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July 6, 2013

Recreational campground has become home for some down-on-their-luck Hoosiers

Park board aware of situation

TERRE HAUTE — A faded American flag hangs patriotically on a clothesline at a campsite in Hawthorn Park.

Another smaller version of the stars and stripes waves at the end of a picnic table near an older camper trailer.

An American flag in the shape of the United States adorns the shirt of Randy, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who finds himself staying at the campsite this summer after a series of unfortunate events left him and his wife homeless.

Randy’s wife has kept her $10-an-hour job, and his appeal for disability comes up for another hearing in August. He hopes that by Oct. 15 — when the park campground closes for the season — he and his wife will have found a new permanent residence, but in the meantime, they feel stuck in the tiny trailer loaned to them by a friend.

“I’m only one of many out here,” Randy said Friday afternoon, sitting under a camp awning after accepting six cans of vegetables, a bag of soup beans, and some day-old Panera bread delivered by advocates from Families by Choice.

The recreational campground at Hawthorn Park is not intended for long-term campers. It has, however, attracted some campers who appear to have set up a rural residence for the summer.

The Vigo County Park Board has been made aware of the situation and will be discussing the issue during an upcoming meeting.

In the meantime, some of the campers told the Tribune-Star that they are glad to have a lower-cost place to stay for the summer, and they welcomed the food distribution from Families by Choice, a non-profit agency that assists homeless people in Vigo County.

Randy, like other Hawthorn Park campers, said he is “just trying to get back on my own feet” through a tough financial stretch. Disabled by acute arthritis in his legs and back, Randy gets around slowly using a walking stick he fashioned from a length of wood. It has a hook on the end that he uses as both a handle and to reach for distant objects.

The food he and his wife Kelly received Friday will make a huge difference for the couple, even though it is not much.

“You can stretch meals to no end,” he said. “You have to.”

They and other campers share meals — cooked over open fires — with still others who are in need, becoming a community that looks after one another.

“We all take care of each other out here,” he said.

Randy and Kelly have been at the campground for more than a month. He said he exited the U.S. Army in 1974 after two tours of duty in Vietnam, and he left his native Rhode Island to roam the U.S. until he settled in Terre Haute in 1984 to get married and work. Now at age 61, he has sought medical assistance from the Veterans Administration, but the paperwork and wait time for medical care have been discouraging, as has his disability claim.

“There’s boys who got no arms and legs who need it more than I do,” Randy said of the VA assistance. “I just can’t climb ladders no more.”

Candy Noe, popularly called “Mom” by the other campers, motors around the campgrounds in an electric cart, picking up those with handicaps and taking them to the pickup point for the food distribution.

Mom keeps track of the individuals and families staying in the campground, an unofficial guardian who said that about 40 homeless people are currently staying at the campground.

“We had our own house,” she said of herself and husband Dave, who is disabled, too. “But with what my husband makes now, we just couldn’t make it. That $472 per month don’t get it.”

Candy, who said she is diabetic and has stage 1 lung cancer, plans to leave the park in early August to go live with her stepson in Pennsylvania. Becoming homeless is certainly something she never thought would happen to her.

Another camper, Jesse, said he and his wife became homeless after a dispute with their landlord. After temporarily residing in a local motel, the couple ended up staying with friends at the campground, living in a recreational vehicle.

“We used to come out here for picnics when our car was running,” he said, explaining how he knew of the park campgrounds.

“I’ve never had to ask for help before,” he said, “but when I did, I was made to feel like scum. I’m working all the hours I can get, but right now I’m not getting the hours.”

He said he still has his job at a local factory, and his wife is also having trouble finding work.

They — like other campers who still have jobs — fear that they will lose their jobs if their employers find out that they are homeless and staying at the park campgrounds.

“We’re just trying to get back on our feet,” said Jesse, echoing the comments of others.

“Instead of having an address, we have a P.O. Box,” Randy said.

Many of the campers sleep in tents on the ground. A few have travel trailers, such as Randy and Kelly, and they count that as a blessing.

“When my old lady comes in from work at 2 or 3 in the morning, who feels like crawling on the ground to sleep,” he said.

That lack of a permanent address is part of the reason many of the campers are having trouble getting back on their feet, according to Muriel Ryan, founder of Families by Choice. She joined fellow volunteers Noah Stevenson and Thomas Coffey in gathering and distributing the food on Friday.

“We’ve found another need, so we’ll come out here, too,” Ryan said of the homeless campers.

Talking easily with those who walked to her van to receive a distribution of food, Ryan didn’t question people about how they came to be homeless, or what their future plans are. She just noted that the homeless population is increasing, while the available space in shelters and low-income housing is decreasing.

Families by Choice operates on donations only, with no paid staff, and the charitable organization is seeing a decline in donations.

“I’m concerned that we have a problem that can be solved, or addressed, but these people are hidden in the woods,” Ryan said of the campers. “If we can make a difference, we will.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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