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The Other Occupiers

Immigrants and indigents hide in plain sight in South Baltimore shantytown

Photo: Photographs by J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

Photographs by J.M. Giordano

A waterfront home constructed of old doors and other salvaged materials, within sight of interstate-95 (in the background).

Photo: , License: N/A

left to right: Michael, Carmelo, Biron, Jose, Alfredo, and Ruben in front of the shrine of the virgin of Guadalupe at the encampment.

Photo: , License: N/A

Biron in the home he built from scrap lumber, and, on the left, the corn he’s growing just beyond its walls.

A 64-year-old man with a deeply sun-weathered face and violent white splotches on his dark hands is standing in front of a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, hidden back in the brush. His name is Ruben, and he is looking down at the ground as an evangelist with wild, white hair and tattoos tells him he needs to leave this place.

“There are Satanists all back here,” the woman, who calls herself Mama Jo, says, standing in what amounts to Ruben’s front yard. “There’s too much temptation. It’s volatile.”

He just nods as the good-natured evangelist, who just brought a bunch of burgers to the dozen or so men living in the camp, begs him to go back to the shelter he recently left. “Please go back,” she says. “Why won’t you?”

“Too much pressure—talking and talking,” Ruben says in broken English. He won’t say more about what he means by pressure, but, like a lot of Latino immigrants who feel stuck, Ruben has been returning to this encampment on and off for the last decade.

“You should leave here,” Mama Jo says again.

“I know,” he says. “There [at the shelter], I got to church—three times a week. And I pray. When I pray for my brother, my sister, my family, I cry,” he says and points to his eyes. “They are in Mexico,” he says of a family, including a wife, whom he has not spoken with in nearly 10 years. “I still think about her,” he says later, looking down.

Ruben often thinks of his childhood in the small village of San Luis Potosi. He walked across the border in 1984. He took a train from Texas, where he picked fruit, and ended up in Virginia. Eventually, he made his way to Baltimore. Like the men he shares a camp with, he intended to send money back home, build a good life for himself, and either return to Mexico or bring his family here. But he has become lost in the wilderness of American legal, political, and economic forces that leave him unable to either move forward or return home. So he continues to make a frustrating circle between shelters and this camp.

“It is so polluted,” Mama Jo says. “You see that smokestack. All of this, and you already have cancer.”

Ruben looks down again and takes off his baseball cap, running his fingers through his thick white hair. “Prostate cancer,” he says.

“What do you have here?” Mama Jo asks. “Why won’t you go back?”

“He has amigos,” answers another homeless woman who is riding along with Mama Jo as she makes her rounds.

Ruben smiles. “Aquí no trabajo,” he says. Mama Jo seems to think he means that he can’t find work when he stays here at the camp, but the tone of his statement seems larger: There is no work here in Baltimore, in Maryland, in the United States. At least, it is becoming increasingly difficult for men like Ruben to find work because of immigration policies, like stricter inspection and enforcement of green cards and social security cards.

Homeless encampments are springing up all over the city. A Homeless Services Outreach worker listed nearly a dozen locations off the top of his head. Some, like the camp under the JFX, near the farmer’s market, have been closed by the city over the years. But this camp has been something of a permanent community for over a decade.

On the banks of the water, surrounded by trees and tall rush grass, this camp seems like it could be deep in the wilderness; in fact, you have probably driven past it hundreds of times, and if you look closely enough, you can catch sight of the blue tarps, make-shift buildings, and clothes lines. It is almost like a small village—a shantytown—in the heart of South Baltimore. Like many communities, it is rather segregated. In addition to the immigrants, who all live together, dozens of indigent or otherwise off-the-grid American citizens live in structures that range from simple tents to complex compounds built up over years.

Architecturally, the whole thing is kind of amazing, a testament to makeshift ingenuity. The immigrant encampment consists of four small structures, one-room shacks, really, constructed of salvaged materials. But they do their best to make them homey— the plywood walls in one are decorated with glossy pictures, torn from women’s magazines. Three of these shacks are in the center of the camp connected by a shade-providing tarp. There is a fire pit, and a battery-powered radio usually plays softly in the afternoons. The fourth shack is over to the side, past the Virgin of Guadalupe, perched up on a hill, beside the corn in the camp garden. It is little more than a wooden frame and a plywood roof, with blankets acting as walls. Inside, there is a bare mattress and some crumpled clothing.

A man named Biron slaps his hand against one of the support beams. “I made this,” he says with obvious pride. “It is my house.”

A little farther down from the immigrant camp is a 20-yard long compound, a maze of interlocking edifices, hidden deep in the woods and blocked off by a fence. Inside the fence, the path is paved with roof shingles and there is a second fenced-in patio area, complete with a grill and an American flag. In the center of this area is a home constructed almost entirely of old doors. The guy who built it goes variously by Billy and Bob, and city workers call him Billy Bob.

Billy Bob is a tall, lanky white guy with a long beard and suspicious eyes. He originally agreed to talk with City Paper, but later told me that he would not go on record unless I gave him “copyright, editorial control of the story, and money.” When I told him that was something I couldn’t do, he said, “That’s what a real journalist would do.”

I asked him to think about it, and the next time I returned, I asked if anything would change his mind. He pulled a dollar bill from his pocket. Before he cut off communications, Billy Bob said that he was out there because the world was incurably rotten and corrupt.

The man who lives next to Billy Bob goes by Bruce. He says that he is an addict and he finds it easier and safer to live wild than in the city. His girlfriend Michelle says that she doesn’t do drugs.

“I’m a drinker,” she says. “I’ll talk to you if you take me to the liquor store.” I tell her I need to stick around a while. “I stay here because it’s easier. You don’t have to mess with no landlords or anything.” She says she receives welfare checks that help provide money for food and alcohol. Like everyone else, she says the winters are cold. “But we all watch out for each other,” she adds, before heading off to the liquor store.

The immigrants say they don’t talk much with the Americans. “We are Spanish over here, and they are American,” Ruben says of the interaction. “But there are no problems.”

When Mama Jo is gone, Ruben’s English improves considerably, and we converse in what the future may ultimately call the American language—Spanglish. I am not an expert on the lives of these men, living in a way that could be either be as old as the first person who crossed the Bering Strait or as new as the next financial crisis. But I visited them over the course of several weeks, trying to understand the dignity with which they face the grapes of wrath, or las uvas de la ira, that have befallen them.

A short, dark man named Carmelo says he has been in America for 10 years. He works in construction—or he tries to. “Sometimes work, sometimes no,” he says before shuffling off to the far end of the camp, where the majority of the men either sit or crouch. His friend Alfredo says he has papers; his wife is an American citizen with a house in East Baltimore. He began staying over here at the camp on week nights because trucks would come by looking for day laborers, but, he says, they have quit coming, and now, for reasons he won’t say, he can’t go home again.

“Sometimes on the weekend,” he says. “But not much. I miss her.”

Another man named Edwin takes charge of the conversation. “They are my friends,” he says. “I live in Brooklyn. I bring them beer and food twice a month—I come to talk to my friends.” But as he continues to talk, it becomes clear that Edwin has spent some serious time at the camp. “We catch catfish, big catfish,” he says holding out his hands. “Thirty inches, and we eat them.” He says they are worried about pollution, but shakes his head. “We eat them to survive.”

Ruben and Carmelo walk out of the center of the camp, past the shrine to the Virgin, and the line on which their clothes hang to dry.

“See our beans,” Carmelo says, beaming with pride as the afternoon sun glints off the water behind them. Several rows of bean plants struggle up out of the dirt and begin to wrap around riverine trees, which Carmelo stripped of foliage so that the beans could climb them. Behind the beans, there is a row of shoulder-high corn, and a little further down, toward the other settlements in the area, a lone tomato plant struggles to grow.

“Sometimes we eat good,” Carmelo says. “When we catch a good fish or the church people bring food.”

A scrawny cat darts out of the bushes into the space, and Carmelo smiles. “Cato,” he says with a hard “C,” mixing the English and Spanish words.

“Bunch of cats,” Edwin says. “They’re good for us. They eat the snakes.”

Snakes and bugs are bad, but “the winter is worst,” Ruben says. “It is real cold. No electricity. I been here 10 winters. No good. When I stay at the shelter up in Owings Mills, I take a shower every day. I go to church. I pray,” Ruben says, returning, as he always does, to the dilemma of where to go: Should he stay in the camp, where he is free, or should he go to the shelter, where he is comfortable?

When I ask why he doesn’t go back, he answers, “They make you get up too early there.”

“And they don’t let him smoke cigarettes,” Carmelo adds.

The other guys nod. Ruben almost blushes. “I have good fucking friends there,” he says. “And a woman and more respect. Pero when I stay there, I no smoke cigarettes.”

“I have been in this place a long fucking time,” he adds. “The police come to check to see how we’re doing here—in the winter, to make sure no freezing. But sometimes they come, detectives and officers, to take our pictures. They check to see if we steal or have drugs. They come and look in our eyes and say, ‘Why you no go to Code Blue?’ But they mostly leave us alone.”

Nationally, immigration enforcement is growing much tougher. In June, the Supreme Court upheld the most controversial part of Arizona’s immigration laws, which makes it mandatory for local law-enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone they stop for another reason and suspect may not have entered the country legally. South Carolina and Alabama have recently passed similar laws.

In March, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement announced it would launch a program called “Secure Communities” in Baltimore. The test program allows Federal agencies to check the immigration status of individuals arrested for another reason. In response, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed an executive order declaring, “No City Department, agency, officer, or employee shall discriminate against any resident of Baltimore based on confirmed or suspected race, ethnicity . . . national origin, immigration status, and/or inability to speak English.” Rawlings-Blake’s Executive Order makes Baltimore a relatively safe place for undocumented immigrants.

There is, of course, opposition to Rawlings-Blake’s policy. “The mayor’s decision not to enforce immigration laws brings the average standard of living down for everyone,” says Brad Botwin of Help Save Maryland, an immigration-enforcement activist group. “People will leave the state, and you are left with unemployed, uneducated illegal aliens. If that’s how you want to grow your population, you get what you pay for.”

As far as Ruben and his friends are concerned, the relative safety of Baltimore and the increasingly hostile attitude towards undocumented immigrants in the rest of the country makes it almost impossible for them to leave.

“Sometimes I want to go back home,” Ruben says. “But if I try, I get arrested near the border.”

“It is better here than in jail,” Edwin adds. “We go back, the Border Patrol puts us in jail.”

Now, many of them wish they’d never come to the U.S.

“Yeah, sometimes I wish I’d never left,” Ruben says. “It’s not easy to come back there. Too many killers at the border.”

“We are family,” Edwin says. “But if I got a job, I wouldn’t miss the companionship. But it’s not easy to get a stable job with no green card or social security card.”

One day, I find Ruben sitting up above the camp, beside a grocery cart full of water buckets which he is planning to wheel over to the closest water spigot so they will have water for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes. But it is too hot. He sits with his feet propped up on a log, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

“When people drink down there,” Ruben says, pointing at the camp. “I stay over here. ‘Blah blah blah,’ they say all night, and the next day they don’t remember.”

Almost as soon as Ruben says that, his friends Carmelo and Biron return, carrying plastic bags full of malt liquor bottles. Another man, named Leo, is with them. “These are my people,” says Leo.

Like Edwin, Leo says he has a home and came to buy beer for his amigos. He says he sometimes helps them get day-labor jobs, but it is a problem because often the contractors don’t pay them when the work is done. Undocumented workers have no legal recourse in such a situation. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to my people,” Leo says.

After a while, a group of seven or eight Homeless Services Outreach employees for HealthCare Access Maryland arrives at the camp wearing blue shirts and carrying cases of water. They all know Ruben, and they begin to talk. An alcohol-and-drug addiction specialist begins to ask the men if they have a problem with alcohol or drugs.

“It is just hot, you know,” Leo says.

“I understand, but you need to be drinking water, not beer when it is hot like this,” the outreach worker says, giving the men a case full of plastic water bottles. (None would go on record because of agency policy.)

When they finish talking to the men in the immigrant encampment, they move on to the neighboring encampments. Ruben and I both tag along. Though Ruben says he does not talk much with the Americans in the camp, everyone we pass knows him by name.

When the HealthCare Access workers leave, Billy Bob comes out. “You need to fucking forget about this place,” he says to me.

The last time I see Ruben, the crew is sitting around. They are drinking, but not drunk. “We need clothes—shorts, and shirts, and pants,” Alfredo says.

“And shoes,” Biron adds.

“And hats,” Carmelo chimes in.

“We need help,” Alfredo says. “But we are here and we are going to stay here until we find jobs. Hoping to get good jobs and live like decent . . . ” he says before his voice trails off.

“Over there, I have a place, a microwave, I work,” Ruben says of the shelter, still struggling with one of the few choices still left up to him. “He’ll come in a couple days looking for me,” he adds. He’s talking about Pedro Rodriguez, the man who first brought him to the shelter in Owings Mills. And he is right. A few days later, I catch Rodriguez on the phone. He tells me that Ruben is back at the shelter.

“He was gone for two weeks,” Rodriguez says of Ruben. “When he was here, he was going to church—not smoking or drinking beer. Then he disappeared for two weeks. On Saturday, I brought him back.”

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