Homeless in Camden: A daily fight to survive

This article about the challenging work being undertaken on a daily basis in Camden to manage homelessness should only give us more encouragement to work to end homelessness. This appeared in the March 6th Courier-Post.

Homeless in Camden: A daily fight to survive

By ALAN GUENTHER, Courier-Post Staff

CAMDEN

Lonnie Hicks limps past what he calls “the broken-hearted people of the city” — a line of hundreds of Camden’s homeless — huddled against the cold and waiting, gratefully, for the free hot food served each day by the Cathedral Kitchen.

Like a scene from an old black-and-white newsreel of the Great Depression, men and women line up on the street each day outside the soup kitchen at 642 Market St.

Gray stubble lines the faces of the men who rock back and forth, singing softly to themselves. Women try to stay warm, standing with their backs against a stiff, cold breeze.

Hicks, 53, a longtime advocate for the homeless, says some of Camden’s roaming destitute population are haunted by memories real or imagined. Many are overpowered by addiction.

“A lot of them just lost their confidence. They don’t know how to get it back,” Hicks says.

The Cathedral Kitchen, in the middle of a drive to raise $3.5 million to replace its Market Street facility, asks no questions of the people it serves. It demands no proof of sobriety. All it offers is understanding, a cheerful word and hot food served by 81-year-old Clyde “Pop” Jones.

Jones learned to cook from his grandmother in the bayous of Louisiana.

On a recent afternoon, he surveyed the meal he was about to serve in the kitchen’s dim, old gymnasium, where the men eat their meals on cafeteria tables lined with thin red plastic tablecloths.

“I got meatloaf. Hamburger. Chicken. Meatballs. Rice,” Jones says — enough food to feed an average of 350 homeless people each day in the city.

Homeless shelters in Camden can house about 250 people each night. That’s not nearly enough to take care of the need in the city, says Mike Walsh of the Volunteers of America. The lack of adequate shelter is especially bad with the bitterly cold weather forecast for today and Wednesday. If Mayor Gwendolyn Faison declares a Code Blue emergency, police are authorized to save lives by taking homeless people to shelters whether they want to go or not.

Even when the weather is not so cold, homeless people still spill into the Walter Rand Transportation Center on Broadway, where they are allowed to sleep on cardboard boxes on filthy floors.

Last Wednesday evening, 60 people sought shelter in the Rand Center. A man who identified himself only as Paul dozed beneath a white-and-red Red Cross blanket. His lips moved constantly. He refused to speak but held out white papers smeared with pencil. The papers were soft from being folded hundreds of times.

Years ago, Hicks tried to sponsor a concert at the Tweeter Center, where musicians would donate the proceeds to provide the homeless with job training and addiction counseling.

“You know, like Willie Nelson did, with Farm Aid,” Hicks says. He would call his concert “Urban Aid,” he says, but he needs $250,000 to get his project off the ground.

Many of the people waiting in line at the Cathedral Kitchen grew up with Hicks, who was homeless himself for a year in 1986.

Longtime friend Ricardo “Bosco” Seymore, 60, hugs Hicks and tells him he’s worried about how much longer he’ll be able to get by living hand-to-mouth.

“I’m gonna tell you, I got congestive heart failure. I got high blood pressure. And I’m short of breath,” Seymore says. “It happened to me all at once.”

About 20 years ago, Seymore says, he lost his mother and father, both to heart attacks. He never recovered from the loss.

“That left me out here all by myself,” he says. Later, he stayed with a woman who was paralyzed from an accident, but when she won a $180,000 settlement, “Boom! She was gone!”

He sold drugs in the city for years, Seymore says. “I was the best in the business. Anything you wanted, I could get it.”

But he’s been clean and sober, out of the drug business for 10 years, he says.

“I’m a 60-year-old man,” says Seymore. “I want to be married, sitting down. You know? Just watching this whole city go up to what it’s supposed to be.”

“I hear you,” says Hicks. “That’s the thing about it, man. By the time this place becomes the town we remembered, we’ll be too old to enjoy it.”

Reach Alan Guenther at (856) 317-7871 or
[liPublished]: March 06. 2007 3:10AM

HOW TO HELP

For more information about the Cathedral Kitchen’s fundraising drive, call (856) 964-6771.

To find out more about the Volunteers of America, or to offer volunteer services, call (856) 854-4660.

To contact homeless advocate Lonnie Hicks, call (856) 831-9863.