Christopher Rodrigue was a professional in Marietta, Ga. He made $45,000 working in quality control for a food processing company. He had a home, professional friends, colleagues and business contacts. His wife, Jerrilynn, ran a professional cleaning business before she was diagnosed with neuropathy—which kept her from working. Christopher looked at homeless people with scorn—he thought they were lazy, dirty, alcoholics or even drug addicts. He didn’t know that he was about to become one of them.
“There are a lot of people who are one paycheck away from being homeless,” Christopher said. “You are one bad decision away from being flushed.”
Christopher’s one bad decision was leaving Georgia, and his job, so he and Jerrilynn could resolve a family problem in Missouri.
A year and a half later, he returned to Georgia. Christopher and Jerrilynn had saved enough money to survive until Christopher received the first paycheck from a job he was sure was waiting for him.
“We had enough money to survive until I got my first paycheck,” Christopher said.
Former business contacts had promised to connect Christopher to a job upon his return to Georgia. However, Christopher didn’t get the job he hoped for. Instead, he exhausted his resources waiting—and became homeless. The colleagues who promised Christopher a job didn’t want to consider him when they found out he was homeless.
“People forget about you,” Christopher said. “If you don’t have money in Georgia, you’re a piece of dirt.”
When Christopher and Jerrilynn first became homeless, they only had a beach umbrella and a piece of plastic for shelter. During the next year, they found refuge in many places—a highway bridge, an abandoned car lot, a drainage ditch and a tent.
“You stay anywhere that will keep the rain off your head,” Christopher said.
They also stayed with groups of people.
“You try to find groups of people (you can have security with),” Christopher said.
Christopher described living homeless as “a camping trip that doesn’t end.”
Christopher and Jerrilynn were without basic amenities—heat, light, food, clean underwear, soap and water. Taking care of basic needs—staying warm, dry and clean and using the bathroom—was difficult for them.
“Your entire day is spent on survival like an animal in the woods,” Christopher said. “Finding food, water, shelter—maybe some dry clothes.”
Christopher and Jerrilynn often lived in a tent. But tents aren’t made to live in, Christopher said.
There were times it would rain hard for days at a time.
“If you got wet, you stayed wet,” Christopher said. “If you got wet, you’d get sick.”
Other times, it was extremely cold. Christopher and Jerrilynn used candles for heat and would insulate the tent. However, it would take a long time to heat the tent with candles. To avoid letting heat escape by unzipping the tent, Christopher and Jerrilynn would use the bathroom in cups. They would also wear three layers of clothes. But there were still nights when Christopher and Jerrilynn were so cold they couldn’t sleep.
“That cold was so raw, there was no warming up,” Christopher said.
Christopher remembers running his foot directly over a candle because he couldn’t feel it.
“We know people personally that actually froze to death,” Christopher said. “It happens. We lose a lot of people every year.”
Christopher and Jerrilynn had to find, and save, whatever food they needed to survive. Sometimes this meant eating out of the trash. Fast food restaurants throw food away, Christopher said. Christopher and Jerrilynn sometimes removed it from the garbage.
“You do what you have to do to eat,” Christopher said. “It’s either that or starve to death.”
There were still times Christopher and Jerrilynn went three days without food.
Using the bathroom was difficult for Christopher and Jerrilynn. They went in the woods because many businesses only allow paying customers to use their facilities.
“We have nowhere to go but in the woods,” Christopher said. “You always go in the woods.”
They also had trouble bathing. Jerrilynn used to wash her hair in hospital bathrooms.
Cold weather made it hard to wash clothes, so they often had to wear dirty clothes.
Because of Jerrilynn’s medical condition, she has to stay out of the sun and heat. This was harder to do when Jerrilynn was homeless. It was also harder to access healthcare. Hospitals thought she was looking for narcotics when she sought the prescriptions for her medical condition.
On the run
In Georgia, police arrest homeless people when they find them, Christopher said.
“They will stalk you until they find you,” Jerrilynn said. “It’s like being hunted; like you are a deer or moose.”
Police would look for homeless people and give them trespass warrants, take their possessions and arrest them. If police found a campsite used by homeless people when they weren’t there, they’d cut their tent and Mace it.
“You couldn’t go anywhere without being (hassled) by the police,” Christopher said. “Shelter animals in Georgia are (treated better) than homeless people.”
Christopher and Jerrilynn were afraid of lighting fires to stay warm and cook their food for fear the smoke would lead the police to them. They also would get very little sleep because they were afraid of the police.
“We were worried about police because they came in the middle of the night,” Christopher said. “It’s absolutely terrifying because you can’t sleep.”
Christopher and Jerrilynn successfully evaded arrest—but lived in constant fear.
“We were always one step ahead because we always had a lookout,” Christopher said.
When the police would come look at their campsite, they knew it was time to leave.
“You know if the police are sitting there and watching you—they’re coming back,” Christopher said.
Christopher and Jerrilynn would take their things and leave because they didn’t want to be arrested.
Christopher didn’t want to be arrested because he didn’t want to leave Jerrilynn on the street.
“I didn’t want to go to jail; didn’t want her to go to jail,” Christopher said.
Jerrilynn wouldn’t be able to survive on the streets alone, he said.
“It takes two people to survive,” Christopher said.
All of their time was spent surviving and hiding from the police. This causes some people to despair. Some people Christopher and Jerrilynn knew decided to end their lives by stepping in front of trains or vehicles, Christopher said.
Christopher and Jerrilynn were running out of places to hide in Georgia. They spent money on a ride to Tennessee. This money would have put them in a Georgia hotel for two weeks. However, they spent it to come to Tennessee because they heard homeless people are treated better here.
Christopher and Jerrilynn came to Campbell County and they set up a tent at Vasper Lake.
“We came here on a gamble because we were under imminent threat of arrest,” Christopher said. “We took the chance to come here—not knowing what services were available. We heard they don’t look down on people for being homeless here.”
Their first experience with local law enforcement surprised them because it was different from their previous experiences with Georgia police.
Five Campbell County Sheriff’s deputies found them at the lake. After asking Christopher and Jerrilynn if they had drugs or warrants, the deputies showed real concern for them—telling them to be careful. One of the deputies even asked if they needed food. Christopher asked the deputies if it was okay if they stayed at Vasper Lake. The deputies told him they were fine— requesting Christopher and Jerrilynn pick up their trash. Christopher was surprised that deputies treated him like a human being, he said.
“This is New York City compared to Mayberry,” Christopher said. “The people here treat people the way Andy Griffith would treat people. Compared to what (we’re used to); we went through Hell for a year.”
A month ago, Christopher and Jerrilynn got in touch with Phyllis Clinger, from Community Health of East Tennessee. Clinger works with the Permanent Supportive Housing Program—which helps chronically homeless people in Campbell County regain stability. Because Christopher is a United States Army veteran, Clinger connected him with Campbell County Veterans Affairs Director Kevin Walden.
“It was a domino effect,” Christopher said.
Christopher and Jerrilynn received a phone call just when a snowstorm hit, allowing them to seek refuge from the winter conditions.
“They called and said, ‘pack up your stuff, you’ll never be homeless again,’” Jerrilynn said.
Christopher and Jerrilynn were skeptical at first. They thought they’d be in a hotel room for a few days and then back in the woods. However, they were placed in a hotel for about a week before they moved into an apartment.
Now they are involved in the PSHP, which is helping move them towards stability.
“It’s like rehabilitation,” Christopher said. “We’re coming back to life after being stuck out in the jungle for a year, and having no hope.”
They now have hope.
Christopher believes the program saved his life.
“We could have been dead,” he said. “We were at the end of our resources—end of our rope.”
A changed perspective
Christopher and Jerrilynn have been through extreme suffering, and their bodies are worse for the wear.
“There is absolutely no health benefit to being homeless,” Christopher said.
Christopher and Jerrilynn experienced malnutrition. Their teeth have deteriorated.
“My teeth are a mess,” Christopher said. “I am now missing a tooth in my head.”
Christopher and Jerrilynn were exposed to the elements—which was especially hard on Jerrilynn, for health reasons. They were also under constant stress.
“Stress will make your body fall apart,” Christopher said.
However, Christopher now has a new perspective on life. He used to take his life for granted, and look at homeless people the same way many others do—as an inconvenience.
“I used to be on the other side of it,” Christopher said.
Christopher and Jerrilynn aren’t drug addicts or alcoholics. They aren’t lazy. They lived a normal, middle-class life, but found themselves in the trap of homelessness. They suffered in that trap for a year. Now Christopher sees things differently.
“It took me being homeless to see people needed help,” Christopher said. “Had I not been homeless, I would not know what it’s like to be homeless. You can’t know what it’s like to be homeless unless you’ve been homeless.”
Now Christopher wants to spend his life helping people out of the trap he fell into.
“If I can do for other people what she (Clinger) has done for me, that’s what I’ll do,” Christopher said. “Because of what she’s done for me, I’m gonna do it for other people.”
Christopher is going to school to receive the training he needs to help homeless people.
“I’ll spend the rest of my life returning this,” Christopher said.
Christopher believes programs like the PSHP are necessary because of an increasing population of homeless people.
“It (the program) needs to stay,” Christopher said. “For people like us, it’s the only way back into society.”
Every day, more people become homeless, according to Christopher and Jerrilynn. Many are middle class or even upper class.
Christopher remembered seeing one of his former coworkers on the street. When Christopher approached him, Christopher found out he had also lost his job and become homeless.
“We’re gonna have a lot more homeless people because of the economy,” Jerrilynn said.
People who have the nice job and home don’t know how to survive outside, Jerrilynn said.
“Every day, there (are) people getting homeless that don’t know what to do,” Jerrilynn said.
Christopher feels programs like the PSHP should be a priority for government funding. He is aware cuts are being made, but thinks the government shouldn’t cut programs like the PSHP.
“There’s no hope without this program,” Christopher said. “They run on grants. They run on funding from outside sources. If the government cuts the funding—it’s going to be a disaster.”