Living on the Edge
Can a tent be a home? Depends on who you ask
Fri, Oct 20, 2006

By Jeff Hansel

The Post-Bulletin 

LIVING ON THE EDGE
A blackbird pauses its song in the restless breeze of late spring. Last year's lingering pine needles sift down to the rust-colored ground. A frog lets loose a throat-rattling trill.

But despite its seeming detachment from civilization, this spot is more urban than remote. All day and all night, sirens, roaring 18-wheelers and even the occasional car crash can be heard in the distance.

Smoke curls from a communal fire pit as Jeff Paradis and Kathy Anderson adjust their positions on foldable camping chairs. They are celebrating tonight because Paradis has found a job, and this is the eve of his first day off in two weeks.

"Check this out. Is this beautiful, or what?" he asks, sweeping his outstretched arm toward the nature that surrounds him.

It is beautiful -- today.

Even so, Paradis acknowledges that he and Anderson are not here by choice. In January, if they are still here, there will be snow, biting wind and bitter cold.

But there are worse things than being without a home, Paradis and Anderson say. On this day at least, they have each other, food, shelter and good company. Two neighbors live nearby in the woods, each with his own tent.

"This is what I call home right here," Paradis says.

It's not where he'd like to be, but he says illness made him lose his job and his residence.

"But what the hell, this is serenity; calm and relaxed," he says, pleased with this slice of respite in the woods -- a place much closer to Rochester's daily business activities than most of the community's other residents could imagine.

A matter of perspective

Some would consider this camping spot an oasis. But by any official definition, Paradis and Anderson are homeless -- part of the nameless, faceless population of "those people." At this moment, Anderson feels much differently about her own situation than an outsider might.

"I don't consider myself homeless. I've got a place to sleep at night, and it's fairly warm," she says as she sits by the campfire, just feet from the tent she and Paradis share. Chunks of rock, some big enough to require two hands to lift, hold cardboard against the windward edge of the tent to keep out cold air.

Anderson and Paradis have lived here off and on for the past couple of years, ever since Paradis was hospitalized and lost his job as a skilled iron worker.

Like others on the street, Paradis and Anderson have had difficulty finding and keeping jobs. Homeless people struggle with physical and mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, brain injury, family problems and the lingering effects of criminal convictions.

Chronic back trouble keeps Paradis away from hard labor. He has taken a job detailing high-end automobiles, vacuuming and spot-shining -- a different feel from his days as a certified professional laborer working with steel beams.

But Paradis and Anderson are happy today -- because they have each other, and that's all they really need.

"If somebody in Rochester asked me if I'm homeless," Anderson says, "I'd have to tell them no."