By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
Her name is Karen Rose Foreman but the people who share the shelter of the overpass on Jefferson Street with her just call her Rose. She worked at a department store in another life, she says, adding that sometimes she modeled their fashions.
That was long before she started sleeping on the street and relied on a wheelchair.
Rose has struggled with substance abuse and been homeless off and on for at least five years. She and more than a dozen others were bundled silently and still under layers of blankets on a recent Saturday morning under the I-65 overpass. Traffic thundered along above and beside them; the thermometer registered 25 degrees.
When Stephanie Kornexl, Lynne Ward and a handful of their friends pulled alongside the makeshift camp Dec. 8, the inhabitants shrugged off the covers and released their hold on fleeting warmth.
It was worth it. The visitors were passing out tangerines, apples, chapstick, socks, sandwiches, protein bars, coats. All sorts of items that might bring a little relief to a most uncomfortable existence.
While the privations under the overpass are serious — even perilous to some — the residents each said there’s one thing they’ve found in their concrete haven they don’t find elsewhere.
“People actually care for you here,” said Allen, a 19-year-old who said he grew up Catholic and is bi-polar. He declined to give his last name.
Salt deposits on his dark cheeks traced the lines of his recent tears. He thinks seriously about suicide all the time, he said.
Allen believes, “America doesn’t know how to love people. People are worried about themselves.”
“I love it (under the overpass),” he added. “They care about me and I care about them.”
Nearby, a couple of 25-year-olds — Erik and Angel — are living on the street while they save money for an apartment. They run a makeshift pantry in the camp to help people like Allen.
“We stick together around here and help each other out,” Erik said, also declining to use his last name.
Erik recently found a restaurant job. Angel is looking for work, she said, but her phone won’t stay charged, so she keeps missing potential call-backs.
On the street, they keep track of extra food donations and hand them out to people in need. The couple said they don’t stay in a shelter because they can’t stay together inside.
So, while they save, their bed is laid out next to Rose’s. It’s a neat space — shoes are clustered together in one spot and food is kept in a separate box.
Along the underpass, residents arrange themselves in a row against the frigid concrete wall. Each person or couple has an area about the size of a double bed to themselves. Blankets spread on the filthy sidewalk delineate the sleeping area and boxes, bags or piles of clothing and food dot the border of each “bedroom.”
And a few days every week since it turned cold, visitors pop in with gifts — food, fresh blankets, pillows and other comforts.
The dropping off of donations is a mixed blessing. City leaders have recently asked that people stop dropping donations at homeless camps. Unwanted items become debris piles that must be bulldozed away.
But folks like Kornexl and Ward hand out items individually, only leaving what a person takes in that moment. They also bring something that can’t be bulldozed, said Rose and the other residents who wanted to be interviewed.
“They care about us,” said Rose, who explained she’s been barred from local shelters for drinking. “They are trying to help, but this is an astronomical situation.
“There are a lot of people down here in wheelchairs and canes with major health issues. We need help.
“We all try to keep an eye on each other. I got a little pantry set up here to help people who come down here with no food. I’m trying to help out.”
Rose, who said she grew up attending Our Lady Church in Portland and later St. Denis Church and Angela Merici High School, also said she is grateful for “the good people who do come forward in this community and offer help and services and actually have love and concern in their heart.”
Ward and Kornexl, who have developed relationships with the people they see regularly, know their needs and try to meet the needs they can address.
“We know we’re not out here solving homelessness, but it’s so easy to just share what you have with others and be compassionate,” said Kornexl, a member of St. William Church. “Some people just want to have their stories listened to. Sometimes there’s not much we can offer.
“Being out here reminds me what the larger issues are, as well,” she said. “There are a lot of organizations out there and social workers. But we as people need to be engaged.”
Kornexl first visited the encampment after she heard about Ward’s efforts, she said.
“I think compassion is catching,” she said. “I heard Lynne wanted to do this. I thought, yeah, I’ll help. … Suddenly my neighbors are bringing scarves.”
“People want to help but they don’t know how. The more people do it the easier it becomes,” she added.
Ward, who said her mother instilled her with a strong sense of responsibility for people who need help, said she couldn’t stay away when she realized people were suffering nearby.
“There’s such a stigma around homelessness. I think the more people who can interact with people, they’ll realize they are decent human beings who are down on their luck. People are afraid of them. I find no fear here. They’re people worthy of care,” Ward said.
“Some of them are working,” said Ward. “One gentleman needs TARC tickets to get to his job. A young man came up and specifically needed black shoes for his job.”
Among the residents, Ward said, is a range of people — from “veterans to people down on their luck to families, women and kids, pregnant women, people with disabilities, drug addiction.”
On that recent frigid Saturday, Ward was on a mission to wrap a blanket around Rose’s shoulders.
“I had to find Rose after I met her and put a blanket around her. I came down here in one week three different times looking just for her. And I found her.”