The Place that Hope Forgot to Visit on Election Day

New America Media, Published November 9, 2008

Editor’s Note: The celebration of Barack Obama’s historic victory felt very far away to residents of Tent City, a homeless encampment in the woods of Athens, Ga. NAM writer Russell Morse visited Tent City on election night and found that it was a place that had lost its hope long ago.

ATHENS, Ga. — On the eve of the election, long after the late fall sun had set, I went for a walk down Lexington Ave. on the East side of Athens, Ga. I heard from a man named Ed that there was a homeless encampment in the woods down there, something people referred to as Tent City.

My cousin Bogey walked with me, twirling a flashlight in his hand. He agreed to come along as my partner, driving us from his home in Atlanta to this dark stretch of Athens, a little over an hour away. I buttoned the top button of my wool coat and pulled my hat over my ears to keep out the cold as we walked in silence.

Down the sidewalk after several hundred feet, we came across a fence made from slender logs and some wire. It framed one side of a slight clearing in the woods, opening up for a path. Up a gradual incline, two small wooden structures were visible in the light of a fire, stoked by a man in a baseball cap. We made our way up the path and after a few feet, the beam of our flashlight caught a man lying down directly in front of us, arms sprawled out, either dead, drunk, asleep or all three.

A woman stood up in the second shack, just behind the fire, stretching her arms above her head. Approaching the two, I waved. “Good evening. Somebody told me this was a good place to camp out for a couple nights.” The man shook his head and poked the fire with a stick. “Nope. All fulled up.”

I pointed to where the path continued behind them. “How about up there?” The woman then, too, shook her head. “You don’t wanna go up there. They’re crazy up there.” She paused. “And they don’t like newcomers.”

The man still did not look up from the fire. “You might wanna try down by the railroad tracks.”

I tipped my cap and made a gracious exit.

This clearing in the woods has been known as Tent City so long no one can put a number on it. Some say 20 years, others 15. It’s grown and contracted from over 30 people to down to five or six. I made my way to Athens to see how life in Tent City has changed, if at all, with the recent economic developments and waves of people losing their homes to foreclosure.

The couple of days I spent in Athens learning about the place and visiting, there were about eight people living there. I met four of them and heard stories about the others (the guys up the path). The people I met were more or less permanent residents of Tent City. They live in small wooden huts and ended up there for the same reasons most people end up homeless: mental health issues, substance abuse problems and a string of bad luck. It wasn’t obvious that the place had changed in the wake of the recent economic downturn, but it was certainly sobering to spend a euphoric, hopeful and exuberant election day in a place where hope was dead.

Because we couldn’t find room to camp out at Tent City, my cousin found us a place to crash for the night with a friend of his in the area.

I woke up early the morning of Election Day on the floor of a crowded living room with a stranger telling me I had to leave. He scurried from room to room, putting things in boxes and fidgeting nervously. The stranger was our friend’s roommate and he explained that someone was coming to take pictures of the house and everybody had to be out. Minutes later, he was gone.

We got our things set to leave and we could hear our friend arguing on the telephone in the other room. “Well that’s fine, but am I gonna get my 250 bucks back?” We said goodbye and walked out.

I asked my cousin what he thought his friend was going to do now, having just lost his apartment. He looked at me and shrugged.

Around noon, I went to meet with Ed Moore at the Homeless Day Service Center, just up the road from Tent City. His directions led me to the encampment the night before and he agreed to take me up there with him, to introduce me to people and show me around.

At the center, two older, slim men with short, scruffy beards sitting on the porch greeted me as I approached. Tuesday is laundry day at the center and they were there washing their clothes. Inside, I met with Ed and he told me more about the center and Tent City itself. People come to the center for basic services: to use the telephone, take showers, do their laundry and collect mail. Ed does what he can to connect them with housing, health care and finding a job.

As his day wrapped up around 4:30, I went with him for a visit to Tent City. We made our way up the same path, this time in the daylight, and I met Anthony, who was sitting on a couch in the woods. He was excited to see Ed and got off the couch to greet us. Next to the couch was a wooden shack big enough for a small bed and a dresser. Another man, Bobby, was inside cleaning up.

Anthony, who was drinking a tall can of beer and was clearly very drunk, shared his enthusiasm for Election Day. He told me he voted, but didn’t want to say for whom. I asked him if he felt like his pick is going to make things better. He thought about it and said, “It’s not gonna change things for me, but it’ll change things for everybody else.”

A small black and white cat made its way through the bushes across from us. Anthony pointed and said, “That’s Conniver. That’s Tent City’s cat.”

A few feet away, I saw Ed talking to the woman I met the night before as she complained about the people that have been coming up there. She pointed to the path. “That used to be a tiny little narrow path that you could barely find. Now, with people comin’ up here, it’s like a big ol’ road.”

Anthony came up, talking loudly and interrupting Ed’s conversation with the woman, who was clearly annoyed with him. She snapped at him, scrunching up her face. “Don’t talk politics at that boy! Why don’ you tell about how you drink mouthwash?!”

Anthony looked confused and then laughed loudly. “Yeah, I did drink mouthwash! Yeah, I did!” He stumbled back to the couch that was in front of Bobby’s shack.

I went over and said hi to Bobby, poking my head inside his wood hut while he tidied. Above the door was a Georgia Bulldogs flag, a little tattered. Inside, Bobby sat on a small bed, straightening items on top of an old wooden, furniture-style television set. The room was small enough that he could sit on the bed in one spot and touch all four walls, but he keeps it tidy. He smiled bashfully when I asked him if the TV works. He told me, “Yeah, it work, but I don’ watch it much.” He quickly went back to his tidying, laying out a folded t-shirt on the bed.

I could hear the woman a few feet away, still talking to Ed about her gripes. She pointed to all the trash around and said, “We’re fine. It’s these drunks that come up here and tear up the place. I’m sick of it.”

She was standing in front of the other wooden hut, which I saw her inside of the night before. She keeps hers tidy, and shares it with the man who poked the fire and sent me to the railroad tracks.

It became obvious that there was a kind of separation in the camp between people in the wooden huts, who are the more permanent residents, and people in the tents, who are more transient.

Anthony ran up to Ed again, asking him questions about a shelter. “When you gonna get me in that place? I’m tryin’ to get an apartment.”

Ed smiled and explained that it wasn’t that simple, but if he comes in to see him, they can get started on it.

Bobby got some wood together and was tending to a fire in a tall metal can. He hung some clothes on a piece of rope strung between trees above the fire.

Aside from Anthony’s questionable claim that he voted, no one mentioned the election. When I asked people about it, they looked at me with a sad confusion and just shook their heads. I suspect that Anthony’s enthusiasm was more about having someone to talk to, as everyone else in the camp ignored him. In fact, everyone but him kept pretty quiet most of the time, tidying their spaces, carrying out their chores.

After some time, Ed and I headed back down the path, saying our goodbyes.

Ed explained to me that the wood shacks were built a while back by members of a Atlanta-based organization called The Mad Housers, who visit places like Tent City and assemble these simple, permanent structures for people. “They’re a good group,” he said. “They have an understanding of housing as a basic human right.”

I headed back to Atlanta that night to watch the election results and visit with my aunt, Bogey’s mom. We ate chips and salsa with the hum of CNN on in the background. We talked about Thanksgiving plans and gossiped for a while, and eventually the conversation turned to my grandmother.

For the week or so before I got to Georgia, my seven aunts and uncles were debating and discussing how to keep my grandmother in her house. This development was news to me. The initial plan for Thanksgiving was that we would help pack up grandma’s place for wherever she would have to be moving to. During my visit, fortunately, the aunts and uncles figured out an 11th hour solution so she could stay in her place.

Everybody went to bed early, so I watched Obama’s acceptance speech alone on the couch. I knew it was an epic moment, one that would define my generation, but I couldn’t grasp it. It felt like I was watching underwater or in a thick fog. I watched footage of thousands of crying and cheering people, dancing in the streets all across the country. Sitting alone on a couch in Georgia, a state that voted overwhelmingly for McCain, it all felt very far away.

I knew that there was no dancing in Tent City that night, no tears of joy. I wasn’t sure how relevant the lives of those sad and struggling Americans in Tent City were to the lives of these other sad and struggling Americans, who now managed to find their redemption in Obama’s victory.