Editor's note: The Southern Illinoisan chose to protect the identities of some of the past and current homeless. Dale, Ann and Rusty are aliases.

In a small but tidy basement kitchen, Rick Gibson aligns bowls full of bright green salads for 20 diners. Gibson knows his way around a kitchen; he's held nearly every job available throughout his 30 years in the restaurant business.

But Gibson's most recent kitchen gig, and the circumstances that brought him to it, are unlike any he previously experienced. As part of the transitional housing program at the Good Samaritan Shelter in Carbondale, Gibson works in the shelter's kitchen and is a resident in the shelter above.

Gibson is a 54-year-old post-Vietnam veteran of the Air Force; he was living in Shelbyville and in a relationship. But the loss of his job made it difficult to pay bills and put food on the table, and it stressed the relationship.

"It was basically her house, and I had to leave," he said.

Eighteen months after losing his job with no one to turn to for help, Gibson was living in his car. Where he was living, there are few resources for the homeless. Living in a car stresses you out, Gibson said. You can't drive around because it takes gas, and you have to make sure to save what money you do have to eat.

Gibson has health issues and was getting care from Veteran Administration clinics. In order to be closer to the hospital, he took a gamble and came to Southern Illinois. The VA helped place him in the Good Samaritan's emergency shelter for 30 days. Shortly after Gibson arrived, the cook at the shelter left.

"I was in the right place at the right time," Gibson said.

The Transitional Housing program at Good Samaritan is a two-year program, Gibson said he doesn't know if he'll be in the shelter for two years, but is certain he will succeed.

"It's getting my life back on track," he said. "I don't have a doubt. I'm kind of a straight-forward person, and I know what I need to do. I just thank God that this was here. My family's all gone; I have friends, but you know how friends are - you can only do so much with a friend."

In the tents

Dale and Ann are a little more reluctant to say they've successfully overcome homelessness. For 11 months beginning in 2010 the couple was homeless and lived in a tent in the woods outside of Carbondale.

A loss of a steady job led Dale to take odd jobs, and after completing several thousands of dollars worth of work on a friend's car, who he and Ann were also living with, he was told he wouldn't be paid and had to leave the house.

With $20 in his pocket, Dale and Ann were out on the street.

"I went out and bought a tent, and that's when it started," he said. "In some ways, it wasn't as bad as it sounds. In other ways, it was the worst you could ever imagine."

"I'll tell you the first few months were the worst because I fell in with the rest of them and started drinking every day all day," he added. "As soon as I got my head out and started moving around sober, everything started getting better."

But Dale wasn't able to get his head out before falling into a cycle of drinking and violence. When he was first on the streets, he'd sit on The Strip and drink and watch from a distance as homeless people fought.

"I didn't know a month later I'd be the one getting in all the fights."

After he stopped drinking, Dale began trying to improve his situation and others by getting them to stop drinking and try to improve their situation.

But some don't want to change their situation. By Dale's measure, there are three categories of homeless:

 Those who have some form of income, like a Social Security check, but choose to be homeless and spend their money funding an addiction while gaming the system in places meant to feed, clothe and shelter those unable to provide for themselves;

 Those who don't have an addiction, but choose to live on the streets;

 Those who went through a series of unfortunate events and are trying to work their way out of homelessness.

But finding a job and earning money to rebuild a life isn't easy when you live in a tent. Dale said the worst part, worse than being turned away from a church when you're hungry, is being ripped off after working for someone.

Preyed upon

It happened to Ann and him a couple of times. They put in a day's work and were promised to be paid later or the check got was canceled.

"They prey on the homeless," Ann said. "They ask you come over and help and then don't pay. They give you $5 or $10 and say they'll pay the rest later, but you never see later.

"You keep falling for it over and over because you're trying to come up," she added. "There are homeless out there who are trying to do better for themselves, like us, and get out of the rut."

After nearly a year living in the tent, Dale has an arrangement to do work that pays his rent, and he and Ann are living in a house in Carbondale. But living off of $400 a month and unsure of the stability of their situation, he and Ann have discussed if they should start gathering camping gear in case of that possibility.

"I'm still worried about our situation," he said. "I don't want to go back out to the tents. I'm still worried about all that. Probably as long as I live I'll think about that."

Ten years

Unlike Dale and Ann, Rusty no longer worries about living in a tent and has accepted the lifestyle. Rusty helps people who are new to homelessness by helping them get clothes, shoes, a tent and find the places where they can eat. He helps them set up a camp where they can survive just out sight where no will notice or bother them.

Rusty's knowledge comes from experience; he has lived in a tent in the woods around Carbondale collectively for almost 10 years.

"If you learn how to live without money you'll survive," he said. "Most of these people don't know how to live without money."

The terror when you first realize you're homeless is paralyzing, Rusty said, and it's easy to lose common sense.

He knows the feeling; he first became homeless in 1998 when he suffered severe nerve damage in his back after falling off a roof while he was working. Since the accident, he hasn't been able to draw disability because of an inability to obtain the necessary test to prove the disability.

After overcoming the initial shock of being homeless, Rusty said he quickly came to terms with the situation and began helping others like him.

"When I first became homeless I said ‘OK, here you put me in this position - what am I supposed to do?' And all I heard was, ‘Help the others.'"

"People hear homeless, and they think they're crazy. There are some, but there are some trying to make it with a little job. They're trying to get by but can't," he added. "What most people don't realize is they could be one lost check away, one lost job from being homeless."

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On Twitter: @stephenrickerl

 

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