Street Fighting Men

The latest crackdown on the city's homeless has produced a new breed of activist -- destitute, determined, and ready to rumble.

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Standing at the foot of a crumbling factory building at 2000 Superior, the self-proclaimed President of the Homeless inhales the wet December air deep into his lungs and holds it there, smiling dreamily as if it contains some kind of mood-lifting agent. If the cold eats through his multiple layers of pants and shirts, sweater, and overcoat, it doesn't show. He radiates the warmth of a preacher midway through a dramatic pause, or a pilgrim within eyeshot of the promised land. His long-lashed, pudding-chocolate eyes remain fixed on the 93-year-old building's stunning filigree, blinking away the rain in reverence.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Dave Campbell asks, enraptured by the ivy-covered walls.

Campbell identifies with a thing so battered and worn and brimming with potential that no one else seems to recognize. In 48 years, the world has weakened his foundation too, testing his strength and ransacking his treasures. He grew up a ward of the state, losing all three of his brothers to street shootings and stabbings. He went to Vietnam, then to prison several years later for attempted murder. He's been in and out of mental hospitals, schools, shelters and soup kitchens, and jobs. But like the deteriorating architectural beauty on Superior, he still stands proudly, stubbornly, defiantly.

Campbell runs his lined hands over nails sealing an entrance that faces the Third District police station. Unfortunately, he didn't bring his tools with him today. But he could come back, he fantasizes, pry out a couple of nails, and get inside.

For just a few moments, Campbell indulges in memories forged many months ago, when he and seven other homeless people were squatting in the decrepit building, watching firelight dance off its buckling walls, exploring its labyrinthine chambers, and peeking through shattered windows at choir children whose church brought them more home-cooked food than they could eat. His group christened the handsome, spired building "Rosewater," after two particularly memorable acts of charity. One was a gift of fresh water. The other, roses.

Rosewater the building soon became Rosewater 2000 the movement, after both the address and the new millennium. The first order of business was taming the few blocks between Rosewater and the welfare building at East 17th and Superior. According to Campbell and Edward Lauriano, the group's grandly titled outreach minister and medical officer, they turned the untamed stretch into a safe "charitable zone," where benevolent souls could come to their aid.

"People would bring us so much stuff, it was like going to the May Company or Higbee's," Campbell recalls. "But the renegade homeless would rob people who came to help us. They would solicit drugs. Rosewater made it so that a group [of homeless people] would rush to the cars that pulled up and pass the stuff to the people in the back."

"Before we invented Rosewater, if you came to bring clothes or food, someone would knock you over," adds Lauriano. "Now you can go down there with $50, and no one will touch you."

When the owners of the building warned the Rosewater crew that the dilapidated structure wasn't safe and boarded it up to keep them out, they scattered. Some found housing. Others stayed on the street, searching out new buildings, shelters, or camps where they could sleep at night.

The spirit of Rosewater, however, lives on. It was resurrected two days after Thanksgiving, when the city began sweeping homeless people from their tents and steam grates, chasing them into hidden enclaves, forcing them into overcrowded shelters or even jail. (A December 23 court ruling put a temporary stop to the sweep throughout much of the city.)

Shortly after Mayor Mike White launched the sweep, Campbell called for a counteroffensive. He and his crew stepped up outreach efforts, started "liberating" abandoned buildings for the homeless, and helped organize political actions, including getting arrested for protesting on Public Square two weeks ago. In the process, the Rosewater group, whose recent press release includes an e-mail address ([email protected]) but no home one, emerged as leaders in the effort to secure a more humane existence for the homeless. They want better shelters, services, and respect for everyone who sleeps under the open sky. They have taken their message to community leaders and city council meetings -- and, of course, to the streets.

A subsequent weeklong tour with Campbell of Cleveland's homeless encampments and shelters demonstrated, quite convincingly, that the mayor's crackdown has not crushed the homeless. If anything, it has empowered them.

First Stop: Camelot

The sign on the grass near East 55th and Chester reads "City Side Garden." But Mayor White is most unwelcome at the adjacent homeless encampment, named sardonically after King Arthur's glittering kingdom.

Bobby, second in command, pumps Campbell's hand. As always, visitors are well-received, especially media visitors -- as long as no one is doing anything illegal. He runs ahead to check.

As it turns out, there's no need to worry. Most of the shantytown's residents are either at day labor jobs or nearby drop-in centers. Besides Bobby, the camp contains only Ralph, a tall, weathered man warming the inside of a ski jacket over a fire blazing in a garbage can.

While the prez busies himself clearing the camp of cheap liquor bottles and beer cans, Bobby and Ralph bemoan the current mayoral administration.

"I hate that bitch," Bobby fumes, hands stretched over the spitting flames.

Ralph concurs. "Now [George] Forbes, he was the best one for mayor," he says.

"[White] ain't going to get my vote," says Bobby, finger-stabbing the air for emphasis. "Next election he is going down. That bitch. Quote me on that."

The mayor's post-Thanksgiving edict has made him an easy scapegoat for the homeless, whose many problems usually have a slew of origins. Linda Hudecek, the city's community development director, says the mayor's attempt to enforce the law has been mischaracterized as an attempt to harass homeless people.

"The mayor's position has never been anti-homeless," she says. "We are concerned about enough beds for people, we are engaged with funding homeless services. This is solely about discouraging illegal activity."

Ralph and Bobby's disdain for the mayor goes further back than the recent sweeps. Neither have been bothered by police lately. Despite its location near a city garden, Camelot has managed to avoid the mayor's net.

"The police don't bother us," Ralph says. "They come by sometimes and tell us to keep the place neat. They protect us."

Many of the camp's residents, including Campbell earlier this year, sometimes work next door at a car wash. They claim the black-and-whites are among their most loyal customers. Perhaps because the cops and homeless share an enemy in White, they've reached an accord in this part of town, carving out a tolerant coexistence while they go about their respective businesses.

Campbell once lived in this camp, distinctive for the nearby abandoned building that offers respite from extreme weather. He misses the camaraderie and, in particular, his good friend, Chief -- the camp leader, who is reportedly fond of Campbell's impassioned, pro-homeless sermons. Campbell has knighted him a regional governor in the Rosewater movement.

Ordinarily, Campbell shows up with gifts for his friends in Chief's camp, but there are none today. Instead, he ends up taking two things away -- a soggy bag of carrots he pulls out of the camp garbage and a nearly new pair of boots. His pet rabbit will eat the carrots. And the boots, while not his size, will definitely warm the feet of some lucky wayfarer.

Second Stop: Cosgrove

Regulars call the Bishop William M. Cosgrove Center on Superior "the restaurant." After homeless people get ousted from the shelters at 6 a.m., many go directly to the center and wait for its doors to open at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast.

In late afternoon, the center is about half-full. It's too late for lunch, but neither Campbell nor Lauriano are hungry anyway. This writer, whom Lauriano nicknamed "Food Truck" by the end of the week, had taken them earlier to Burger King, where Lauriano fished enough change out of his pockets to buy two Pokémon toys for his stepson, Edward Jr. Campbell stocked up on little packages of ketchup and wrapped up the leftovers for his dog, a happy stray he calls Mr. Brown.

Nearly 100 men are bunched together in the Cosgrove hall, sitting in straight-backed chairs watching a movie. Some lean their heads on their hands, staring blankly ahead. Others look for their friends in a recent Cleveland Life story about the homeless, or play cards or sleep. Employees and volunteers clean up around them, careful not to disturb the piles of blankets, backpacks, and garbage bags filled with personal belongings that are lined up under the windows.

Campbell unloads the contents of his suitcase, mostly secondhand clothes that people have dropped off at homeless encampments. Then he takes a seat farthest away from the television set. A few men recognize him and shake hands. Campbell spots Robert Patton, a fellow Rosewater squatter, who confesses he's frequently been in trouble with drugs and the law. Patton's been clean and off the streets now for 90 days, but he still spends time at Cosgrove.

Campbell, who is known in non-homeless circles, such as the Justice Center, as "Clark," bums a few smokes off another acquaintance. His spirits high and his suitcase light after unloading his donations, he lights the crudely rolled cigarette, ignoring the "No smoking" sign on the table. Now he's prepared to answer the question most people with a roof over their heads want to know: Why does he choose to be homeless?

"God is with the homeless more than anybody," he answers, embarking on a rambling discourse that's nearly impossible to interrupt. "We glory in our weaknesses, because our weaknesses are our strengths . . . The brick that was thrown away is now the cornerstone."

The homeless thank the Lord for every piece of bread that passes through their lips, he explains, for steam-warmed sidewalks, and for every "Christian" who places coffee and donuts in their open hands. During the mayor's assault, clouds of wasted steam billowed from the welfare building's empty grates into the greedy wind. Tents were disassembled and mattresses thrown away. Campbell could only imagine what happened to his Christians, wandering the city searching in vain for those they would help.

"We look at [being homeless] as giving them an opportunity to get a blessing," he says. "Because any donation to charity is a blessing . . . We love our Christians. Even when they say, "Get a job!' we just say, "Get homeless!' Here they are perpetuating this diabolical system."

The American system, as Campbell sees it, values possessions over people and comfort over freedom. It's a society he doesn't care to join, one that has as little use for him as he has for it. Being homeless liberates him.

"People elect to be homeless," he explains, "because that way we don't have to answer to people who don't have our best interests in mind. This way they can't put us out."

Even though he never wants to be part of the system, Campbell empathizes with the suffering of "domestics" (people who live indoors) and "working stiffs" (anyone with a regular job). He believes he can help them.

"Don't worry about a thing," he often says. "I'll have you starving and homeless before you know it."

Stop Three: The Grapevine

During the day, the offices of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) on West 25th Street fill up with street people who sell and write for The Homeless Grapevine newspaper. As the Grand Central Station of Cleveland's homeless, NEOCH is often the only place to reach homeless people via telephone. Well-bundled writers tap away at computers. Cold vendors warm up on a sinking sofa. Staffers, both paid and unpaid, resist Herculean doses of distraction to keep the nonprofit organization going.

Campbell has dubbed Editor-in-Chief Brian Davis, the executive director of NEOCH, Rosewater's Secretary of State. But it's the homeless president who is more often at Davis's beck and call. Several months ago, Campbell was runner-up in Davis's search for the poorest person in Northeast Ohio, one of many creative, consciousness-raising promotions run by NEOCH. Another was a welfare softball league.

"They were building the stadium while they were cutting welfare," Davis explains. "We thought, if people on welfare played professional sports, that might help get some attention."

Usually the dominant voice in joint interviews, Campbell quietly opens his briefcase and spreads its contents around the table -- children's books, drawings, and Grapevine articles -- while Davis recounts all the injustices perpetuated against Cleveland's homeless. Six years ago, the city addressed its homeless problem by picking up street people and dumping them on freeways, suburbs -- anyplace out of sight, Davis says. Although the city denied the charge, it settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union in 1997, in which it agreed not to transport homeless people against their will.

The city's intolerance of homeless people continued this year, when police were ordered to enforce an ordinance that prohibited objects from obstructing sidewalks, which the mayor interpreted to include homeless people. City council amended the wording, but the sweeps continue. Two weeks ago, the ACLU secured a restraining order, restricting the sweeps to the downtown business and shopping district, and is continuing its effort to have the practice declared unconstitutional.

"We get all this money from the state and federal government to take care of homeless people, and then we make it illegal to be homeless," Davis says. He maintains that chasing street people from their regular spots makes it harder for social service workers to find and help them. Davis tries to keep them visible selling The Grapevine, offering to enlighten passersby on the plight of the homeless for a dollar.

Lauriano often drops by the NEOCH offices in the United Bank Building after his daily shift selling newspapers at the West Side Market. Vendors get to keep 80 cents of each sale, which is why Lauriano usually jumps at media opportunities -- the exposure helps him sell more papers. Ever since he and his two-year-old stepson appeared on the front page of The Plain Dealer several weeks ago, Lauriano has been making between $30 and $40 a day.

Davis also encourages leadership efforts like Rosewater. The grandest dream of Campbell's crew is to turn 2000 Superior, a former clothing factory (and later printing company) known as the Tower Press Building, into a homeless center. Rosewater's strategic officer, Robert Igoe, pulls away from an article he's writing for The Grapevine and launches into an eloquent, if long-winded, explanation of the organization's ultimate goal.

"It would be [to institute] a provisional government of homeless people who act to organize the homeless and advocate for issues important to us," says Igoe, a 32-year-old intellectual in flannel and hiking boots, who spends most of his days in the public library. He professes to be a reformed proponent of supply-side economics. Campbell kiddingly calls him "Ron," after Ronald Reagan.

"We want to acquire the [Rosewater] building and staff it with dedicated homeless people for whom homelessness is a chosen path," he continues. The goal for the staff, whose members would retain homeless status even though they would technically live together in the building, would be to help other homeless people get off the street.

Though chances of securing the building are remote, the continuing Rosewater organizing effort is an unprecedented success to Campbell, Igoe, and Lauriano -- a black, white, and Hispanic triumvirate who constitute a sort of Rainbow Coalition for the homeless. Davis, who has seen a succession of homeless activist groups take root in the city, takes the longer view. Ten years ago, he points out, homeless activists camped out at City Hall. In the early '90s, a homeless group took over a shelter.

Such efforts are typically short-lived, Davis says, because survival is the first priority for homeless people -- and often takes all their time. Moreover, those who succeed in getting off the streets don't always want to look back.

"There are periods of time when there are no leaders," he says. "Then periods where leaders emerge who see what tremendous power they have. Only 50 people showed up at the city council meeting [last month], and some action came from it. Imagine what would have happened if 500 showed up.

"Many homeless people just don't imagine the power they have."

Stop Four: Current and Future Camps off Riverbed Street

Go around the city with two homeless people, and they turn into magicians. They can make society's invisible men, women, and children come out from under the bridges you drive by every day. They can show you their hidden dwelling places near the building where you work and the bars where you drink. They can cajole them into telling you about living in the shadows of our new multimillion-dollar football stadium.

But the people Campbell and Igoe find aren't always cooperative. Under the Detroit-Superior Bridge, just down the hill from the Spaces art gallery, Campbell scampers down a gravelly hillside to a crude shanty. He is looking for "Colonel" Sean, one of Rosewater's original eight founding members.

The Colonel isn't there. But Campbell talks with another man, and soon the two of them are trudging back toward a waiting reporter and photographer.

Campbell shrugs his shoulders and breaks the bad news. "He says it'll be $10 for a photograph."

The photographer fishes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and holds them out instead.

"Ten dollars," the man repeats, turning back toward the shanty. He seems weary of media types coming around.

Back in the van, Campbell points out an overgrown lot farther down the road. It may look like a jungle, he says, but behind the weeds there's a nice tunnel in the side of the bridge where the wind can't get you. He shares his plans for making it a Rosewater camp someday. Igoe points out a spot where he was arrested for sleeping -- the best place for seeing the city lights at night, he claims.

Aside from their belief in the virtues of the homeless lifestyle, Campbell and Igoe seem an unlikely match. Campbell's hard-knock upbringing contrasts with Igoe's early life of privilege. A scraggy, exquisite man with long wavy bangs and Eurotrash good looks, Igoe has been to several colleges, where he studied economics, Russian, and classical literature. He claims to have read everything Dostoyevsky ever wrote, except The Gambler. Twice.

Igoe says he fell into homelessness gradually. The descent was sparked by a failed business venture in 1991, which left him with just enough money to "buy cat food and live on peanut butter and jelly and Spam in a room with no heat.

"It was very, very cold," he recalls. "I slept with my cats in a sleeping bag on a futon -- the only piece of furniture I owned. One time I was giving money to a homeless person, and a friend told me, "Don't ever give homeless people money.' Then he took me to St. Malachi's, and we had free sandwiches, donuts, and coffee. I thought, this isn't so bad."

Igoe began taking homeless people into his apartment, and they ended up getting him thrown out. So he started living in his car. That's when his unpaid traffic and parking tickets caught up with him.

"Every time I had saved enough money to get off the street, I would get another ticket," he says.

Since then, Igoe has been homeless in cities across the country. He's hopped trains and continued his homeless existence in whatever city the trains stopped.

He met Campbell at a temporary job service in Cleveland, where they soon became immersed in a conversation about spirituality. It turned out they had a lot more in common than their backgrounds would suggest, especially in regard to being homeless. Campbell speaks about it slowly, in dramatic sweeps, like an evangelistic minister or a charismatic politician, while Igoe unleashes words in a great hurry, like a debate team captain with his suit on fire.

"The homeless are the inverse of the 2 percent of Americans who hold all the wealth," he insists. "The two groups are bipolar opposites . . . The homeless have a dysfunctional role in society. Instead of being the oil in the gears, it's the sand in the gears that makes [them] scrape.

"If the homeless could work with the government to make services available, the problems with the homeless could be eliminated completely. Government needs to address the homeless in a multi-tiered approach, instead of just finger-pointing at the guy on the grate and saying, "That's wrong.'"

Stop Five: The Greyhound station

At first, Campbell and Igoe shoot down a suggestion to visit the Greyhound bus station. Only the most virginal of the street-stranded homeless would even consider the well-monitored, brightly lit building on Chester a realistic place to escape the cold. But part of Rosewater's action plan involves more outreach to the homeless, so the president agrees to check it out.

Once through the glass doors, his small entourage immediately attracts the attention of the three security guards. One in particular locks onto the group as it moves through the building, his mouth downturned in a scowl, his eyes never leaving the back of Campbell's head.

Dressed in a suit and tie with a Pokémon hat and his usual overcoat, Campbell says he's often referred to as "the homeless businessman." But the guard doesn't see the "businessman" part, only the "homeless." He seems able to smell it -- an ability only the homeless or formerly homeless develop, Campbell later explains.

Campbell quickly decides no homeless outreach is needed here and leads the group back outside. He is smiling and posing for the camera in front of some Greyhound travelers, his arms outstretched, when the vigilant security guard bursts through the doors.

"You're going to have to move," he says gruffly. "You can't take pictures here."

Campbell swings around to face him and unleashes a venomous tirade against security guards who can't bully people off the public sidewalks, as well as their mothers. Both men puff out their chests like warring roosters. Campbell edges closer and closer, despite the efforts of his party to move away.

"I'm homeless!" he screams, his eyes like bullets in a cocked chamber.

"What're you on?" the guard asks. "Crack?"

"I'm homeless," Campbell reiterates with a sweeping gesture toward ogling bystanders. "All these people identify with me. They're future homeless!"

Somehow, Campbell's company succeeds in extricating him from a situation rapidly escalating toward an arrest. Back in the van, he insists he could have handled the situation himself. He's been to Vietnam, to prison, and on the streets for a long time. He doesn't have any bulletholes in him, he says. Never got so much as a broken bone.

"I feel the strength of my three brothers in me," he says. "That bull, he knows it."

Stop Six: The Commune

Far from the sprawling stateliness of Rosewater and the trash-strewn lot under the stars at Camelot, Campbell now stays in a small L-shaped loft in the basement of a tiny house off Broadway. The neat, orderly space betrays his military past. Although he's Muslim, Campbell keeps a Bible on his thin mattress. In fact, before he moved into the space, he sent it ahead as "a spiritual gesture to let them know what I'm about."

Campbell is one of several people paying rent on the house, which he shares with Lauriano, Lauriano's partner Pam, her child, and Lauriano's sister. If that isn't crowded enough, there are also two dogs and a rabbit.

"Edward always wants to let [homeless] people stay here," says Pam, a formerly homeless person herself, who almost always allows it. "I know what it's like," she says.

The Rosewater effort is an extension of the goodwill Campbell and Lauriano try to bestow on the homeless friends, who often crash in their overcrowded home. Though their generosity includes giving away 10 percent of their earnings from Grapevine sales, they can't take care of all their homeless friends. But they can help raise awareness in the community. And they can work toward some long-term solutions.

Campbell and Lauriano know the city has funded a 250-bed shelter slated to open this February at 2100 Lakeside. They admit the new shelter, run by the Salvation Army, will provide a continuum of care for the homeless -- helping them get basic shelter as well as job training, drug counseling, and other services that will enable them to become employed, housed members of society.

But Campbell, at least, is skeptical. Although the new shelter has the same goals as his dream Rosewater shelter, it won't be run by homeless people. That means there will be rules. People who don't obey the rules will be turned away. Campbell says no one would ever be turned away from Rosewater.

He knew Daniel Little, a homeless man who froze to death in a dumpster last winter. He feels responsible for making sure that never happens to another homeless person again.

"Every time we hear of a homeless person dying, we feel we're failing," he says.

Though no longer technically homeless, the Lauriano household doesn't see itself as too far above it. Together, they have survived most of the social ills that produce homelessness. Campbell has dealt with mental illness. Pam had been severely battered in a previous relationship. Both she and Lauriano are former substance abusers. And both Campbell and Lauriano have done hard time in prison.

"I was adopted when I was nine," Lauriano says. "I've been in 3 group homes, 3 institutions, 11 foster homes, and 4 penitentiaries."

Lauriano reached the pinnacle of misery last winter, sleeping on a steam grate under three icy blankets. With some help, he was able to get up and out on his own. He became a star in the homeless community -- the subject of two columns by Plain Dealer writer Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs. She first wrote about him last January, when he was trapped in a daily routine of shelters, drop-in centers, and soup kitchens. By her second column, in November, he had taken advantage of a social program aimed at helping homeless people afford housing, started volunteering at a church, stopped using cocaine, and started seeing the woman whose son he now calls his own.

Soon afterward, however, when he took in the homeless Pam and her son, he lost the housing grant. Then he lost his apartment, and had to move Pam and her son into the tiny house with his sister. On December 1, he relapsed briefly on cocaine. He says he's back on track now, though money's tight. Besides his meager monthly welfare checks, selling The Grapevine remains his only source of income.

Unlike Campbell and Igoe, Lauriano has no affinity for the streets. He has other reasons for being a Rosewater activist. "They could take the SSI away, and I'd be homeless again," Lauriano acknowledges. "I don't forget where I came from. I don't forget my roots."

To Campbell and the rest of his crew, acquiring the Rosewater building and turning it into a homeless center is the answer to Cleveland's homeless problem. It just isn't likely. The owners, who include Cleveland lawyer Martin Sandel, aspire to sell it. Several offers have been made over the years and either taken off the table or turned down. Unless a buyer comes forward soon with an ambitious renovation plan, Sandel says the building will be razed, because it is no longer safe for habitation.

But he says the owners are sensitive to the plight of the city's homeless. If the building does come down, they plan to turn the land into a park for the homeless.

It would be one bit of charity the Rosewater group would not accept. To Campbell, the dilapidated building is the Mecca of his movement -- a place where reverent well-wishers once clipped branches off its creeping ivy, where the good-hearted made sure the homeless had enough provisions to survive the winter, and where no one ever let another person freeze or go hungry.

If the wrecking ball did swing at Rosewater, it wouldn't just demolish bricks and mortar and history. It would have to take down Dave the President, his ragtag constituency, and the symbol that gave to Cleveland's destitute what no social program or federal grant ever could -- inspiration.

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