“When I lived in California I worked for a company cutting down trees. I had no choice because I needed to make money, but I quit as soon as I could. Trees carry the history of the world and have been here much longer than we have,” Jose Luiz Lopez-Sanchez said in Spanish.
Now he is lives in Chapel Hill and is one of the 156 homeless people counted in the 2009 N.C. Point-in-Time Count, yet his situation is unique. For the past five years he has resided under a bridge located on East Franklin Street, but due to recent complaints law enforcement have asked him to move.
The home he has built under the steel and cement bridge is a direct example of his respect for nature. He has turned the side of the hill next to the bridge into his personal garden and landscaped it from top to bottom.
That is the good news, but the bad news is that some residents find his lifestyle to be different and even a little scary.
At least one resident has pressured authorities to remove him because those who walk the Bowling Creek trail that runs across the other side of the creek can see him in his “house” and wonder if he is a potential danger to the life that walks by him.
What should be done?
“We at the police department were aware of Jose living under the bridge for a number of years now, and for the most part he hasn’t caused any issues so we have looked the other way. But when people are feeling uneasy or unsafe we have to figure out what to do, because that is our job,” said Officer Charlie Pardo of the Chapel Hill police department.
Jose, 52, is an average-sized man with long curly hair that he ties up in a ponytail, usually hidden underneath a baseball cap. He wears clean crisp clothing and dresses well. His skin is darkened from working in the sun, but he smiles often and always has a dreamy look in his eyes. His hands are coarse and beaten, but strong.
Lopez-Sanchez referred to as “Jose” moved to the United States when he was 17 years old in search of a different life than the one he knew in the desert of Zacateca, Mexico. He moved to California where he realized his passion for nature and its beauty that play such a large role in who he is today.
His home site “was covered in ivy when I first moved here and there was trash everywhere. I have always enjoyed working with the earth and wanted to make this into a peaceful place,” said Jose.
The side of the hill has been tilled and straw covers the upper-most part where new grass is steadily creeping through. The tilt of the hill falls into cascading rows of plants outlined in rocks of different shapes and sizes and he has laid a pebble stone floor to walk across.
Jose is also an artist and has several of his sculptures lying throughout the garden. The rock faces vary in size and shape and carry their own individual stories. His first piece is part eagle and part man. To Jose it represents strength and freedom and was influenced by the Aztecs.
“I read some information about the Aztecs in the library and saw what they did with the rocks. I thought that I could do that-so I came back and tried. I use old tools on the rocks and it can take a long time, but I like to work with stones,” said Jose.
Jose and the issue of homelessness in Orange County have not gone unnoticed by officials. Many task forces and service providers have begun coming together regularly to merge resources and discuss particular individuals.
The Point-in-Time Count is a count of the homeless-at best, a rough estimate in Orange County conducted one evening every year. The numbers generated from the reports are not concrete.
“It is very difficult to quantify the number of homelessness in the area. It isn’t a precise number because it only counts those who are in a shelter or in the streets that night. It doesn’t include people who are doubled-up with a friend or family member or the people in public institutions like a hospital or jail,” said Jamie Rohe, homeless program coordinator for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.
There have been complaints about Jose living under the bridge over the past several years, and law enforcement has acted accordingly by paying him a visit, but their hands are tied in terms of what can legally be done.
“The general complaints lodged against Jose are mostly just that a person is living under the bridge and something needs to be done about it. It scares some people and others are just concerned about his well-being,” said Captain Leo Vereene of the Chapel Hill police department.
“The Bowling Creek trail is a Chapel Hill greenway and OWASA shares the waterways, but the bridge belongs to the Department of Transportation. There really is no legislative authority to run someone off from under the bridge, and the DOT people say there is nothing to act on,” said Matt Sullivan, attorney and police crisis counselor for the Chapel Hill police department.
“Folks like Jose get a bad rap because of the other homeless folks. A very small part of their population causes most of our problems, and he is unfortunately bearing the baggage of every other homeless person who has done something wrong,” said Sullivan.
The culmination of the decision to ask Jose to leave is the result of only a few resident complaints. The Chapel Hill police department prefers to let Jose stay under the bridge since he has not caused any problems, but the pressure to take action has reached new levels.
“All of these complaints are from a few people, it is not like there is a public outcry, but these few people have made a lot of noise. One gentleman felt that we were dragging our feet, but we don’t want to violate anyone’s rights and Jose has rights, too. We want to address it, but we want to address it in the right way,” said Captain Jeff Clark of the Chapel Hill police department.
This compassion to assist Jose led to his being the main topic of the monthly Coalition to End Homelessness meeting for April. A few law enforcement officers who personally know Jose were asked to attend the meeting. With the officers and service providers on hand, they were able to discuss Jose’s situation and the possible alternatives for him.
“The big thing that came up was that he doesn’t have a Social Security number so he doesn’t qualify for many of the services available in the community. He would have to be paid under the table and so there is no way to find him a job,” said Officer Mark Geercken of the Chapel Hill police department.
But Jose has worked for the same person for several years. Jose’s friend, whose name is protected, regularly hires undocumented workers to work on big projects or for his business. He regularly employs Jose to work in his own yard and around his home.
“I met him five years ago when I needed some help on a job. I didn’t speak much Spanish at the time, but we were able to communicate enough to know what we were doing. He seemed to be really responsible and good at what he was doing and we slowly became friends,” said the friend.
The friendship grew and about six months later Hills realized that Jose was living under a bridge when he told him about the garden he was creating.
“I went and checked it out. There was trash everywhere, but not in his area. He had cleaned it up and was cleaning up more. It was almost like it was his, he was just determined to make it beautiful and the more I got to know him I realized how much it meant to him,” said the friend.
He lets Jose do his laundry and take showers in his home, and allows him to eat for free in his place of business. He trusts Jose so much that he occasionally lets him stay in his home when he leaves town.
“I would come home and all the dishes would be put away, he had done my laundry and cooked a bunch of food. He is an excellent cook.”
The friend is not alone in his empathy for Jose. There is a large group of people trying to figure out solutions for his dilemma, including the police.
“I just heard about Jose in the monthly meeting and what struck me was the compassion for him, the way everyone spoke about him and how concerned they are. The police are really willing to work with service providers who will help them get the most they can get for Jose,” said Rohe.
But options for Jose are scarce because he is undocumented. Andy Mulcahy, the care coordinator for the Orange County Partnership To End Homelessness suggested the possibility of an Oxford House or the use of a shelter so that he could save money.
Oxford houses are local communities that house folks in need of a change in their environment. However, tenants are required to pay rent and Chapel Hill’s Oxford House costs $100 a week which Jose cannot afford.
According to the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness website, out of the 156 homeless that were counted in 2009, about 50 are mothers with children and another eight are women without families. All of these like Jose have to find a place to eat and sleep as well. But it is much easier for those with Social Security numbers to tap into resources.
“It is very limited what we can do, because anything with federal money will require a Social Security number. We have a few options, but he (Jose) strikes me as a type of guy who is fiercely independent and would have trouble fitting into these situations. I don’t think he would be interested,” said Mulcahy.
But with all these organizations working together to find a solution for Jose, those who know him personally all agree that he only wants to continue living under the bridge and working in his garden.
“The thing with Jose is that he has been offered all sorts of assistance and resources, but he just really doesn’t want to go. As far as I am concerned, as long as you don’t mess with anyone else’s rights, you can do whatever you want to,” said Sullivan.
“I cannot imagine putting someone out in the open for over five years and then putting them inside of a house. He will just find another bridge because it is just the way he has peace. He doesn’t have to pay for it and he is able to work in his garden,” said his friend Hills.
And asking Jose doesn’t seem to clarify matters. He is undecided about exactly what it is he wants, but says his devotion to his garden will continue regardless of where he lives.
“I am getting older and I think I would like to try to live in a home. I would also like to return to Mexico, but I do not know if that is possible. I will always return to take care of my plants-always,” said Jose.
It is hot outside and a breeze is carrying itself through the legs of the bridge. The sun is shining brightly overhead and Jose is making a pair of leather sandals out of a coat he was given during the winter. He has cut the arms off and is slicing them into strips before braiding them into the reused sole of an old pair of flip-flops. His dark brown skin matches the slices of leather, and as always he is smiling peacefully.
“My dream would be for a crosswalk to be placed on the river so that people can come over and enjoy the garden whenever they would like,” said Jose.
“I am very blessed. I have beauty all around me and I enjoy my garden.”
Jose Luiz Lopez-Sanchez has been missing for over a week. His belongings and plants remain untouched.