Traveling, broke and hungry: An inside look at what homelessness is like in Detroit Lakes
DETROIT LAKES, Minn.—Jeremy Scott wasn't looking for luxury when he curled up with his dog Buddy beneath the eastbound Highway 10 bridge in Detroit Lakes to sleep. It was a roof, a temporary shelter while he gathered his bearings.
Scott says he had been left behind by a couple fellow "travelers" who took his money to get a hotel room for the three of them, while he panhandled by Subway in this popular lakes-area community. By the time he figured out they weren't coming back for him, it was dark, and Scott had no idea where to go.
"I was trying to figure out what to do next...you can't go down the road with no money. You don't know where your next town is...I was trying to Google Map it. How far? Is there any stores on the way? I gotta carry water. I gotta carry food. I gotta make sure my dog has food," said Scott. "And I realized my boots were done."
Down and out in DL
With boots that were mostly duct tape, Scott didn't have a lot of options other than to crawl up under the bridge that night. And he didn't have many options in the days that followed, either. Scott says his wallet had been stolen a few months before, so he had no ID. All he could do was continue to walk back to the spot he had been left on the Highway 10 Frontage Road and "fly a sign," hoping to make enough money to get what he needed to survive another day.
Scott had other means as well, tricks of the trade he's learned in his seven years on the road. He found a few public restrooms where he could wash his hands and face each morning. When flying a sign didn't make him enough money, he would go "canning," picking up cans or even going so far as to dumpster dive for them to turn them in for a little change. Basically, he was buying time until he found a way out of town.
That's when he met Lori Rogers. Rogers was working at The Refuge at the time. She was getting by on means that were growing shakier every day, but that didn't stop her from going out of her way to help Scott when she saw the shape his boots were in. She helped him get a thrift store voucher for new boots and, with that, the two became fast friends.
Eventually, Rogers invited Scott to stay at her house not knowing that in just a few weeks she would be jobless and homeless, too, getting familiar with the underside of the bridge he had been calling home.
"I like to think to myself it was probably meant to be that we would both meet each other down the great road of life and that we could both help each other out," said Rogers.
Rogers, who is from the Becker County area, became homeless much more recently than Scott, losing "just about everything a person could lose" in basically one fell swoop. She says after her father passed away, "one thing led to another, and I couldn't pay my bills."
"There's something about losing a parent...something happens inside a person," said Rogers through tears.
Scott watched Rogers' life quickly spiral, and he became protective of her, wanting to shield her from the dangers he knew all too well from his time on the road.
"I've been on the road for a while. Not really proud of it. I hate to have to own up to it," said Scott, adding, "When it came down to it, it was like, the best thing we can do now is stick together."
Eventually, their friendship turned into a relationship, and Scott's priorities shifted.
"I try to do everything to make sure she's OK, whether it's going clear out of my way or not," he said. "Before I met her, I was flying a sign that said, 'Traveling, Broke and Hungry.' After I met her, I folded it down. It said, 'Broke and Hungry.'"
Running out of options
Rogers thought if they stayed in the area, she could get housing eventually; she is on a list for Section 8. So the two hunkered back down under Highway 10 with Buddy, never imaging the summer would come and go with them still being homeless.
The Detroit Lakes Police Department was forced to tell the couple to move along last week after a few concerned citizens called and reported that the two had begun starting campfires under the bridge, which is actually on private property owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and Scott says it's starting to feel like they're running out of options.
"We feel like we're being treated like we're not even trying," he said. "We do wish there'd be more help, more options, something."
Without an ID or an address, Scott is trapped in a cycle of red tape. He can't get an address—or even assistance for housing from Becker County, Mahube, or area churches—without an ID, and he can't get an ID without an address. Even with an ID, Scott can't prove sustainable income, which is what assistance programs—even emergency assistance through Becker County—ask for.
It's not that he has a problem working. He's learned the value of a dollar.
"I was never shy of walking up to the guy trying to do a little siding all by himself. I'd walk right up to him and ask if he needs a little help, cause I need some change," he said, recalling the numerous jobs he worked for cash while on the road. "Sometimes you'll meet a guy who's willing to train you in. I always tell them, 'Look, I might be a little slow, but I love learning.'"
The problem is, he physically can't do it anymore. He knows he qualifies for disability but, again, that's assistance he can't get without an address or ID.
"My biggest thing anymore is I'm losing my eyesight, so I won't be able to do what I used to do. I won't be able to go and help out people if they need help," said Scott.
The road hasn't been kind to him. Years of "grunt" work, miles of walking, the countless times he's had to defend himself have taken their toll. The bones in one of his hands have had to be reconstructed. His cheekbones and eye sockets are so shattered that he has trouble breathing and is losing his eyesight.
"It's not safe for you to be out here alone," said Scott.
Around the time of WE Fest, a prominent country music festival in Detroit Lakes, Scott says he was jumped by four guys who laughed and yelled something about "bum bashing" while they wailed on him in Washington Park. He says it's the first time he's been "bum bashed," but it's not the first time he's been harmed by people just for sitting in a park or for being on a corner panhandling.
"This world don't even know. This world don't even have a clue. Everyone's one paycheck away from being in my boots ... What it comes down to is just cause we're homeless doesn't mean we're bad people. It doesn't mean we're trash," said Scott. "If anyone wants to do us a huge favor, talk to us like we're a human being."
'I ain't got nothin' to hide'
Whether he's being targeted by people who are out "bum bashing" or told he's got 30 minutes at a restaurant to eat and leave, Scott says he knows he's "marked." He gets stares—especially in small towns—because he's lugging a 120-liter, military-issued backpack, and he's got face tattoos and a mohawk.
He'd like to blend in, simply for safety purposes, but he knows he doesn't—and that's ok, too.
"I ain't got nothin' to hide. Yeah, I got warrants. Nonextraditable. They're small, little misdemeanors. One was drinking in public. The other one is disorderly conduct because a guy spit on me, and I pushed him," he says, for anyone who's wondering if he matches the stereotypes of a homeless person: criminal, drug addict, lazy bum. "Don't get me wrong—I do drink, and I will not lie about it because we do drink. I'm not on drugs. But it comes down to the fact that ... it's uncomfortable to be me ... drinking helps me laugh, joke, and walk down the road, you know, do another day."
But addictions and criminal behavior had nothing to do with him ending up on the road seven years ago, he said. Sure, he'd have "a beer here, a beer there," but it wasn't anything that got in the way of his livelihood back when he had everything he needed: a home, a bed, even a 55-inch flat screen and PS3.
Then his mom got sick.
"I heard that, and I quit my job to hurry to get to my mother. The only thing I knew was to get to her to see her...it took everything I had," he said.
He left his roofing gig in Pensacola, Fla., and drove back to his hometown in Nebraska to take care of her while she went through treatment for the cancer that inevitably killed her.
"After my mamma died ... it was a loss felt ... all else just kinda broke loose," he said, adding that the family he had left just sort of scattered after that. "I didn't know what to do, so I hit the road and travelled around. And I've been helping people, mostly. I've been doing more helping than hurting."
Scott says he's been able to help a lot of people, actually, and not just for money under the table. He says he's helped people who have broken down near him when he's been panhandling, helped people change flat tires. Just the other day, he says he met another "traveler" in town and he used some of the little cash he had to buy him lunch.
"A lot of us homeless folk, travelers is what I like to call myself, we like this thing called karma," said Scott explaining the hobo ("Helping Our Brothers Out") way. "What goes around, is gonna come around."
'There is still a need'
Now, one area business owner, Georgia Nagel, says it's time for people to help Scott. She's taken the first few steps, just getting to know him and Rogers.
"I decided a couple weeks ago that they can't be that bad—they've got a dog," said Nagel, who owns a pet-sitting business in town, "The dog is really what got my attention. I was just going to go over there and make sure the dog was OK."
Nagel says Scott was a little skittish at first. He didn't want to take any charity, but he did accept the dog food she gave him because he said what little food stamps Rogers was getting couldn't buy anything for Buddy.
Nagel kept coming back after that, checking in. First she gave them raincoats, then some blankets, then some sweatshirts. Every time, the couple was grateful.
"We definitely love getting some extra, fresh clothes," said Scott after receiving a donation of thick sweatshirts.
Nagel says she doesn't know how to help them find housing—or just plain shelter—faster, though. There is no homeless shelter in Detroit Lakes.
Multiple entities are working on the shortage of affordable housing. But, until then, people like Scott and Rogers are forced to go without, knowing winter isn't far off.
"We're getting real tired of seeing our breath in the morning," said Scott, worried and wearied by the incoming cold weather. "I don't want to do this anymore. The road is getting tiring. I'm tired. I'm not asking for a handout. I'm asking for a hand up."
Nagel is thinking a donation like a phone card to give them a way to contact apartments or potential employers might go a long way, as right now the couple is forced to walk miles a day, checking on resources, apartments, job vacancies and, often times, they get turned away, told to "try back tomorrow" or to go to another resource clear across town.
"You gotta go out of your way to find somebody," said Scott.
"We figured out one day he walked 9.2 miles, and I walked seven," added Rogers.
Helping them to get something small, like a P.O. box, so Scott can get a new ID and maybe start collecting disability again is also high on the list of things Nagel thinks could greatly impact Scott and Roger's situation.
"What people don't realize is that the smallest thing in their life, like a phone card or a P.O. box, is the biggest thing in ours," said Scott.
Nagel has been posting updates about the couple to her Facebook page and, so far, she has gotten a good response. People seem willing to reach out and help, and Nagel says she's willing to be the go-between doling out the donations to Scott and Rogers but, on a broader scale, Nagel says she thinks their story goes to show that Detroit Lakes needs more resources for the homeless.
"Mostly, right now, I think it's about awareness that there is still a need for this sort of thing in the area," she said.