Surviving the cold at a homeless camp – WOOD

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jan 9, 2014 in Rat News | Subscribe

Editor’s note: 24 Hour News 8 reporter Ken Kolker and photojournalist Bilal Kurdi spent Tuesday night at North Camp, a homeless camp in Walker, to document one night in the cold.

WALKER, Mich. (WOOD) — At North Camp, a gathering of 10 homeless shanties on railroad property, keeping a fire stoked can be the difference between life and freezing to death.

In the summer, North Camp is “home” to 15 to 20 people who live off the grid — no electricity, no running water — in shanties built of pallets and donated wood. The railroad lets them stay, so does the city of Walker.

The winter chill drastically cuts those numbers to about a half-dozen. For them, the pot belly stove is life.

Photos: A North Camp winter

This is what happened Tuesday night when a fire died:

“What the hell you doing in my house?” Don yelled at a man named Popeye, who was sleeping on the couch in Don’s shanty. “There ain’t no fire going. It quit. Get the f— up.”

Tuesday night, it was the job of the man known as Popeye to keep the fire going at one particular shanty — the one built and occupied by Don.

Don left it to Popeye, because he had been two doors down, drinking vodka and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes at the shanty occupied by David “Cookie” Rodgers.

Failing in his task, off went Popeye.

“My home’s over here,” Popeye said as he staggered away in the dark back to his shanty a few doors down.

It wasn’t known if he had any heat overnight.

For Don, it meant returning to Cookie’s place, where the potbelly stove made the shanty almost unbearably warm — for a while.


“You’re looking at the best neighbors ever right here, and we all help out each other,” Don said.

It also meant watching movies, of all things, in a homeless shanty with Cookie and another neighbor, a man named Denny who said he has lived at North Camp for 14 years.

Unlike most of North Camp’s residents, Cookie has a generator. He bought it, he said, with a small inheritance of $200 per month from his mother.

Don brought the small TV, the DVD player and the movies — “National Treasure” and “The Scorpion King.” He especially liked Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the lead actor in “The Scorpion King.” Cookie disagreed.

“I find him lackluster,” Cookie said.

They knew the gas in the generator wouldn’t last, so by 1 a.m. Wednesday, Cookie shut it down.

Movie night was over, and the night in Cookie’s shanty returned to normal: A dim solar-powered lantern, small talk about favorite candy bars, Cookie sharpening his chainsaw, Don chasing shots of vodka with tea and country music on a battery-powered radio.

Then, there were the trips to the bathroom — outside. Some North Camp residents have outhouses.

“It’s a cold seat and it makes you want to get your business done in a hurry,” Cookie said.


Cookie, 52, said he’s a long-unemployed construction worker who has never been married and has been homeless for years. He said he doesn’t drink hard liquor anymore because it almost killed him, so he sticks to beer and wine.

He said he has survived on a welfare Bridge card, donations, odd jobs and now the $200-a-month inheritance from his mom.

Cookie keeps his stove stoked with wood he cut from a nearby swamp.

“You’re going to freeze to death down here without a stove, especially in this kind of weather,” he said. “You could bury yourself under 10 blankets and survive, but it’s a miserable existence. Without that stove, life would be almost unbearable down here.”

Like others at North Camp, he won’t live in a downtown shelter.

“I choose to be here,” Cookie said. “I’m not here because I have to be here. I like to be off the grid. I have a problem with authority.”

The shanty he built three years ago is 180 square feet, with insulation and drywall. Last summer, he built an enclosed front porch.

“I do not feel like I’m homeless,” Cookie said. “This is my home. Homeless people, they live under bridges, they live in tents, stuff like that.”

Don, 53, said he once worked as a crane operator until he hurt his shoulders. He has a daughter and three grand-children.


Finally, by 4 a.m. Wednesday, Cookie’s shanty was almost quiet — the fire starting to die down, cold settling in. It was cold enough to see your breath.

The only noise was the scurrying of Cookie’s three pet rats in the wooden run he built inside shanty.

Later, while Popeye couldn’t be found, Denny emerged from his own shanty. He had slipped away from Cookie’s place overnight. He said he slept with blankets and a snowmobile suit, but no heat.

“It wasn’t bad, my breath kept me warm,” Denny said. “I got two covers, and another cover over that, too. I survived.”

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