- Associated Press - Sunday, November 20, 2016

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) - Editor’s note: The following is written as a first person account of living 24 hours as a homeless person in Martinsburg. Staff writer Jeff McCoy entered into this 24-hour period without money, personal identification, food or planned shelter.

It was very cold in the homeless camp before sun up. Robert Lee Truben, a homeless man living in the woods, would be my host for the 24 hours. I announced I was coming. I don’t realize he was asleep. His clothes were wet and he was wearing shoes, but no socks, and his sleeping bag was filthy, dirty and smelled bad. His body was positioned on a rock, right under his back, and the ground was cold.

National Hunger and Homeless Week is underway and this tour would help me to better understand the plight of the homeless in Martinsburg.

I had met Truben two days earlier. I found him to be soft-spoken, eager to please and very lonely and depressed. He does not drink or take illegal drugs. As he tries to get up he hit his head on a bench.

“I’m sorry I woke you, why don’t you just go back to sleep?” I ask. He won’t hear any of that. I am his guest and he wants to make sure that I have a place to sit.

The day I met him, I told him I was coming out to spend 24 hours with him Friday. He was so happy to have company - anyone - that he was not going to be able to go back to sleep. I was not sure of his routine, so I found a spot and sat down.

Truben opens a can of Vienna Sausages and started on his breakfast. He was meticulous with the food, taking time to open the can as if he was preparing a meal at the White House. He looked over the camp. It looked like a war-zone, trash was spread out from many people having lived there throughout the years. Empty beer bottles littered the ground along with empty soup cans. He told me about some notes he found which listed how some wine was made. The notes belonged to someone who lived there before Truben moved in.

“He must have thought about wine a lot,” Truben said.

Truben walks with a cane and falls often. He lost his eyeglasses when he fell over a hill. He just recently found his ball cap. He has been sleeping with his head bare in the cold night air.

He had a cellphone, which needed to be charged. He called someone from a church who offered to help him Friday. There was no answer.

I notice Truben loses his train of thought, his speech was stressed and he took a long time to say something.

“It’s from my many mini-strokes,” he informed me. It becomes obvious that he was challenged in day-to-day life skills.

One major problem for him was the death of his mother, which occurred last December. He seems totally lost without her.

“You lose your mom . you lose your best friend,” he said with tears starting to fall. His pain was so real, it filled the air and cut me like a knife. It reached into his soul. He wants a family to love and a family to love him.

At 7:55 a.m., we walked out of the woods and started the trip to McDonald’s. I saw the American flag flying in a full breeze. I could only think of how cold it would be later. Morning traffic was heavy and Truben was not paying attention. I stopped him before he walked into a moving vehicle. A woman driver saw us, turned on her flashers and stopped. The other lane also stopped and we made our way across Edwin Miller Boulevard.

I asked Truben if he had ever tried holding a homeless sign to get money.

“No, I never tried,” he said. Someone had given Truben a McDonald’s gift card. He bought a breakfast and a small coffee.

As we sat in the warm restaurant, he charged his phone and spoke of his parents and - again - of how much he misses his mother. He told me of how he got the news, a phone call from his father.

“I believe it was about ten o’clock in the morning,” he said, as his eyes filled with tears. He watched families coming in and having breakfast. He smiled as he watched a mother with her three children. He wanted to be closer with his father.

“I know he knows that I care. My friend told him, ‘Do you realize how much your son cares about you?’” he said.

He told me his father had been distant and lives in Virginia.

“He says sometimes I get on his nerves,” Truben said with a far-off stare. He told about how his father was in the Army and his grandfather and grandmother were Cherokee. I could see he was passed tired, fatigued to the bone. We stayed there until 9:42 a.m.

Upon arriving back at the camp, I made a quick assessment. It looked like a bacteria breeding factory. Mold was on his blankets and a broken down tent. I advised him not to sleep in the tent.

“I can’t. I woke up in it and was scared. I thought I was in a body bag,” he said. That explains how it got broken down to the ground.

I have been in the Army and can see this camp needs a lot of work just to get to a basic standard. I asked if he has ever been in the military.

“No, I never even been camping,” he said.

He said he had recently been discharged from the hospital.

“That night, I contemplated suicide. I didn’t have anybody back there to talk to. That guy Ron was supposed to show up, but he never did come back, never seen him or anybody else,” Truben said. “I’ve been through grief counseling, at the hospital here, and that has helped some.”

Truben does not always share his information with other people.

“In my case, I was kind of embarrassed to say a whole lot. They asked me where all I am staying and I was like, ‘in the woods.’ People think you’re joking with them,” Truben said.

I told him I needed to check out the Rescue Mission. He decided to go to see his medical team, so we both started the several mile walk.

I arrive at the Mission early and see the sign stating lunch would be served at 12:30 p.m. By this time I would have had a pot of coffee and lunch. I feel hungry and wonder how these guys make it.

A gentleman walked out and tells me I could come in. So, I go in and take a seat. I see there are 16 tables - a few men and women have already taken their seats. Bread and butter were on the table, but I grabbed a glass and filled it up with water. I was so thirsty from the walk into town.

As I waited, I saw a man at the next table was dozing off. Another man came out and placed pitchers of juice on the table. I had a glass of that too, trying to kill my thirst. I kept checking for Truben. A man and a woman came in, three children with them, one was still in a stroller.

A bell rang and a line forms. Most of the people going through the line thanked the servers for their tray of food.

“You’re welcome, you’re welcome,” the server on the end said as I got my tray and headed for the table.

I watched the family with children as they ate. The man beside me was now asleep and I worried he would miss his meal. I also worried because Truben hadn’t shown up. The meal was hot and tasted good. A strawberry side dish was served which could’ve been placed in any fine restaurant. A dessert table was rolled out and we all got back in line. I grabbed an apple for later and started out the door after returning my tray.

I saw the gentleman that invited me in and asked if he knew where I could get two sleeping bags. He smiled and found a business card.

“Call them and they’ll take care of you,” he said.

The card was from the WV Coalition to End Homelessness. I thanked him and asked his name.

“Lou,” he said. I walked out the door into the sunlight. It was warmer now but still no sign of Truben. I decided to head back to the camp.

When I arrived back at the camp, Truben was not there. I looked at all of the options. I could go try to find him, but I knew I needed to gather firewood for later that night. I found a tree which was shaped like a “V” and used it to split a small supply of wood. I found some foam insulation and made a bed. I felt I was running out of time and knew I wouldn’t be able to find Truben after dark. I started the day with no money and no camping gear. I wanted to learn how the homeless population lives day-to-day. Without a flashlight, I knew I will be at a real disadvantage. I decided I would start a search for him.

I stopped at a gas station on Edwin Miller Boulevard. Without matches we were not going to have a fire that night. I knew the temperature was going to drop down, so we would need some source of heat. I walked in and told the man at the counter I was staying in a homeless camp overnight and asked if I could have a pack of matches. He was moved with compassion and handed me several packs. I was surprised at his generosity. I thanked him and walked out.

I found Truben in a parking lot with a group from Shenandoah Community Health Outreach Services. Truben had met with Dale Bradfield, a social worker, while I was at the Rescue Mission. She decided to follow up in the field and had Kevin Kenefick, a driver volunteer, drive her and Kathy Weaver, a registered nurse, out to find him.

“We do migrant and homeless (work). We call it special populations,” Kenefick said.

The team opened the van and provided medical treatment right there for Truben. Because he gets dizzy and falls down a lot, some cuts and knots had shown up on his head and hands. He is also diabetic.

“We have folks, like (Truben) here, that needs extra help,” Weaver said.

The team took care of him, but they also just spent time listening.

“It’s not easy back there, being cold,” he told them. He also bragged we were going to have a fire that night. I breathed a sigh of relief that I had the matches in my pocket.

Truben tells the medical team of the morning call he made.

“He said, ‘call tomorrow and I’ll come and pick you up and you can get a shower and everything.’ And I said, ‘okay.’ So I walked in and, of course, nobody was there,” Truben said.

“What are you going to do when it gets really cold?” Weaver asked him.

He thought a moment.

“Hopefully I’ll have a place to live,” he answered. He then brags to the team about the work we did in the camp. His new fire pit will help keep the bitter cold back a little bit.

We walked back into the camp. I saw he was now dragging his left foot and he was in pain. Truben offered me half the food in his McDonald’s bag. I declined and asked him where he got the money. He smiled and told me Kenefick gave it to him.

He informed me he belongs to a church group and he would like to go to their meeting that night. He said it’s a group of men from Bethel Assembly of God - his church. He used his phone and someone came out and picked us up and took us to the meeting. As we entered, I felt the wind getting stronger. I told Truben if it stayed this strong we would not be able to build a fire.

I was welcomed by the men, even though I was now filthy dirty. Truben told them I was a reporter. I asked about their outreach programs and they shared what their church is doing. I explained Truben’s situation and they were a little surprised.

“I’ve been falling out there in the woods. It hasn’t been easy,” Truben told them. The men changed the planned discussion and asked Truben many questions. They didn’t understand how someone could fall through the cracks of the system.

The men struggled with the right words to say; they were at a loss. How could this happen in America? How could it happen to one of their own?

As Truben continued to tell them the whole truth, the men were moved. One of the men sent a text to his wife. She showed up a little while later with a brand new pillow and blankets. That moved the team into action. They decided Truben would not sleep in the cold that night. They would put him up in a motel.

Arrangements were made and soon another idea came up - they would buy him food. The men split up and Truben and I were escorted to a motel. I rode with the men as they bought groceries and some new clothes. It was 11 p.m. as Truben moved into his new sleeping quarters. I went home and let him have some privacy in the comfort of his room.

At 11 a.m. the next day, I met him at his room and Bethel Assembly of God church member Joel Shank picked him up. We headed to the camp to retrieve some of his items - like medicine and his photo ID. Shank searched the field where Truben fell down. After several minutes, he found Truben’s glasses.

Although Truben got a good night’s rest, he still seemed tired. Living in fear, while suffering through the loss of his mother and all of his medical issues, has caused a fatigue which takes days to overcome. For Truben, just being accepted is a good thing. He just wants to be a part of a society that has rejected him - at least in part.

“I’m not a criminal. I’m just your local homeless person,” Truben said.

___

Information from: The Journal, https://journal-news.net/

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide