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A Homeless City in the Woods

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Steve has set few rules for the camp, understanding that people who wind up homeless are usually not good rule-followers, and that holding them to a stricter behavioral standard than even the average person, as many shelters do, can be counterproductive. He expects people not to bring drugs into the vicinity, to do their share to keep the camp tidy, and not to drink to the point of becoming a public nuisance. Otherwise, he has let the camp more or less run itself.

Over the course of its three-year existence, Cedar Bridge has experimented with almost every kind of social governance, from a band of loose alliances to a tribalist society to a pseudo-monarchy to a democracy prone to bouts of anarchy. The camp’s first self-appointed leaders, a couple called Frankie and Dragon, ruled with an iron fist. Frankie weighed close to 300 pounds and liked to be called “The Queen.” She hoarded the camp’s donations, sharing them discriminatingly. When she “programmed up” and left with Dragon in the fall of 2008, power shifted from her tent at the west end of camp to the east, where a couple named Benny and T. were gathering tents of friends around them. Benny and T. were involved in “drama,” which in camp terminology means drugs.

Steve has always hoped that the two sides of the campground, separated by a footpath, would share supplies and cooperate. But as new members arrived, they tended to gravitate to one or the other, largely along racial lines: Mexicans and whites at the west end, African-Americans at the east. Everyone but a few Puerto Ricans got along with the Mexicans, who, thanks to a language barrier, mostly kept to themselves. But between the other groups, an attitude developed that both sides describe as “the hell with everybody else.” Donations dropped off on one side tended to disappear there. If one group ran out of food or propane, it couldn’t rely on the other to provide it. Each side felt that it was being more generous than the other.

Steve had heard the grumbling around camp, but he hadn’t realized he was dealing with a full-blown coup.

This summer ushered in an era of representative government when the residents of Cedar Bridge agreed to grant control to two recent arrivals, Mike and Tracy. Mike, a construction worker and Lakewood native, was a familiar face to many, though this is his first experience with homelessness. Tracy’s is more of a chronic case, as a felony on her record has made it difficult for her to find work. An interracial couple, they plunked down their tent right in the middle of the camp and mostly put an end to the squabbling. They are a charismatic pair—he playing the cool cat to her mother hen—and their ascendancy is as close to a majority vote as Cedar Bridge is ever likely to get.

They’ve taken their roles seriously. A veteran waitress, Tracy often cooks for the camp, whether it’s hot dogs on the grill or something more elaborate, concocted from whatever happens to have been donated. (“I’m making something crazy,” she announces one night, throwing Romaine lettuce into a pan of sizzling bacon.) Mike keeps the keys to the storage tents, dispensing canned goods and toilet paper as needed. His supervision ensures that no one hoards donations or, worse, “trades them for crack,” as has been known to happen. “You have to keep a good sense of what’s going where, who’s using it,” he says.

Today a large donation of clothes has been dropped off, and Tracy has been organizing it, putting aside little piles for different people. Now she meanders through camp, peddling goods. “Men’s briefs! Brand-new! 32-34s!”

About a third of the camp’s residents are women, and, lucky for Tracy, no one is the exact same size. It’s not easy to “shop” in the dark, but once back at the donation tent, she pushes her glasses up on her nose, perches a flashlight on a defunct washing machine, and starts systematically going through trash bags.

“I don’t know about this brown shirt. I don’t think the buttons look right,” she says, placing it to the side. She holds a pair of jeans up to the light. “Hmmm … these are small. They may fit the new girl.” She starts a pile.

Not all the donated clothes are necessarily camp-appropriate, but few people expect to be there forever, and as Tracy explains, “Nicer clothes are donated than I could ever afford.” At one point, she holds out a slinky black skirt with a long slit up the back. “This is cute,” she says. “Okay, you can put a pair of high heels on, a nice cami … Burgundy shoes! Burgundy shoes would really kick that. I could wear it for Christmas.” Later she stumbles across a bag with teddies, a miniskirt, and a string bikini the size of a cocktail napkin, all of which get divvied up.


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