- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - It’s early December as Rodney Jackson steers the white minivan through the rainy Downtown streets, past towering office buildings and gleaming hotels decorated for the holidays. He’s headed to a little place by the river, long known as Tent City, in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here, through the tangled brush and down a slippery flight of steps made of discarded pallets, is John Wheeler’s home. It’s a campsite, strewn with boxes, bins and bags. There’s a method to the mess. Wheeler calls it his early warning system. He sleeps in a nearby tent and wants to be alerted if anyone is approaching.

The White River runs alongside the camp, where Wheeler says he’s lived for going on five years. He has a neighbor, Steve, a stone’s throw away, who lives in a sturdy “tiny house” heated by a potbelly stove. Often, they have coffee together. Another neighbor, Rob, has gone up to the Cathedral Kitchen and Food Pantry for the morning.

We are here at the invitation of Wheeler, a gracious and friendly man of 71, who looks seven or eight years younger, despite living outdoors. He’s clean-shaven and wears a red Marine Corps cap over his gray hair. He wards off the chill with a hooded sweatshirt and jacket over a flannel shirt.

In an earlier life, Wheeler put on a shirt and tie every day before heading to work at Stokely-Van Camp as an accountant. After five years there, a place he expected to retire from, the company was sold to Quaker in 1983.

From there, he admits to making a few bad decisions that led to him leaving other jobs, along with his apartment and his conventional life. Had he stayed at Stokely, he says he would have had a different life. But does he regret the choices he’s made? Not really.

“Things happen, it’s life,” said the divorced father of six. “They never promised us a rose garden.”

Jackson knows Wheeler from his work on the streets. He’s outreach coordinator for Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation. Retired from the Navy after 20 years, Jackson, 54, moved back to his hometown of Indianapolis from California after losing his job, leaving the service and seeing his marriage crumble - all in the space of a year.

His work with veterans is a calling, born out of years of sacrifice in the service.

“I love being out here. This is like my family,” he said.

Jackson understands that some people reserve harsh judgment for the homeless, believing they are lazy or alcoholics. Some are, he said. For others, addiction and mental illness have left them unable to cope with the demands of society.

The 2016 Point-in-Time Homeless Count found 1,619 people homeless in Marion County, about 20 percent of whom were veterans. The majority sleep in shelters or transitional housing, but on any given night more than 100 veterans are sleeping in tents or on the street. Nearly 360 homeless reported suffering mental illness, and another 500 said they had a substance abuse problem.

While the total number of homeless counted was down 2.8 percent from 2015, national research suggests the number is actually three to five times the number reported.

Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation, 964 N. Pennsylvania St., has been working with homeless veterans since 1983. Each night, the nonprofit houses 205 homeless veterans in its transitional housing facilities and serves 500 others via employment, legal and supportive services. In early December, 18 veterans were on a waiting list for housing.

After losing some federal money last year, HVAF is among several local agencies that will see funding restored as Indianapolis works to provide more stable housing programs and focus less on transitional housing.

“HVAF could use this funding to support our veteran-centric addiction recovery program and expand our ability to deliver services to at-risk veterans who may not be eligible for VA benefits.” said Brian Copes, HVAF president.

For Jackson, who makes the rounds of homeless camps every day, it’s a privilege to serve them. “They’re no different really than us. We don’t understand how they can live out here in these elements, but to them psychologically, it’s OK,” he said. “Our reality is having a roof over our head, paying bills. That makes sense to us, but some people just don’t want that responsibility.”

Wheeler, who served four years in the Marine Corps, achieving the rank of sergeant, says he is out here “by choice, not necessity.” But he’s neither lazy, nor an addict. He just got mad at the world.

“I get Social Security and a little retirement check,” Wheeler said. “I thought I was smarter than all these other people, and I could solve the homeless problem when I came out here.”

Wheeler, who worked in logistics and as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, has helped distribute food and supplies to other homeless, even donates money to legitimate outreach causes, but he says there needs to be better coordination of services. Too many small groups, though well-meaning, are duplicating the efforts of established outreach organizations like HVAF, Wheeler said.

From his perspective, food, blankets and water are being wasted. “If the homeless don’t have all the blankets they need,” he said, “it’s because they’re throwing them away.”

Jackson carries around bottled water, canned goods, hand warmers and other incidentals for needy vets in the back of his van. He understands what Wheeler is saying, but withholds judgment on the people he serves.

“The main thing I’ve learned about most people out here is they just want peace of mind. They’re not out here to cause any problems; they just want to be left alone,” he said.

Wheeler is about ready to pack up and head west - maybe Arizona, he says. He has tried to leave this life before, but keeps getting pulled back. It’s duty more than anything, said the former platoon leader. “The people down here are like my men.”

Troublemakers aren’t welcome. “In our camp, there’s just three of us now,” he said. A far cry from the 17 or so who used to stay there.

“That was too much drama; we thinned it out,” he said.

How?

“I invited them to leave. I’m not going to put up with the drinking and drugs.”

He’s Marine Corps tough, but he doesn’t do it alone. He said he gets support from Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers who patrol the area.

Jackson says most of the homeless he encounters on his daily visits to camps around the city aren’t violent, and they appreciate his help.

“I’ve befriended all of them. If you respect people’s space and treat them like they’re human, they treat you with the same respect.”

As outreach coordinator for HVAF, his focus is on veterans. He works with them to apply for military benefits, find employment, get to doctor appointments and secure housing if that’s their choice.

But for some, “living off the land” will always be a choice, he said.

On this day, he was giving Wheeler a ride back to his camp from Horizon House, a day shelter where Wheeler comes weekly to do his laundry and shower. He was also on the lookout for size 10 boots for the Marine, whose old shoes were no match for the muddy, cold conditions that day.

When he gets the boots, Wheeler said he won’t make the same mistake he made once before on a cold night.

“I forgot one night to put my boots in bed with me - they froze. I was walking around like a ballet dancer for a half hour. Couldn’t get my feet in.”

We leave Wheeler at his camp and move on around a nearby parking lot, where Jackson drives by a row of tents and makeshift shelters. This is the bad side of Tent City, he says. There’s little activity on a cold, rainy day, but Jackson points out where “Rambo” used to live before someone burned his shack down. Then on past “Wild Bill’s” camp. Jackson doesn’t stop. “He’s got a pit bull, and I’m not going down there. That dog is mean.” A Christmas tree decorates one campsite.

In a quieter part of Tent City across the river live brothers John and James. They’re good guys, Jackson says. One is a veteran, the other is not. The brothers aren’t home when we visit, but we see their vegetable garden, where they grow green beans, tomatoes, asparagus and more in the summer. They live in a tiny house they built themselves, using materials found in dumpsters or donated by nearby businesses.

A couple miles from here, just off East Washington Street, is the Jungle, perhaps the largest homeless camp in the city. Joe Mefford runs this camp of about 25 residents, acting as mayor, governor and police chief. He’s not a veteran, but his military demeanor has helped bring order to a once drug-infested community, Jackson said.

The Jungle goes on for about four or five blocks through woods and up to some railroad tracks. Jackson walks it once or twice a week, checking to see if any new people have moved in.

“This is a community off the grid,” he said.

Residents share what they have and are expected to clean up after themselves. Still, there are violators, said Mefford, as he stooped down to pick up a piece of trash. “I hate trash; show some respect,” he said to no one in particular.

Mefford, 39, has lived in the Jungle about 18 months. Asked what led him here, he said he spent 10 years in prison and when he got out, his family and friends had scattered. He works odd jobs and hopes to save enough money to move to Tennessee some day.

Until then, he keeps order in the camp, kicking out troublemakers through “word persuasion,” he said.

“I don’t want people to get too comfortable here,” he added. “Church groups come in here and feed and clothe us. I want everybody to be independent, to do for themselves.”

Nearby, a group of men and one woman chopped wood donated by a local tree service. The wood would feed the community’s main campfire, where residents gather throughout the day.

As we talked, Jackson checked on Rick, a veteran who once had been housed through HVAF. He’s not sure what led to the man’s return to living outdoors, but Jackson said it’s not his job to judge. Rick was buried under a mountain of blankets in a tent, but he peeked his head out to say hi. The two men talked about filing military paperwork before Jackson moved on.

“I helped get a guy named Jerry off the street within two weeks of meeting him once,” Jackson said in the van later. “He was super thankful; he was crying and I was crying. But it just depends on what the person is seeking. Some might just want a bus pass or a pair of socks.

“Jerry wanted something more.”

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/2j2BuiN

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com


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