GREENSBORO — Outside her dome tent in the woods, Yong Suggs has landscaped a tidy patch of gravel and keeps her slippers lined up neatly by the door.
“I’m a clean freak,” said the 58-year-old unemployed housekeeper, in an accent laced with her native Korean. “People say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like a homeless.’ No, I don’t want to look like a homeless. I don’t want to smell like it, either.”
But Friday, as one more bone-chilling night descended on a homeless camp downtown near Freeman Mill Road, the sheer hardship wore her down.
“In summertime, it’s no problem,” Suggs said of the camp where she has lived since April. “In wintertime, I feel like a little puppy dog. I crawl in, I crawl out.”
Across a frozen meadow, through a hole in a chain-link fence, Suggs followed a trail to join friends Lee Schliphack and Mark Stinson around the fire.
Schliphack, homeless for 10 years, was just visiting from an emergency shelter where he was staying. But Stinson, like Suggs, was toughing it out at the camp. The alternative? Stinson had used up his stay at Weaver House. He and Suggs concurred that life in the overflow shelters was stressful and inhospitable.
But to Greensboro Police Sgt. Bud Blaylock, who checks on the camp each day, the question was academic.
“Typically, we try to find somebody a place to stay,” said Blaylock of the Central Division. “But the Salvation Army is full, the Weaver House is full, the overflow is full. There’s no room at the inn. We have resorted to putting people in jail.”
Friday, as the temperature plummeted quickly from 27 one hour after nightfall down to a low of 12, Blaylock and StreetWatch volunteers kept a wary eye on known homeless camps and bridge people.
Distributing cold-weather clothes donated by Our Lady of Grace Catholic school, Cara Michele Forrest and Audrie Keen lingered at the camp until dusk, then headed out again Saturday.
In a region where the homeless are more apt to record milder “one-blanket nights,” the deep freeze has posed a formidable challenge.
In summer, bathed in moonlight, kudzu and malt liquor, the railroad right-of-way has an occasional Kerouacian allure, although Suggs warned that the mosquitoes are not to be underestimated.
But in winter, even the train whistles are forbidding, bringing train-jumpers who pass through the camp at all hours of the night.
“You’ll say, ‘Where y’all from?’ ‘Tennessee,’ ” Schliphack said with a shiver. “‘Where y’all going?’ ‘Virginia.’”
But the most sinister presence is the cold, starting in the feet and the fingers, propelling a person inevitably to the fire.
“Everybody wants to tend the fire tonight,” drawled Stinson, as Suggs struggled to stoke a smoky campfire, and an icy breeze scattered sparks.
Stinson, nicknamed “Chief” and born in Oklahoma, has the rugged baritone of cowboy actor Sam Elliot. He used to be a mechanic, used to be married, used to be many things.
In his experience, it is never one factor that leads up the rutted trail to Camp Freeman Mill. Instead, it is usually a series of events.
On Friday afternoon, at the request of Grace Community Church, Stinson and his two friends came in for an hour or two to answer questions about how volunteers should count the homeless in next week’s annual Point In Time count.
“Come up sideways, but don’t come up by yourself. Always keep a cell phone,” Stinson advised the Americorps volunteers. “My camp’s always open. Y’all are welcome. We can roast marshmallows, whatever. Not everybody’s like that.”
His friend agreed.
“There’s people out there who are way worse than we are,” Schliphack said. “Way worse.”
Contact Lorraine Ahearn at 373-7334 or lorraine.ahearn @news-record.comWANT TO HELP?
To donate cold-weather items or food to help the homeless, go online to http://streetwatchgso.com or drop off clothing at the Greensboro Police Department Watch Operations Center, J. Edward Kitchen Operations Center, 2602 S. Elm-Eugene St., Greensboro.