Look out the window and you’ll probably see fall’s colors in full flame. Here at Changing Gears we’ve also been looking at the autumn leaves. They may be beautiful, but as Ann Arbor reporter Kate Davidson found, they can’t camouflage the impact of the economy.[audio: 20101008_davidson.mp3]
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The other day, friends and I decided to see the fall colors for ourselves. So we spent an afternoon paddling down the Huron River. It’s something both tourists and locals love to do when the weather’s fine.
Crimson and yellow shone from the banks. But we noticed splashes of color that weren’t from the leaves. They were from the bright tents of homeless camps.
We pulled the canoe beneath a graffiti-covered bridge. There I met a quiet man named James. He introduced himself as, “Kasperski, James,” using his last name first. It was the way you might speak to someone who has your name on file.
We were joined by Tom and Randy. Both have lived under this bridge off and on for 20 years, basically half their lives. But Randy said he had been holding down an apartment, until the recession hit.
“I lost my job, so now I’m homeless again,” he said. “I wasn’t homeless for three and half years. So it was working good until the economy took a dump. Put me right back down in here again.”
‘Down here,’ tucked under the bridge, were five tents in a row, a few mismatched chairs, beer bottles (40 oz) and an overturned grill.
But it was neat. Two brooms leaned against the overpass wall, just upstream from the prestigious University of Michigan hospital.
James has been calling the Huron’s bridges home for 13 years. He has schizophrenia. While the others sipped King Cobra beer, James drank generic cola.
When I asked too much, James would lean back in his chair and point his wild beard to the sky. He sleeps a lot.
“As long as I got a place to sleep and wake up in the morning, then I’m fine,” he said. “It could be better. Seeing that winter’s coming it’s gonna be hibernation time.”
When winter comes, the men just add more blankets. “Bundle up and shut up,” as Tom put it.
Still, fall is their favorite time of year. For James, it’s because the bugs go away just before winter. Tom loves the turning leaves. “It’s easy to go to sleep at night hearing the river,” he said. But he hates being homeless.
When I got up to leave, James pulled two things from his pocket: a pouch of tobacco for their hand rolled cigarettes and a reminder from his probation officer. 11:30 Monday morning.
Tom said he’d make sure James went. The men in this small community help each other.
“This is home,” Tom said. “People got four walls and everything like that, well we got a tent. We ain’t got much in life but what we’ve got, we have in our tent.”
Paddling away, we could hear the men laughing, but they were hidden again by the bridge and the trees.
When the leaves fall, their lives may stand out more starkly.