often mediates disputes over property or money. Even Dallas officialdom noted the orderly atmosphere. Just before Mack's Camp was leveled last year, Karen Rayzer, Dallas' director of environmental health services, paid a visit. "I went out there, and the ground was swept, it was very neat," she says. "It makes it hard to say, 'Yeah, you need to clean this out.'"
Hard, perhaps, but not impossible. At the time of Rayzer's visit, the camp had grown too comfortable for the city's comfort. The population had climbed to possibly 100. One resident had tapped into a billboard's power supply to run a microwave. A church had supplied portable toilets and dumpsters for trash, giving the settlement an air of permanence, the last thing the city wants. The camp had to go. A year later, Mack's Camp is again dotted with more than 20 shacks, though they are more modest than before.
Foolish pride had taken root in another bridge encampment a few blocks away. "They were building huts like fortresses," says resident Cheyenne Fuller, homeless for four years and a close friend of Choice. When Fuller returned from her night construction job, she found her belongings had been bulldozed--yet she says she doesn't blame the city. "There was a guy that had built an upstairs," she says. "Not out of cardboard; he had metal plates that went across that you could walk on. It was huge, had four rooms in it, and he had the nerve to paint it brown. I was like, 'Man, you've done lost your mind.'"
As the afternoon wears on, a white state highway department pickup rolls through the gate into camp. Choice heads over to chat with the driver, a sympathetic acquaintance. When Choice comes back, he looks grim. "He said, 'Get ready.'" Somebody in the group calls the warning a bad sign. "That's not a sign," Choice says. "When the state man comes, it's a done deal."
In fact, Choice's source turns out to be wrong. Though at least three sites are bulldozed over the next two days, Mack's Camp is spared. But the anxiety lingers.
"I'm not going to sleep at all tonight," Choice says.
You never know when the bulldozers might be coming.
The Soupman wants everybody to know he's coming. Every day before he pulls up to the Day Resource Center, the Soupman, aka David Timothy, pauses a block away to play the theme from Rocky on the jury-rigged PA system of the 1985 van known as The Soupmobile. The ancient portable CD player shorts out, but a couple of quick shakes revives it, and the music blasts out into the chilly February air.
Timothy turns to the volunteers in the van and begins his briefing, a speech that covers every detail of handing out large quantities of food to even larger crowds. He is a paunchy, gregarious 57-year-old with shaggy black hair that has a suspicious absence of gray. "Most people we shake hands with, we just touch hands with a closed fist," he reminds his crew. "Some people will want to shake hands. If you were to see some open cuts or sores on the person's hands that you shook hands with, that raises the question as to whether you should change gloves. The answer is that you should, but do it in a discreet way that's not going to make anybody feel bad."
Since Timothy founded his mobile kitchen in the summer of 2003, he has spent most of his time feeding at the homeless camps, including Mack's Camp, where he became fast friends with the mayor. Under the city's new feeding ordinance, however, that's no longer an option. The Soupmobile now plies its trade in the parking lot of the Resource Center on Cadiz Street, the city's main outlet for homeless services. Several weeks after the change, a routine has developed. The music is a signal, and by the time Timothy finishes his briefing and drives through the open gate in the high metal fence surrounding the lot, an orderly single-file line has already formed, and Timothy's six preferred client-volunteers are waiting to begin unloading the food.
The van's battered interior is jammed with tubs and coolers full of food and drink. There is as much art to packing the Soupmobile as there is to serving its clients. "We try to greet everybody that we're serving in some way," Timothy continues. "'Hello, how are you doing?,' 'That's a nice hat you're wearing,' or 'Isn't it cold today?'--it doesn't matter. These people are used to being completely ignored, shunned."
Ironically, two months ago it was impossible to ignore the homeless around the Day Resource Center. As the name suggests, the facility was intended to serve as the hub of Dallas' homeless assistance projects only during the day, but until February 1 it was also the overnight host of up to 300 street people. When the building was full, sleeping clients would fill the surrounding sidewalks as well. The complaints of the building's owner, also its next-door neighbor, led to a ban on sleeping in or around the building. In exchange, the owner renewed the lease until 2008, when the center will be replaced by the planned Homeless Assistance Center.
The Soupmobile fare today is hot dogs and spaghetti along with cookies, chips and drinks. As fast as the volunteers can dish out the food, the line of about 40 inches forward. Some are still eating as they rejoin the line for a second or third turn, while those departing are replaced by hungry stragglers. For more than half an hour the serving goes on. Volunteers chase down stray litter while Timothy runs the show, greeting every customer as promised. A backup tray of peanut butter sandwiches is brought out until finally there are no more takers.
The virtuoso feeding performance of the Soupmobile is the product of a steep learning curve. "One time I remember specifically, as I sat in the van with the doors open passing out food, all I could see was hands reaching out," Timothy says. "There must have been easily 50 people crowded around the van reaching, trying to get what I was passing out. I was a rookie; I didn't know any better. That was an experience you don't want. I mean, they were on top of me. I learned real quick to set up a line." His story illustrates the strange mix of deep empathy and stern paternalism that homeless service providers develop. "It's not because they're bad people; it's because they want to eat," Timothy says.
The ordinance that brought the Soupmobile out from under the bridges is getting mixed reviews from providers and homeless alike. Timothy's operation, which he anticipates will serve about 75,000 meals this year, is Dallas' largest mobile provider. He sees the ordinance's benefit to property owners and lauds the provisions bringing meal providers in line with city health codes, but he also worries about unintended consequences. "We're afraid a lot of people are going to wind up diving in dumpsters to get their food," he says. "We hope it doesn't become a situation where, God forbid, they're stealing to get their food, but it's definitely going to make it tougher for the people under the bridges."
Rayzer counters that the policy has already led to improvements. In planning the change, her agency monitored a popular feeding site near City Hall. "On one particular day we had 15 different entities come down to feed," she says. They ranged from individuals with a few leftovers to church groups serving elaborate meals. "You can imagine the litter. There was no possible way that anyone could eat 15 meals, so people were saying, 'I want this part of the meal but not that' and leaving food lying around."
Since the ordinance was adopted last year, two more sites have been added to the original seven, which were mostly churches and shelters. One new site is at the Dallas International Street Church only a few blocks from Mack's Camp. The mobile providers complement the hot meal Pastor Karen Dudley serves after every service at the church. Robin Bethea, a resident of Mack's Camp for about a year, rattles off a list of free food options. "Pastor Karen will feed every night," she says, her words tumbling out in a husky voice. "MLK Resource Center will give a hot meal on Wednesdays. Hunger Busters used to come [under the bridge], but now they park over at Sister Karen's." She chuckles. "They figured if they ran off the feeders we'd starve, but that didn't work."
Mike Rawlings, appointed Dallas' "homeless czar" in September, agrees that the combination of charities, shelters and mobile feeders is effective. "You can get a meal in Dallas if you're a homeless person," Rawlings says. "You may not get three squares, but you can get two. You're not going to go hungry." In fact, the ordinance, designed to lure people to sites where other services are available, may be working too well. The Reverend Bruce Buchanan, director of the city's largest private soup kitchen, The Stewpot in downtown Dallas, says he has seen a slight drop-off in his lunch numbers as the mobile feeders have become more predictable for their clients.
Other providers have been more confrontational, led by Phil Romano. "It made it harder for us to feed them, and if that's what they wanted to do, that's what they did," Romano says. The accent that hints at his Italian roots inevitably brings to mind the mob drama The Sopranos, and Romano is just as tenacious, though in a better cause. He says that he essentially won exemption from the ordinance for Hunger Busters, his feeding organization. "I went to Mike [Rawlings] and I said, 'I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to stop. Then who's going to take care of the 1,400 people we feed?'"Rawlings defends the ordinance, but he sees Romano's point. "Frankly, some of the ordinances, if you look at the flip side, can criminalize somebody trying to do something good," Rawlings says.
David Timothy remembers distinctly the first time he met the mayor. His new Soupmobile had just rolled through the gate into Mack's Camp unannounced. "Mack came out and really gave us the look-over, like, 'Who are you and what do you want?'" Timothy remembers. "He wasn't unfriendly, but he wasn't friendly. I could tell right away that he was the man down here." Timothy hastily asked Choice's permission to feed in the camp. "He's the mayor," Timothy says. "The mayor of Dallas won't meet with just anybody, and neither will Mack. You've got to have an entrée."
The respect Choice commands in the camp is expressed in myriad ways. The general neatness of the camp is one, but more telling is the number of people that come by to say hello on any given day. Many bring a cigarette to share or an extra serving from a meal or a drink from the store. It is very rare that Choice will ever be seen at one of the free food spots.
Even more infrequently will he sleep indoors. "I sleep more comfortable right here," he says. Like many of his neighbors, Choice is dismissive of the Dallas shelters with their curfews and rules. "What's the point of me going to pretend when I've got to get back out on the street in the morning?" he asks. "I prefer to just be my own man."
Another factor is his responsibility for overseeing the camp, a duty his friends appreciate. "We kind of hang tough together," Bethea says. "When he can't move around, if he has to keep his eye on things, I'll go get me and him something to eat."
Choice governs the southern portion of a community under I-45 that, if not exactly thriving, is certainly full of life. Its population varies widely from day to day but can be estimated at between 50 and 100. A steady flow of foot traffic emanates from the camp, heading out to stores, churches or jobs. The vast area underneath 10 lanes' width of bridges is bisected by Coombs Street. The smaller area north of Coombs is presided over by Choice's counterpart, Teardrop, named for the tears tattooed under his eye.
For a homeless mayor, keeping a camp population deeply distrustful of authority in line is no easy task. National figures put the level of mental illness among the chronically homeless at better than 50 percent. Alcohol and drug addiction may be even more common. "I have never hurt anybody in here," Choice says, "but if push comes to shove I'll do what I have to do." Choice has been known to add a mythical murder conviction to his record to enhance his reputation for toughness, but the gray in his beard and the wrinkles around his eyes dictate that he uses diplomacy far more than intimidation. "I constantly say, this is not a devil's den. This is not Jurassic Park."
He says he has never asked for money from strangers. "It's not because I have a lot of pride, it just isn't my thing," he says, and then his eyes get that twinkle. "I'd start crying if somebody told me no." Instead, like many in the camp, he collects cans and other scrap metal and sells them by the pound to nearby scrapyards. Thirty pounds of aluminum can bring in $10 to $15. At the same time he scavenges for items to improve his shack. The overstuffed recliner that he found at the curb in a nearby neigborhood is one example. "I picked it up and put it on my old back," Choice says. "It was something to connect to a home. Makes you feel like you've still got a little life left."
Like many of the chronic homeless, Choice also works regularly, pulling custodial shifts with a friend's company. He says he can earn upward of $50 a shift. Much of the proceeds go to his longtime girlfriend, due to be released from jail in July after serving time for prostitution. It's a charge that many of the camp's women have on their record and one they inevitably say is trumped up by police. Bethea says she's been arrested several times but never convicted after simply accepting a ride from what turned out to be undercover police. "It's more of the men in here that are doing prostitution now than the women," she says.
Most jobs that are available to a homeless person with a felony conviction or a substance abuse problem pay minimum wage or less, making it possible to maintain their condition but not improve it. The same applies to the disability or Social Security checks that many homeless receive, benefits that usually top out at less than $600 a month. In other words, depending on your perspective, there is either a surprising or a depressing amount of money in the camp.
Choice readily admits that it is mostly his own mistakes that landed him under the bridge. He had already had a couple run-ins with the law when he was convicted of rape in 1979. He says his only crime was not knowing his partner was a minor, but he was sentenced to 18 years and served seven. Of his drug addiction, the one that finished the job his felony conviction started, he jokingly says, "I'm retired." Alcohol, however, is seldom more than an arm's length away: 20-ounce cans of beer, a bottle of Cisco or a two-gallon orange juice jug topped up with whatever bourbon is the cheapest.
Another constant companion is Choice's dog, Salt and Pepper, an exquisitely trained German shepherd mix. On one recent afternoon, Choice puts Salt and Pepper through her paces for a visitor, rewarding her with chunks of leftover chicken. The dog sits on command and remains stock still despite the morsel Choice waves inches from her nose. "Now I'm going to give you this," Choice says to her, "but only if you tell me that you want it." Salt and Pepper gives a short, soft bark. "When you're done you just let me know again if you want some more," Choice adds. The piece of chicken disappears, and then the dog pauses, as if gauging her appetite. Then she issues another soft bark, asking for more.
As Choice laughs his creaky laugh, it's hard to deny that he's fully come to terms with homeless life. He is as aware of that as anybody. "Sometimes you get too adjusted, too comfortable," he admits. He looks out into the sunlight from under the shadow of the bridge. "I call that out there the real world," he says. "This isn't the real world. It's like in jail, you get institutionalized. In here, you look out at the real world like a mole."
"Everything they are out there is against my principles," Phil Romano says about the chronic homeless. A surprising attitude for the founder of Hunger Busters, but many people share his mixed feelings about helping the homeless. "I believe in hard work. I believe in sacrifice, I believe in being sober, honest, all of that stuff. And these people, a lot of them are in complete contrast to that for the most part. I'm down there feeding them and keeping them alive. That's a stretch for me. I think about that sometimes and it's hard--but after I do it I feel good. I know I'm doing something good."
The Reverend Bob Sweeney couldn't disagree more. The new director of the Dallas Life Foundation, one of Dallas' largest private shelters, Sweeney is vehemently opposed to what he considers handouts, especially the gourmet offerings from Romano's restaurants Nick & Sam's and Eatzi's that Hunger Busters sometimes distributes. He expresses his disdain in a characteristic rapid-fire style that is disconcertingly free of pauses. "Sometimes there are donors--wrong word--sometimes there are do-gooders who do it for themselves. 'I'm coming to serve you my world-class soup because God told me to.' Well, basically, you're doing it for you."
When Sweeney arrived from Flint, Michigan, last June, he instituted a new policy of accountability to govern the distribution of the Foundation's help. His rigorous 10-month rehabilitation program subjects the participant to random drug tests, mandatory Bible study (with essay requirements) and strict curfews. But it also claims a 75 percent success rate in transitioning graduates back into society. Under the new regime, the first three nights a person stays are free, including meals, but after that a client must either enroll in the rehabilitation program or begin paying $9 per night. "After three days, if you're just coming at night, sleeping and leaving in the morning--no chapel, not coming to hear about our programs--yes, you have to pay," Sweeney says. "We're not helping you by providing an inside bridge. If you're outside sleeping under a bridge, it's by choice. If you're inside and sleeping under a roof and we do nothing to encourage you to enhance your life, that goes against everything we think ought to be offered to the homeless."
That view leaves Sweeney implacably opposed to the philosophy that Rayzer espouses. "We don't give up on anybody," she says. She sees it as her duty to entice even the most recalcitrant, shelter-resistant client. "They've been out there for years, so it's not going to happen overnight, but based on what we've found, constant, consistent, aggressive outreach, really getting to why are you truly out here, [can work]. Not just accepting, 'Well, I'm OK, this is where I want to live.' No, there's a breakdown in there somewhere if you've chosen to live out there, and it's the caseworker's responsibility to find out what that breakdown is." But Rayzer doesn't apologize for the strong-arm tactics like razing camps. "Some people will say you're doing an inhumane thing," she says, "but to leave those people to live in some of the conditions that they're in is the inhumane thing."
Rayzer works closely with Rawlings, a business executive and former president of Pizza Hut. "We think of the homeless as the folks that live under I-45, but the truth of the matter is they are a very small sliver of the homeless community," Rawlings says. "I think we as a Dallas community really take care of the bulk of the homeless in a really good way." Different methods of counting the homeless population in Dallas yield results of anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000. Of those, the city believes that more than 1,000 qualify as chronically homeless, those who shun the relative comforts of shelters or the prospects of rehabilitation for the rough independence of a camp. Rayzer says there are at least 30 large camps in the city, including Mack's Camp.
The 2004 plan to deal with the problem includes intensive outreach programs and development of long-term housing in the form of single-room occupancy (SRO) units. In November voters approved a $23.8 million bond issue for the Homeless Assistance Center, the public shelter conceived as the gateway to all the planned services. The target date to open the HAC is 2008, but wrangling goes on over where to build it. "We've done passed a bond issue," says Don Williams, a former resident of Mack's Camp who often visits Choice. "Laura Miller knows that, so why don't she tell the police to back off until the place is built?"
Plans for the HAC include an outdoor pavilion, an enclosed, roofed yard that will provide an area for dyed-in-the-wool camp dwellers to live--if they can just be enticed or forced to come. The HAC will offer many of the same types of counseling as Dallas Life, though without the religious component or many of the restrictions. In theory it closely resembles another program already up and running in Dallas at the Austin Street Centre, a private shelter run by the Reverends Harry and Beulah "Bubba" Dailey. Their "psycho-social rehabilitation program" is run out of their own transitional housing unit and has 40 participants. Of a similar number that began the program two years ago, 35 are now living and working on their own. The Stewpot also offers transitional help.
In fact, the HAC will address the only area of service in which Rawlings says the city already does pretty well. Rawlings gives Dallas a personal grade of B-plus when it comes to temporary housing of the kind to be offered at the HAC. In serving the immediate needs of the homeless on the streets, things like showers and bathrooms, Dallas rates a C-minus. In the third area, long-term housing, Dallas gets a resounding F. Yet of the nearly $24 million in bond money, only $2.5 million is slated for SROs. Many are confident that the HAC will streamline the delivery of assistance to the homeless, but a quantum leap forward it is not.
Rawlings later raises the city's long-term housing grade slightly when he takes into account the 80 SROs already in place. There appear to be more on the way: Two weeks ago, Central Dallas Ministries, a social service agency that grew out of a food pantry at Preston Road Church of Christ, announced plans to remodel a downtown building into about 75 SROs and 125 low-cost apartments. For that small step toward Dallas' stated goal of 700 SROs by 2014, the group wants $1 million of the $2.5 million in city SRO money. At that rate the funds won't last long, but Rawlings isn't worried. He stresses that the money was always intended just to help the first few projects point the way. "I think we're well on our way to making this thing work," he says.
But even if the goals for services and housing are all met, it's not clear how effective any of it would be in drawing in what Rawlings describes as the "tough nuts to crack," Dallas' 1,000-plus chronically homeless. Sweeney succinctly encapsulates the problem: "If a person wants to sleep under a bridge, many of them do not want assistance from you or me, the city or anybody else. They just want to be left alone, and from that perspective I respect those wishes. I think the issue comes when you have agencies that come in to play and say, 'We're going to get out there and love them into our facility.' They didn't ask you for your facility, and whatever you build for a facility they're not interested in. They want to be left alone."
But even for them, Romano has a few ideas. "Why not put bathrooms underneath the bridges like they have in the rest stops along the highways?" he asks. "They've got these in California along the beach, and these things are pretty much bulletproof. They've got stainless steel toilets attached to the ground, they've got no doors--the way they've got it set up, you can go in there and hose the thing down to clean them." Romano says he has asked state Attorney General Greg Abbott to look into the idea. "Maybe the answer is under the bridges because nobody owns that property," he says. "It's not any value to anybody."
Except to the people who live there. "I'm out here because I want to be," Cheyenne Fuller says. She has relatives in Dallas, but Fuller says she doesn't want to involve them in her problems. "When I get tired, I go home and rest up." Choice also gets a regular flow of overnight visits from friends. "For a lot of people, being out here is a release," he says. Robin Bethea even has the dream of making the camp legal by, in effect, squatting on their own land. "Some of us have been talking about pooling our money to, you know, buy a lot," she says.
Choice doesn't remember exactly where he got the suit, whether it was given to him or left behind by someone moving out of the camp. He does remember it was brand-new. "It wasn't just any kind of suit," he says. "It was $300 or $400, $289 on sale, I think the tag said." There's little doubt that the dark business suit was the most expensive thing Choice had owned in quite a while, or that he could have sold it easily. New clothes are always in demand in the camp. "I'm not going anywhere where I need a suit," Choice remembers thinking. "It's not really my style." But it wasn't long before Choice realized he did know someone who occasionally ventured into the corporate world: the Soupman. "Dave, he tries so hard," Choice says of Timothy.
The Soupmobile rolled into Mack's Camp as usual that day roughly 18 months ago. "Typically under the bridge, even though [Choice] has given me safe passage and done a lot for us in that sense, normally it's been us giving to them," Timothy says. "This was his opportunity to give to me."
After the food had been distributed, Choice approached Timothy with his hands behind his back. "I was thinking, 'Now what's this all about?" Timothy says. With an irrepressible grin, Choice presented Timothy with the new suit. "It wasn't that he needed to; I didn't expect anything back," Timothy says. "The fact that he was willing to do it was deeply touching. That had to be the nicest thing he had gotten his hands on, and he gave it to me."
Moments like that are rare under the bridge. More common is the story of Sundance, a resident of a camp off of Industrial Boulevard that Romano got to know well. "He was a Navajo from Arizona," Romano says. "He'd be drunk half the time we'd see him, but he was a nice guy, a very good guy." Sundance had been hit by a car and confined to a wheelchair, and Romano and others at Hunger Busters came up with the idea of collecting money to send him home to visit his family. Before they did, however, Sundance strayed into the path of another car last year. This time, the impact killed him. Romano did pay to send Sundance home, but for a tribal funeral instead of a reunion. In telling the story, Romano has to pause to collect himself. "We get attached to these people," he says.
Back at Mack's Camp, it has become clear after a few days that the bulldozers aren't coming. In celebration, Choice launches an expansion of his house. A new privacy wall of fresh cardboard sets off the recliner in its own area. "The guest quarters," he jokes as he rakes the dirt around his site clean. Choice has also built a burrow for Salt and Pepper that rivals some of the human dwellings in the camp, using a broken chaise longue for reinforcement. She takes to it immediately, disappearing for a lengthy nap in the dark, blanket-lined space.
The burst of constructive activity signals to the camp that the threat has lifted--for now. When Choice ponders longer-term plans for his life, however, the future he sees varies with his mood. On one day, he will declare, "This is just a temporary situation. If you can look up, you can get up, and I'm not going to be here forever." The next, he'll offer a more sobering assessment. "It's like if you fall off a horse, and you don't get right back on, it gets harder. That horse will get to the point where he knows you but you can't get your foot up to get back on. Then, after a while, the horse doesn't even know you anymore."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- That's It Then: The Cowboys 2015 Season Gets Put Out of Its Misery
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast