Editor's note: While researching this story we met a wide variety of individuals who had an intimate familiarity with homelessness. This story is meant to acclimate the reader with a population that eludes many of us: people we may stereotype or even refuse to acknowledge. Yes, mental illness and substance abuse can be found among their ranks, but so can advanced degrees, children and ongoing careers. Considering that one out of two Americans is poor or low-income according to the latest census data, many of us are simply one paycheck away from joining them.
The first thing you see when you walk into The Jungle is a small ceramic plaque that says "Welcome Friends." Walk further into The Jungle and you'll see a small tree in the middle of the clearing. Little American flags are pushed in to the flesh of the tree and a small wooden cross dangles from one of its limbs.
"There's only three rules in The Jungle," a man says to me, smiling from beneath his large moustache. "Get wood. Get water. Keep the camp clean."
Next to me, a woman is showing off her two gold rings. One is from Kmart and the other is from a pawnshop.
"He even started crying when he gave me this one," she says, referring to her boyfriend.
The Jungle is one of the many homeless camps around Indianapolis. These two people are part of the camp's population that usually hovers around six. It's the cleanest and most organized camp in Indianapolis, according to its members.
The Jungle has a large outhouse; the ground, even though it's dirt, is swept; there's a small makeshift kitchenette with a plethora of pots and pans; and there's a large building where wood is stored.
I'm with Melissa Burgess and Marie Turner, members of Horizon House's Street Outreach Team (SORT). They are checking on their clients who receive medical treatment at Horizon House.
The next encampment we go to isn't as nice. It's by railroad tracks, as are a large majority of the camps, and is hidden behind thick brush. We push our way through to find a tarp strewn over the ground.
"Knock, knock," says Burgess.
No response. She lifts the tarp and there's a sleeping bag on the dirt and leaves.
We leave to search for the next camp. On the way, Burgess drives by the Pine Street Bridge camp. She doesn't want to stop because it's dangerous, especially at night.
"Drugs, alcohol, violence ... "
"And rats!" Turner says, stopping Burgess in mid-sentence.
One of the men living at the Pine Street Bridge camp eats roadkill. The city wants to clean up the camp, which includes setting traps or putting out poison for the rats, but one concern is the man might eat the dead rodents. If that happened, he could inadvertently poison himself.
We drive by the Pine Street Bridge camp, park next to more railroad tracks and search again.
Most of the camps are empty, but we find in one a nervous-looking man who refuses any assistance offered to him.
We approach another camp, duck underneath brush and limbs and almost have to crawl to get to it. I stand up inside and I see a dead body. Oh my god, I think to myself. They must see it, too. Why are they only walking by it?
Burgess sees the look on my face. "It got me the first time, too," she says.
I go up to the body and see that it's only a mannequin. A cigarette dangles from the lips, its arm is propped up on a crutch and its head is a shaved coconut.
No one else is there.
"Watch out for the booby traps," Burgess says a moment before I almost trip over a well-hidden trip wire. She tells me how people sometimes will sharpen the roots of a bush to a point and put a trip wire in front of them.
"Sometimes you get guys who are vets and it's almost like Vietnam," Burgess says.
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