Pitching tent with survival as stakes

Homeless: Encamped under I-83, Sheila Brown zips up her protection from the elements and `the voices.'

January 15, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The urban landscape looked different yesterday because the homeless Sheila Brown pitched a tent on the concrete under the Interstate 83 overpass. There she lay and ate and slept in freezing temperatures in her blue-and-gray Winnebago tent from Sunny's -- The Affordable Outdoor Store.

Harbored from the freezing rain, she was zipped up and wrapped up in blankets and coats with price tags still attached. Wanting her space, she talked only through her tent.

"I got a few dead friends back there in the dirt. They in limbo. I'm kind of in limbo myself ... just floating around from here to there," says Brown, who turns 38 this month.

Back there -- below the underpass off Guilford Street near Read -- is dirt and railroad tracks. It's where the dead people have been talking to her, sometimes in the day, sometimes at night, Brown says.

"They be fussing at me," she says, "telling me to get off the street, telling me to leave drugs alone."

Not all the voices are disembodied. "There are some real people over there, too."

But not at 11: 45 a.m., not at 27 degrees. No one is near her tent -- bought, she says, for $70 at the Sunny's on West Baltimore Street. Took a government check and bought the tent in the window. Made sense to her. Brown remembers going on grade school camping trips, but "just for half a day. Not a whole night."

Still cold, still talking through the tent, Brown is a voice from inside.

"You got gloves?"

No. I mean yes. You need gloves?

"You need mine? I have some nice soft gloves you can have."

No, no. But thank you.

Brown finally unzips a corner of her Winnebago tent. Inside is a shopping cart draped in clothes. Frigid corn bread in a tin, one-quarter picked clean. Pink silly sunglasses. "Do you like my glasses?" she asks.

Homeless for six months, Brown sleeps in her tent when not in shelters. She could be here again tonight -- or she could pack things up in her grocery cart and make camp elsewhere. Officially, such homesteading is tolerated.

"As long as it's out of the way and not bothering anyone, nobody makes a big deal out of it," says Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Social Services.

You warm enough?

"Not really," Brown says. Given her tent, she's been thinking about getting a heater, one a camper might own. She's been thinking of the rehab center, Our Daily Bread, her dead father, a place of her own, cigarettes. Oh yes, she rises now to go get smokes. Then she'll come back to her tent, maybe listen to the dead people fuss at her.

"It ain't nothing funny," Sheila Brown says. "I hear those voices."

Voices from the dirt.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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