Six months have passed since the last time I saw Jose Luiz-Lopez Sanchez. His home, a cubby in the underside of a bridge in Chapel Hill, remains intact.
But as the seasons have changed, it seemed so had the man I found early in the spring planting his garden under the bridge. His 52 years were apparent by his weathered face, and the toothless smile did not come as easily.
“I came back to my garden because I must be here. I wanted to give the people something to enjoy. But life has become difficult, and now I am alone more than ever,” said Lopez-Sanchez in Spanish.
However, the man who has lived under a bridge on East Franklin Street for the past five years is not alone when it comes to the growing number of homeless in Orange County.
According to statistics gathered by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, homelessness has risen by 16 percent, and the growth of unsheltered homeless exploded by 240 percent since 2009.
Unsheltered homelessness is defined as someone who sleeps in a place not meant for a human habitation – such as cars, parks, tents, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, etc. While general homelessness, can also include those living with friends or in shelters.
“There are a lot more hungry people, more people without jobs, people are nervous because they don’t know where they are going to be a year from now. People who have lost their homes, and people who are going back to native countries because there is no work here,” said Chris Moran, executive director of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service.
The IFC was established in 1963 by seven women from different local religious congregations who were upset about the state of poverty in the community and how invisible it was, according to Moran.
For the last 47 years, the IFC has organized clothing distribution centers, and lunch programs in the public schools. But mostly they are known for the shelter and food they provide to the homeless in the community.
“We have many roles, but our primary role right now is to support basic needs. It’s that simple. People need to be fed, people need to have a place to sleep, they need support, they need showers, direction, their questions answered, and that’s our primary purpose,” said Moran.
When I met Jose in March, the garden he planted was erupting in spring colors. Lopez-Sanchez had taken his love of landscaping and applied it to the area under the bridge where he lived.
His side of the hill was clean and tidy. Rows of flowers and plants cascaded down to the small river, and people walking over the bridge often stopped to take a look down into his world.
In addition to gardening, his sculpture talent was visible by the carved Mayan faces in chunks of large rocks laid in-between the flowerbeds. The old hammer and screwdriver he used to carve the rock faces were worn beyond recognition, and resembled nothing of their past newness.
“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,” Lopez-Sanchez shared.
But residents felt uncomfortable seeing a homeless man under the bridge by the Bowling Creek trail, and made several complaints to the Chapel Hill Police Department.
Those few calls warranted the police to begin an effort to find Jose, as called by the officers, another home.
A few different organizations in town came together to discuss his dilemma, and try to find a solution to his situation.
“We have known about Jose living under the bridge for several years now, and because for the most part he hasn’t caused any problems, we have looked the other way,” said Officer Charlie Pardo of the Chapel Hill police department.
“We were trying to figure out some way to get him full-time work and get him out from under the bridge. But the big thing that came up was that he doesn’t have a social security number, so he doesn’t qualify for a lot of the services offered, and getting a real job would be difficult,” said Officer Mark Geerken of the Chapel Hill police department.
Both Pardo and Geerken were involved with the community organizers looking for a solution for Jose. They built a relationship with him over the years, and Pardo was entrusted to communicate with him in Spanish.
They would stop to check on him from time-to-time under the bridge, and brought him a coat and toiletries when they conducted the Annual Point-in-Time Count.
The count is conducted yearly by the North Carolina Partnership to End Homelessness, and consists of various community members assisted by police officers to go out one night every year in January, and count the number of homeless.
The count is important because it gives the partnership a tally of who is homeless and a snapshot of who is experiencing homelessness.
Additionally, the partnership brings supplies such as coats, toiletries, and sleeping bags to give out to the people they find. These items are donated, and then pulled together by church organizers, according to Geerken.
But the count does not necessarily depict an accurate picture of what is occurring with homelessness in the community.
“It’s very difficult to quantify the number of homelessness in the area. It isn’t a precise number because all it counts is who is in the shelter and who’s on the streets that night. It doesn’t include the people who are doubled up with a friend, family member or in a public institution,” said Jamie Rohe, the homeless program coordinator for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.
But by the beginning of summer Jose had disappeared, and no one knew where he went.
Those who knew him questioned whether he had returned to Mexico to see his father who is dying, or if he had simply left town due to the complaints.
His multi-colored sleeping bags lay perfectly made on the flat concrete shelf under the bridge. His solar-powered radio hung draped under the metal frames, and his blue bicycle was tilted up against the wall. But Jose was not to be found.
His world seemed frozen in wait of his return, and every time I visited I saw the dark green ivy, taking over the loops and lulls of his bike.
Months went by, and as school was beginning to start its fall session my phone rang.
A “friend” who prefers to remain anonymous was on the other end. He had picked Jose up at the bus stop. Jose appeared to be healthy and in good spirits.
But the question remained. Where would Jose live?
Even with the offer of staying with his friend for a while, he went straight back to his home under the bridge.
“I went to go see my brother, and spend time with his family. I was going to try and stay there, but I decided to come back. I do not belong in an apartment,” said Lopez-Sanchez.
It was difficult for me to imagine him living in a home with four walls. It didn’t seem natural.
“Jose strikes me as a fiercely independent person who would have trouble fitting in to any of the houses we could place him in. I had a lot of trouble imagining him being interested in things like that,” said Andy Mulcahy, care coordinator of the OPC Area Program.
The OPC manages local services to provide mental health and substance abuse services to individuals in need. They have Oxford houses all over Orange County where folks who are trying to recover can live by paying rent, and working.
This type of living offers people the chance to disconnect from their previous lives, which may have included substance abuse issues, and save money to build a new life.
In the past, Lopez-Sanchez was arrested by the Chapel Hill police department twice for public drunkenness, and his secret addiction is well known amongst those closest to him.
“When he is making money and can send it home to his father he is happy, but when he has issues and is dealing with the pressures from the town, he is going to get drunk. And it’s not pretty,” said Jose’s friend.
“But how can you blame him? This is a man who lives far away from his family, country and under a bridge. He is bound to have a vice.”
While a large number of homeless seek to regain their status in society, reclaim their homes and find jobs, there are some like Jose who prefer to stay outside.
When I first visited Jose, I asked him about sleeping in the cold. He took me to the cubby where he slept, and gently put my hand up against the concrete being driven over as we spoke. It was very warm, and I even pulled back quickly from its heat.
“Here is it cool in the summer from the river, and in the winter the cars warm the bridge,” he said.
“There is a certain segment of the population that don’t want to come inside for whatever reason, and we respect that. I know one guy who never comes inside to sleep, but he comes inside to eat. He’s a veteran, has a bad back, doesn’t want to live like he did when he was in the barracks, is claustrophobic and sometimes gets upset. I think he is more angry with the system than he is anything. Everybody has a different story,” said Moran.
Why do some people prefer to live outside? There is very little research on the subject, but everything I found came to one conclusion. There are many.
“I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason, because it’s up to the individual. When we, any of us, try to come up with a solution for people we don’t know, it’s often the wrong solution. It’s up to the individual. Some guys have told me it’s because they don’t want to follow rules or routine, some people are claustrophobic, they don’t like crowds or activity. They may want to drink more or do other things they cannot do inside an organized place. We need to stop saying that we have to bring them all back inside, because I don’t think that’s ever going to happen,” explained Moran.
But not everyone agrees with the philosophy that some prefer to stay outdoors.
“I haven’t personally been in the field long enough to have really dealt with it, but I question whether there is anyone who wants to be homeless. I think there are people who love the outdoors, who love nature or who have mental illnesses that prevent them from being indoors. But I think there are people who have trouble competing and succeeding in our society, and they became homeless because of that,” said Rohe.
The O.C. Partnership to End Homelessness has made ending homelessness a goal they hope to attain in 10 years. However, as Rohe explained, this goal will not include those that prefer to stay outside.
“There are people who are very resistant to treatment or assistance, and we cannot help all those people. We tried to develop one plan for an individual who had a severe drinking problem, but he did not want help, and prefers to drink himself to death. There are just some people you can’t help because they don’t want it, and there’s nothing you can do,” said Rohe.
The North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness compiled information from across the state in the 2010 Point-in-Time count, and the numbers are bleak.
A total of 12,157 were counted as experiencing homelessness. Those labeled as chronically homeless were 12 percent, while 11 percent had mental illness, 9 percent were veterans, and 24 percent had a diagnosable substance abuse disorder.
The IFC in Chapel Hill stated in its 2009-2010 highlights that the Community Kitchen served 87, 288 meals, some 2,938 local households were eligible to receive monthly groceries, and AmeriCorps Hispanic Coordinator helped 1,697 Spanish-speaking clients.
Most recently, the IFC released its most staggering figures. One in every five Orange County residents is in poverty, and 3,001 Carrboro and Chapel Hill households (about 14,000 people) depend on the IFC’s food pantry. That is 23 percent more households recorded than last year.
But while the community is becoming more familiar with homelessness, the only thing Jose is concerned about, are the coming winter months.
“I know it will be very cold this winter. I have prepared myself and will be ready when it arrives. If it gets very cold, I will go back to Greensboro and stay with my brother. But I prefer to be here with my garden. This is where I belong,” said Lopez-Sanchez calmly as he motioned to his hillside.
And as I took in the rows of sleeping plants, naked bushes and stone-cobbled walkway he built to the other side of the river, I knew he was right.
This is where he wants to be.