Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Displaced miss their possessions, 'family'

By Karen Samples ksamples@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Delbert “Frog” Thompson now lives in the underbrush along Interstate 75 in Boone County.

        John Chetuck is temporarily staying with friends.

        Bob Singleton sleeps on the ground each night in the nooks and crannies of Covington, packing up every morning and moving on.

        All three had been inhabitants of a makeshift homeless camp along the Ohio River. Now they are suing the city of Covington, which they accuse of violating their constitutional rights during a sweep of the riverbank last month.

        The men say they miss not only their possessions but the sense of community among the 30 or so camp-dwellers. Scattered across Northern Kentucky, they now must fend for themselves.

        Mr. Thompson, 58, works every day at a garden center. Then he walks to his new place — a secluded patch of trees in the shadow of the interstate. A church gave him some jeans, and Welcome House provided sleeping bags to replace the ones he lost. Every day, he wonders whether the items will still be at the campsite when he returns.

        “I don't have other people watching my things like I used to on the riverbank,” Mr. Thompson says. “We were all family, and we would watch out for each other.”

        A self-proclaimed “old hobo,” Mr. Thompson has for years traveled the country, camped outside and taken temporary jobs to earn money for his next journey.

        “I'm not homeless,” he says. “The United States is my home.”

        For the last several years, he has followed a routine: Work several months at the same place in Northern Kentucky, then ride his bicycle to California, where he visits his sister, Rita Brown.

        “The man never ceases to amaze me,” said Ms. Brown, who works for a medical company in San Fernando. “He's always been able to do for himself and take care of himself. I admire him in a lot of ways.”

        Mr. Thompson says he grew up in Cincinnati, got to the sixth grade in school and served in the military. As a young man, he had some scrapes with the law, he says, but he has stayed out of trouble for the last 20 years.

        During last month's riverbank sweep, city workers took not only Mr. Thompson's tent, personal photographs, clothing and Bible but also his key to mobility — a sturdy Caribou backpack. Now he keeps some belongings at work and others at the campsite.

        It's been difficult, he says.

        “I'm not used to the place here. I sleep with one eye open and one ear open,” Mr. Thompson says.

        Another plaintiff in the suit, John Chetuck, has stayed in friends' apartments since the breakup of the camp. He pays for his portion of the rent with earnings from his job as a dishwasher, but he doesn't know how long the arrangement will last and he no longer has the riverbank to fall back on.

        Mr. Chetuck, 30, has held the same job for 18 months. But he has a complicated life that leads him to periodic homelessness.

        Sometimes he clashes with landlords, sometimes friends disappoint him, sometimes he just gets tired of the constraints of mainstream living, he says.

        He had returned to the river camp just before city workers dismantled it, because his living arrangement with another friend had fallen through. The landlord discovered his unauthorized presence and forced him to leave, he says.

        Life might be easier, Mr. Chetuck says, if he collected disability benefits as caseworkers have suggested. He has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, he says. But “living off the system” isn't his style.

        “If I did it, yeah, I'd have my bills paid every month, I'd have a medical card, I'd have food stamps, I'd have everything I need. But I figure, I'm a grown man, I'm healthy for the most part. I'd rather earn what I have, because it gives you more self-reliance, more of a sense of importance,” Mr. Chetuck says.

        When the city swept the riverbank, he lost a number of electronic entertainment items purchased when he was living indoors, he says. But more important, he lost items of sentimental value, such as a collection of poems he had written.

        Copies of those poems are scattered here and there — some with friends, some on computer hard drives — but he despairs of ever retracing his steps to get them back. It's hard enough just concentrating on the future.


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