April 12, 2013 by nateaddington
I have been a tourist in some of the greatest cities in the world. I’ve taken off centered pictures of famous landmarks and bought overpriced souvenirs in Paris, Rome, New York, Washington D.C., Brussels, and Athens. But yesterday I was a tourist in a new kind of city, an estranged subculture within an established community where the largest landmark was the patch work of tarps that served as a mess hall for the thirty some citizens, and whose only souvenir was the crumpled coffee cup I clutched in my hand.
About a month ago, I was told about a community of homeless people living near an overpass of US 30 in Wooster, OH (about 20 minutes East of my hometown of Ashland, OH). My reaction then was that they were misinformed, that it must be another “Wooster” in a different state. I knew we had some homeless in our area, but surely after 6 years in Ashland I would have known about a community of thirty individuals that were living practically in my back yard. I quickly put the thought out of my mind as something out of the reach of my influence or control.
I woke up yesterday morning, and, for some reason, the story reentered my mind. I did a bit of research once I got into the office, and, sure enough, there were many news articles and reports of the community, known as Tent City, all of which ended with updates in 2011. I was blown away, but also filled with so many questions. Why did the news coverage stop in 2011? Was Tent City still there? Where exactly was “there”? Should I go and see this for myself, and if yes, how was I going to find it?
After a bit more searching online I stumbled upon a single photograph posted on Flickr page of the founder/leader of Tent City, Roger.
The owner of the flickr page, a local photographer, had his number listed, and I thought to myself, well why stop searching now? I gave Zed, the photographers online moniker, a phone call and he filled me in on the background of Tent City, it’s location, and most importantly confirmed that not only was it still there, but that it had grown substantially in the last few years.
Sometimes I think God puts an idea inside me, and when he does, I have this insatiable urge to complete that idea as soon as possible. I knew I had to go and see Tent City for myself. Unsure of what the current needs and conditions were, a student and I hit the road after grabbing some cups and a gallon of coffee to share with whomever we might encounter.
After parking at a nearby Super 8 Motel, we made our way up the overpass and then over the guardrail and down a steep and muddy slope to what looked like a makeshift campground filled with old bicycles.
Photo courtesy of The Woostonian.
Most of the citizens of Tent City had made for warmer and dryer conditions that day, which largely consisted of the Wooster Public Library, referred to by the residents as the Crystal Cathedral. We were, however, able to to meet with four of the citizens. There was, Deanna, foul mouthed and jolly, she was the self proclaimed second in command, whose prominence seemed based entirely on her seniority. Not counting a few month long stays in the hospital for extreme frost bite and hypothermia, Deanna has been calling Tent City her home for 31 months. Then there was TJ, struggling to get back on his feet after being released from prison after four years, Rick, an air force veteran, and John, who remained quiet and aloof during our visit.
Deanna and TJ revealed to me the amazing constructs and regulations that governed their tribe of down and out-ers. The first rule was no drugs or alcohol within the city limits, no exceptions. The second regulation, no begging.
As Deanna put it, “we are not solicitors and Roger doesn’t want us to be beggars and dependents. This is a mission for those who don’t have any place else to go, we want to get you back on your feet and out of here again.”
The final rule was that no one under 18 was allowed. As TJ looked around at the remnants of trash and the water from the creek that was rapidly rising from the previous days rains, he reminded us that this was “clearly, no place for children.”
Failure to keep to the rules was grounds for your exile from the city.
We stayed for about forty five minutes talking and sharing our coffee as we learned about the rich heritage of Tent City. We listened as Deanna told us about how Roger was sued by the city of Wooster and by the Ohio Department of Transportation in attempts to get the residents to move out. A fight which roger won. We chatted on ways their lives could be improved and the simple needs the residents struggled to supply themselves with.
As I reflected on our time spent as tourists in Tent City I can’t help but feel that we have failed these people. We have become, as my good friend P. Floyd would say, comfortably numb to them. Mark 14:7 reminds us that the poor will always be with us, but that is not a condition for perpetual neglect in a never ending battle, it is a comission to continual care for those who have been forgotten by so many.
I know that many will read this and think that the citizens of Tent City should simply pull them selves up by their bootstraps, that they should shape up and ship out. I suppose that in fundamental terms, at least, we can agree. This is no place for them, they don’t belong there. No one does. I have never visited a city that I hated more than this one. Not because of its citizens, but because what it represented, a failure on our part to take care of the most vulnerable among us.
Today is a new day in Tent City, but it is also a new day for me and for you. This morning, and every one after, we are given a fresh start and a clean slate. We are given the opportunity to take notice of those around us that we have simply ignored or missed and to lift them up and restore to the the dignity and worth they so desperately deserve.
Photo courtesy of The Woostonian.