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Really moving local story...


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Just got done reading this story in my local paper. I know it's not at all uncommon for homeless camps like this to sprout up around cities or anything, but this particular story follows just one guy, and it really gives some insight into the kind of life these people live. I know the man named "Mike" mentioned in the story, and I'm pretty sure I even know where this camp is. I wish there was something genuinely helpful I could do for him.





YAKIMA, Wash. — Hunched beneath a brittle canopy of yellow leaves near the Yakima River, Kevin "Clutch" Shockley's bright blue eyes are studying the dirt for answers. He runs a calloused hand through the beard on his sunken cheeks and tugs at his chin.


Stamped in the wet dirt is a large shoe print he doesn't recognize. It's not that of Eric -- his shy, schizophrenic neighbor -- nor does it match those of outreach workers who bring food and medication for panic attacks to his camp here.


The whoosh of passing cars on Highway 12 fades as Shockley, 50, limps deeper into the wilderness. He surveys the dumped furniture, boards and metal siding along the trails for anything that might be put to good use at Varmint Rest, his rickshod homestead across from the Yakima Ridge.


Shockley's hand-built camp -- with its large fireplace, bed bunk, shelving and even some flooring -- is unusual compared to the average homeless dwellings on the Yakima River. Most resemble the scene of some natural disaster. Behind the foliage, out of view of those who drive the highways or bike the Greenway, are camps of shredded tarps on tree limbs, overturned shopping carts, smashed beer cans, dirty clothes with specks of blood and mildew, not so much camps as they are a collage of human wreckage.


"That's the jungle I don't want to be in," Shockley says.


When he ventures into town, he is one of hundreds who are often discussed by passers-by but rarely understood, save for the outreach workers and medical staff who work with them daily.


An Outlook native who left home at 13 to find work, Shockley has spent the better part of nearly 40 years without a real place to call home. He worked odd jobs from construction to forest reclamation; says he was a bodyguard for a wealthy local businessman; briefly studied construction design at Yakima Valley Community College; even had a wife and three sons in Montana.


But what sanctuary he found was sometimes taken from him and other times burned by his decisions along the way. He never saved the money he earned from the jobs he lost as his mental and physical health deteriorated; the wife left him and took the boys almost 20 years ago after he and a friend were convicted of conspiring to pawn stolen goods; and -- after walking to class from the river every day earlier this year -- dropped out of YVCC when his money ran out.


Beaten and left for dead more than once in his life on the streets, he steers clear of the desperate places where some -- usually fueled by drug and alcohol addiction -- can turn violent in an instant.


It's why a large, unrecognizable footprint in his territory can rob him of sleep for days.


"I've seen a lot of tragic things," Shockley said. "They come back to haunt you."




Of the 887 homeless surveyed earlier this year in Yakima County, the vast majority have some type of temporary, emergency or transitional housing. Only 60 of those contacted in the Yakima County Point in Time survey said they have no shelter, and no one really knows how many live on these river banks at any given time in the year.


Shockley, like most, didn't lose everything overnight. Those who do local outreach in offering shelter, therapy, food and clothing to the homeless say the dissolution of one's way of life is usually a slow, painful process.


While there's no single root cause of homelessness, experts say the symptoms are commonly shared.


"I don't know if they lose hope after a while, but their whole mentality changes," said Tim Sullivan, housing and homeless programs manager for the Homeless Network of Yakima County. "They forget what reality used to be like."


When temperatures drop, many who sleep by the river or in abandoned buildings seek out the emergency winter weather shelters offered by the county along with local nonprofits, or they head to year-round shelters run by groups such as the Union Gospel Mission. Some buy a daylong bus pass or hang out in public libraries just to stay warm in the daytime, Sullivan said.


Shockley, who first pitched camp here in February, is in a minority of homeless who refuse assisted living even in extreme weather. He receives $196 a month in food stamps and gets free prescriptions, therapy and occasional perks such as food or toiletries from the outreach staff at Yakima Neighborhood Health.


Outreach workers attribute the need for constant isolation in open spaces to common diseases among the homeless, such as paranoia and schizophrenia, but Shockley -- who is diagnosed with both -- says it's a matter of pride.


"I think that's weak," said Shockley, leaning back in a tattered gray swivel chair by his fireplace, steam rising from a pot of water boiling from the embers beneath the grill. "There's guys that live there for years. I call 'em 'homeguards.'"


Shockley's cabin is named after his best friend, "Varmint," a large, red-headed vagrant who rambled across the Northwest with him for years, and he adorns the fireplace and shelves with relics that remind him of home and others that tie to tall tales of superstition.


On the splintered board that is the mantel on his fireplace is a black-and-white portrait of a Hollywood cowboy he says reminds him of his father; animal bones and heart-shaped rocks; a box with an old friend's military medals sits next to a bowl of cigarette butts near the entrance. In one corner sits a hollow stump he swears could be Sasquatch's drum; a hole in the opposite corner lets in his adopted river marmots, who he nourishes with a sack of animal feed he found in a garbage can.


The space between it all is warm enough for him to kick back, take his jacket and shoes off, and write poetry or sketch artwork, two of his greatest loves. He keeps a notebook with more than 200 poems, and Louis L'Amour, William Wordsworth and William O. Douglas are among his favorite writers.


Shockley can look at a photo and sketch someone's face with precision down to the slightest detail, although he's never taken an art class in his life.


"I knew I could draw; I always thought it would be my savior," he said.


Shockley welcomes a handful of other homeless onto his camp, but only if they follow his standard and don't overstay their welcome. He shares his provisions with them, be it food, blankets or tools, and they return the favor with one gift or another.


He says he is haunted yet driven to help others by his memories of Varmint, who died of hypothermia in 2003 the morning after Shockley parted ways with him because, he says, "I couldn't support him anymore."


"The police called me 'cause my phone number was the only thing in his wallet," says Shockley, blinking and choking as he fights the lightning quick onset of a panic attack over the memory.


Varmint Rest is a work in progress that consumes Shockley more than the thought of getting back on his feet. Each project seems more ambitious than the last, with his next plan to dig a trench and somehow drive river water into the cabin for indoor plumbing. He does this despite his physical ailments, though he pays for it by finding himself laid out and hardly able to move for days afterward.


"This guy has gone to extremes to make sure that little cabin stays up," said Ramiro Gomez, an outreach worker with Yakima Neighborhood Health who visits Shockley's camp regularly. "It's amazing to see someone go to all that."


He says he wants to turn the land into a park and give it back to the community. He frequently mentions that he has to finish it without saying what the final touches would be, only that time is bearing down on him.


"I believe these are my end times," Shockley said. "But I can't leave this place half done."




Shockley is sheriff, judge and jury out here, which he said affords him freedom and some sense of control. He takes the occasional beer. The only drugs he consumes are his eight prescriptions that he chews up all together before bed, ranging from insomnia medication to pain relief for the years old compression fractures he suffered at a construction site. He Dumpster dives but he doesn't steal, and kicks anyone out who he thinks has brought stolen property with them.


"I can't handle all that drama," Shockley said.


But his choices also lead to fits of terror, and sometimes force is necessary to keep peace on the river. Distant gunshots, screech owls or the slap of a beaver tail will keep him up.


His fears of life on the river are rooted in precedent. In recent years one homeless man was strangled within eyesight of the Yakima River, and a homeless woman was struck by a train while crossing a trestle over the Naches.


Until recently, someone had been creeping in during the dead of night and stealing knickknacks such as his flashlight and watch and eventually his wallet.


Mike, a 46-year-old homeless man from the Tri-Cities, was one of his frequent guests and shares Shockley's affinity for hoarding discarded objects, particularly agates or other stones with markings. Mike, who would not give his last name, said he is bipolar, has struggled with cocaine addiction and had various stints in prison since the 1980s. He said he finds fellowship in knowing men with dark pasts such as Shockley.


"People like him are few and far between, he's just a real dude," Mike said in October, seated on the dirt in the entryway to Varmint Rest.


But in reality Mike had been taking advantage of Shockley's charity all along. He paid the price when he found himself trembling and skulking knee-deep in the Yakima River later that month after Shockley figured out it was he who had been sneaking into his cabin. He begged Shockley not to kill him: Shockley laughed at him for thinking he would.


"He had to take the whupping that was coming to him," said Shockley. "There's rules out here."




The patio of a mansion atop the Yakima Ridge is barely visible upstream from Varmint Rest. Although Shockley is heavy with remorse over how his life led him here, he carries no envy nor fantasizes how life up there could offer so much more than his dwelling at the bottom.


"Sometimes I think being out here keeps me alive really," Shockley said.


The more Shockley opens up about his life, the harder it is to tell what he wants out of the time he has left in this world. Gomez, the outreach worker, believes Shockley has all the potential to lead a normal life, but he has to overcome his personal demons first.


His medication and occasional therapy meetings have led to marked improvements in his personality and his outlook, Gomez said. But like everything else in Shockley's life, the process is day-to-day, log-by-log.


"There's some little breakthroughs happening that could change things," Gomez said. "There's a way out for him, but his physical and mental well-being really present a lot of barriers."


Shockley believes this much: There is a god, and it's a being who occasionally drops treasures along the trails and in the trash heaps as signs encouraging him to struggle on. He is fatalistic, battered and resigned, yet he clings to a glimmer of quixotic romanticism.


"You keep going because you never know," Shockley said. "Maybe I'll fall in love tomorrow."


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QUOTE (K^2) ...not only is it legal for you to go around with a concealed penis, it requires absolutely no registration!

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In parts of the Occupy Wallstreet movements around the USA, the homeless are believed to take part and most people have refused to leave an occupied area. This may come as no surprise, but it lends something to the cause, taking note of the SEVERE housing problems effecting the USA, I'd be homeless too if it weren't for my family. I don't care about the personal things one can change that get brought up when we talk about this here, but I said before, the situation is such, one person does not live in a vacuum, you have to have things, people, elements working for you, some aid or some program, or restructuring. This change is fighting to happen.


I saw a report the past week on Occupiers moving into Foreclosed property, the Police still moving in to warn them off or arrest them. A sign hung on the window proposing Housing is a Fundamental Right. We need to find shelter and livable conditions for anyone we can, it's a daunting task but it's always the right thing to aid people in such a fashion.


Ever watch Extreme Makeover Home Edition? Those people are really needing home improvement, but so are the homeless!

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'Severe Housing Shortage' ... Actually there is plenty of housing. BUT it isn't spread equally. Think about all the multi-room houses that are under used. One or two really old people living in 3 or more bedroom homes. Apartment buildings going to ruin, 'abandoned' factory complexes. U.S. spends billions a day to go to another country thousands of miles away to kill people who might be an enemy, but without pork barreling can't ... (you know)...

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charity starts at home.


Thanks for sharing SagaciousKJB, hopefully with more coverage more will be done to help people in these situations in America.


It is true, you never know what life has in store for you, happiness, love or pain could be just around the corner.


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