Reaching Further

A look at homelessness with The Forgotten Louisville and My Dog Eats First

By Tara Bassett

Photos by John O’Haver

“C’mere, Bish,” calls Dogman.

The black chihuahua mix runs across the yard, leaps into the man’s arms and snuggles into his lap as he drops into a chair on what appears to be his front porch. Bish discovers a treat on the end table and then licks her human’s face, her way of requesting a swig of his cold water.

“Y’all come on, too,” he gestures to me and my group. My companions – Glinda Poole-Adkins, Maurice Lemons and photographer John O’Haver  –step onto the threshold of an abode the likes of which I’ve never seen.

The structure was built and is occupied by a 47-year-old named Michael, or as he’s better known, Dogman. Made of tarpaulins stretched over support beams of metal and wood, it’s quite functional and colorful. It’s complete with curtain walls to create discrete spaces for all the activities of life, including a shop to repair bicycles.

6,300 people in shelters or living on the city streets in 2017

— 2017 Louisville Coalition for the Homeless

Dogman lives in a tent city near the edge of downtown, home to several dozen campers. Even before we crossed the tree line delineating the property, Glinda – an uber-volunteer who knows everyone in the camp – called Dogman’s name. He is widely acknowledged as the “mayor” of this area, acting as a leader of the rest of his community. He’s shirtless in the late September heat, and his tattooed body is a sight to behold. Sunglasses are perched above his steel blue eyes.

If the Good Witch of the East from “The Wizard of Oz” had a deserving namesake, it’s Glinda. Her cheery, affectionate persona and tenacity make things happen. The Forgotten Louisville, a local nonprofit, serves this camp and Glinda, an active volunteer for the organization, knows everyone in it. She is one of many good Samaritans from various backgrounds who have one thing in common: “a great love for people, including the hurting, the addicted, the lost, the lonely and the homeless.”

The Tin Man to Glinda’s fairy godmother, Maurice, brings experience backed by 15 years of intermittent homelessness and a grounded attitude toward directing people who live as he once did on how to be productive members of society. “From the time that they need other people to do for them that which they once did for themselves, the homeless are continually learning how to balance regaining their skills and self-sufficiency with seeking assistance,” he says with passion. “The biggest difference in my decision to turn away from my filth and turn back to being responsible was when The Forgotten Louisville gave me the chance to be useful again.”

The duo drives a minivan packed to the roof with supplies when they’re not steering a moving truck full of The Forgotten Furniture, which Glinda created in 2016. Maurice joined a year later to furnish brick and mortar apartments for the lucky ones on the housing list. They both greet Dogman and ask how it goes.

 “Chris has got to go,” he grumbles with authority. “He’s all crazy again and stirring s— up in here.” A former resident whose meth addiction has become too much for the camp to handle, Chris was essentially voted “off the island.” Now, he’s back in town and wreaking havoc in his old digs, and members of the community must act.

Who knew that homeless aggregations have their own form of government? When he moves into a new camp, Dogman usually becomes the leader, then develops and enforces rules and regulations. “We vote,” Dogman says. “You live like this, you gotta have some sort of organization.” He is so hardened by such a difficult life, he engenders a respect that enables him to effectively guide the group of squatters occupying at least a half-acre.

I drive daily through an underpass downtown where tons of garbage lines the street, and ask Dogman the difference between that community and his meticulous camp. “You know why those people throw all that crap out there? To keep YOU away. They make it so nasty so no one will bother them.”

Maurice agrees. “I didn’t take a bath for four years. I wanted to stink so bad nobody would come near me. And it worked.”

They both laugh, but they’re dead serious.

The attention is then directed to Bish, who is barking madly and running in circles around her “yard.” I notice she’s wearing a service dog vest. “She’s been with me all her life,” Dogman says, gazing at the three-year-old dog who never leaves his side. “She got away once, but they got her back,” he says, referring to Betheny Buster, the founder of My Dog Eats First, a Louisville nonprofit that provides food, leashes, rudimentary vet care and other companion animal needs. Beth and her volunteers put in endless hours helping the owners as well. Dogman has known her since she started My Dog Eats First about 15 years ago. He was glad to meet the go-getter who saw the great need for her organization.

It’s turned crisp a few days later when photographer John and I meet up with Leslie Hansford, a My Dog Eats First board member and volunteer coordinator. Dogman has moved – too much drama at the old camp, theft among the residents and an  intolerable number of rats. The main reason for the move, however: the banished meth user named Chris threatened to kill Dogman and Bish. Even though Chris was arrested and remanded to psychiatric observation for several days, Bish and Dogman packed up and left their humble home behind. Now, they’re in a forested area off of Mellwood with just one other camper.

Leslie recently helped Dogman get Bish certified as his Emotional Support Animal, enabling him to take her places where the average dog can’t go, hence the service vest. Maurice congratulates them on the honor. Dogman and Leslie have forged a close relationship. He asks her to “pass the word” to certain people about his new location, a sort of verbal forwarding address.

She gestures to Dogman. “We supply our outreaches with dog food and they deliver it. Now that I’m downtown working, I’m closer to a lot of the guys I know. I can help them make phone calls, wash a few clothes, try to get them into treatment, make sure they get their medications – whatever I can do.” She has to be the Scarecrow, with a brain geared for figuring out how to do things the homeless aren’t able to do for themselves, then teaching them how to do it on their own.

Though Leslie works with the animal-oriented organization, the outreach workers all know and support each other, often overlapping services to their human and animal clients. It’s a close-knit group. Both the helpers and those being helped consider each other family. And they all are dealing with multiple issues with the people they serve.

1 in 4 of the homeless population in America suffers from severe mental illness

— The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says

“The (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) data says about 25 percent of our national homeless population suffers from a severe form of mental illness,” says Beth, the knowledgeable young woman who is getting ready to franchise her own full-time pet sitting business as she continues to head up My Dog Eats First. “It’s so traumatic being homeless; it can make your existing mental health issues even worse. These folks really count on their pets. We call them companion animals because they protect their humans, emotionally and physically.

“They don’t care if you bathe,” she continues. “They are there for you when you’re down, and I don’t know one homeless person who doesn’t suffer from at least some depression. When the world just shuns you, your animal is still by your side.”

Homelessness, mental illness, addiction – not at all strange bedfellows. The 2017 Louisville Coalition for the Homeless cite 6,300 people in shelters or living on the city streets. The Healing Place reports 426 Jefferson County lives were lost to an overdose last year. (Also worth mentioning is the devastating percentage of youth in the homeless population. Coming in 2019, Sweet Evening Breeze homeless shelter will serve LGBTQ youth.)

The toxic trio that takes many lives each day manifests in Dogman, who survives outside, sometimes takes psychiatric medication and admits an addiction for which he desires treatment. He cleans up his camps, cares for himself and his tiny dog and has big dreams, like going to a mechanic’s school to be able to build more motorcycles. Right now he is using his knowledge in mechanics to fix bicycles. He doesn’t fear hard work, scours the city for parts and wants people to know he’ll make their repairs. He wants to become even more literate and also loves playing music on Maurice’s loaned guitar.

The experienced outdoorsman would like to get indoors again, but bare floors and walls are not very welcoming for the newly housed.

“I’ve been in housing for a year,” says Maurice. “After I learned how the housing process worked, getting people re-housed became my top priority. But after helping people that moved into a new apartment with nothing more than the sleeping bag they brought from their tent, I knew there had to be a better way. So I help Glinda find and deliver The Forgotten Furniture.”

The workload of committed outreach volunteers is extraordinary. Many make themselves available year round, all the while maintaining their own homes and families.

Maurice continues, “Now, we can help homeless people get their start at social reintegration with a whole house worth of furniture at no cost to them. With downtown storage rates being what they are, too often we can’t accept donations based on the rehousing rate. But if anyone wants to rent a U-Haul or volunteer to move people into their new homes, we’ll take all the help we can get.”

Formerly homeless himself, Maurice opines on the nature of the beast: “Once you reach the place of ‘no pay, no stay,’ your sense of self-worth, your identity as a member of society, your belief in your own ability to solve your problems are all shot. To anyone who wishes homeless people would ‘get their act together,’ be honest: how rarely does anyone at the bottom of society get a chance to be useful in any way? And if no one gives the poorest of the poor a chance to elevate themselves from the bottom, why is anyone so surprised that so few ever do?”

By our third meeting with Dogman, we’ve become comfortable talking about the deeper topics. He sits down for a “Take it from Tara Facebook Live” broadcast with Maurice, Leslie and me. He speaks pointedly about the responsibility of homeless individuals to take care of themselves and not be a burden on society. “They hoard all that stuff people hand out,” he explains. “A bottle of shampoo lasts me two weeks. They take 10. Let everybody have a share.”

Dogman wants to get sober and back on medications that assuage symptoms of mental illness. He is sincere about his goal, and he plans to follow a campmate who promises to “show (him) the ropes” of successfully completing treatment.

Dogman has siblings, children and grandkids and would like to see them soon. My Dog Eats First and The Forgotten Louisville give him all the support he needs to accomplish his goals. He is grateful for the love and encouragement he gets from Betheny, Leslie, Glinda and Maurice.

Natalie Harris, executive director of Louisville Coalition for the Homeless, with which both My Dog Eats First and The Forgotten Louisville work, says, “I don’t know any other city in the country that has the extensive number of committed volunteers going day in and day out to help their homeless neighbors. There are over a dozen groups and churches in our community doing this work every week because they care about others.”

Dogman knows that, without a doubt. He asks me if I’d “be an angel, and tell people I’ll fix their bikes. We earn our way.”

Bish runs across the track, is picked up by her arms and gets a snuggle from Dogman. Then, they turn and walk down the railroad track for a distance, disappear inginto the tall grass toward home. V

Many Louisville outreach organizations are staffed by volunteers who serve hot meals, deliver tarps, jeans, boots and sterno (for the upcoming winter) and provide services and personal support needed by the homeless population. You can help. (*Please don’t visit the camps on your own.) Contact the Forgotten Louisville and My Dog Eats First on Facebook to offer your time and talent.

Photos by Tara Bassett.

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