"In a recent survey, 100% of all the homeless bloggers polled concurred: COLD WEATHER SUCKS!! Okay, it was so cold out last night, 15 degrees at 3 a.m., that when I finally was forced to crawl out of the bag after 35 minutes of fighting the need, I thought I was going to have to go to the hospital and explain how I got frostbitten on a part of my anatomy where one never wants to be 'bitten' in any way, shape, or form!"
Published on HomelessCide. 01/29/10 10:56:00AM l 0 comments
So begins the January 29 blog entry of HomelessCide - Life on the Street. The author is Dave Cluster, a 54-year-old Jewish father, grandfather, recovering addict, and ex-convict living in an abandoned shed in the middle of Pikesville. Cluster's home, a single room about 15 feet long and five feet wide with no electricity, lights, locks, or running water, likely served as a storage shed in a previous life.
Ironically, Cluster is loath to store anything here, in case someone discovers his hideaway while he is out. Instead, he totes his meager possessions wherever he goes in a torn-up Head tennis bag. Among the few things Cluster does leave behind are his sleeping bag, blankets, and pillow, rolled up tight each morning and stuffed in a corner. A stack of cardboard boxes, shuffled and replaced as needed, make a firm mattress. The rickety shelves are bare, except for a few books—like John D. MacDonald's Dreadful Lemon Sky—and board games.
The makeshift abode sits amid a busy commercial district, just steps from bustling traffic. When inside, he wedges a pipe against the door, fearful of intruders. In the year that he's stayed there, only one passerby has even tried to open the door, and they gave up quickly.
Lately—particularly on cold or snowy nights—Cluster has slept on a recliner in the one-bedroom apartment his 27-year-old daughter Jenn shares with her husband Tom, two children, two cats, and a dog. But most nights, he's in the drafty shed.
"I'm happy there," Cluster says over coffee at a diner nearby. He's a big man with friendly eyes. "It's my home, be it ever so humble."
He and Jenn, also a recovering addict, have had a rocky relationship, but she says that since he began treating his chronic pain and depression with buprenorphine—which he buys on the street when he can't get it legally—he's been much more pleasant to be around.
"He was bitter, angry, everything was everyone else's fault," she says. "Now, he accepts where he's at. He's not necessarily pleased about being homeless, but he accepts it and is willing to do what he needs to get out of it—or at least not blame everyone else for it."
Early morning trips to the "urinal" (a tree) notwithstanding, Cluster usually huddles in his sleeping bag until close to 9 a.m., when the Pikesville Library—where he writes his blog—opens.
"I started the blog because I wanted to say thank you to the world," says Cluster, who launched homelesscide.blogspot.com in November 2008. "Something just made me want to say, 'There are some nice people out there, there's gotta be a way to say thank you.'"
Before going to the library, Cluster usually heads to the supermarket nearby, using its bathroom to clean up—he shaves every other day—and picking up some coffee and cheap deli meat with foodstamps. (He gets $185 a month, along with a monthly temporary disability assistance payment [TDAP] of $185.) He spends hours blogging, sending e-mails, and reading books at the library. He's working his way through Codex 632, by Jos Rodrigues Dos Santos. "It's like Dan Brown, but with Christopher Columbus," he says. "I'm a sucker for that shit."
In the afternoons, he takes the bus (he gets a disability pass for $16.50) to the Mt. Washington Starbucks, where everyone knows him and seems to like him. He reads, drinks coffee, sometimes writes poetry, and often strikes up conversations. When they close, if Cluster's back isn't hurting so badly, he helps empty the garbage into the dumpsters, and gets leftover sandwiches and pastries in return.
He takes the bus back to the shed and, if he's not too tired, hangs out with the guys at the gas station nearby, watching the tiny TV or playing Keno ("Never more than a couple bucks," he says), before bedding down for the night. His routine isn't that different from those of non-homeless people, and Cluster values that.
"I don't run around with street people, junkies, or criminals," he says. "Going to the Starbucks, talking to normal people, middle America. That's what I like."
"When I was at Jenn's I was putting an infrequently used pan away in one of the up high, out of reach of the kids, and not often used cabinets in the kitchen, when I ran across Tom's insulin syringes. . . . talk about a shaky, scary experience. A pocket full of cash, spikes, and a guaranteed misery free escape from withdrawal. . . . I packed my bags and left like a bat out of hell. . . . I'm no stranger to temptation . . . and like the song written and performed by Lari White says . . . 'Lead me not into temptation/I already know the road all too well/Lead me not into temptation/I can find it all by myself."
Published on HomelessCide. 01/23/10 11:05:00AM l 0 comments
David Cluster grew up in Milford Mill and went to Milford Mill High School. He was never much of a student, and, after graduating, he drifted from job to job.
"I've been everything from a technician on lottery machines to a computer operator for the Maryland state lottery, a certified welder, a chef—not classically trained, but I worked in all kinds of restaurants from sandwich places to better restaurants in Florida and Ocean City—warehouse work, delivery work, had a newspaper business, had part ownership in a restaurant-bar in Florida—ran the place, drank there, did a lot of coke there."
He met his first wife, Patricia, at a Halloween party in 1981, and by August of 1982, the couple had married and had a daughter, Jenn. But as Cluster moved to harder and harder drugs, eventually developing a serious heroin addiction, his life spun out of control.
"At some point, I fell in love with needles," he says. "That was it."
Cluster lost his job, his home, his family—Jenn was largely raised by Cluster's mother—and was living in the streets. "I was doing $300 of dope and coke a day, so you know what kind of shit I was doing," he says. "Anything to get money. If it wasn't nailed down, I would take it to a pawn shop. I was doing stickups."
On a Sunday morning in July, 1998, Cluster hailed a cab downtown and asked it to stop by a convenience store on the corner of St. Paul and 25th Street so he could buy a soda. Inside, he pointed a piece of pipe wrapped in tape at the African immigrant behind the counter and demanded money.
The clerk turned over the money, then followed Cluster outside and shouted to the cab driver, who spoke the same African language. As the driver got on his radio to report the crime, Cluster pointed his fake gun at the driver: "Get out of the cab!"
Cluster stole the cab, managed to lose an army of cab drivers and police cars tracking him, and escaped to the basement of a friend's house, though the bag of money ripped in the process. "I hear the police knocking on the door and the guy's mother saying 'Ain't no white boy in here!" Cluster recalls. "We look in the bag, there's $28 left. It was good to get us each a little dope, a nibble of coke, and a couple sodas."
The next day, Cluster went to rob a tropical fish store on Bel Air Road, and instead got to talking with the owner, a born again Christian named Gary Bowden. They talked for hours. "He touched my shoulder, just as a friend, and I hadn't had anybody touch me for, I don't know how long—months," says Cluster. "Street junkie, all torn up, nobody touched me except to hit me."
Bowden paid Cluster $25 to sweep the floor and, after a couple days, invited him to stay in his home. For two weeks, Cluster stayed with Bowden and began to wean himself off heroin. One day, he was walking down Bel Air Road, across town from the convenience store robbery, when the clerk he robbed happened to drive by.
"He said, 'What'd the police do to you?'" Cluster recalls. "In 20 minutes, I'm in the back of a patrol car."
Charged with carjacking, armed robbery, and assault with a deadly weapon, Cluster told the judge he was a junkie who needed help and the judge gave him an incredibly lenient eight-year sentence, with six years suspended. He spent 14 months in jail.
"The worst thing about jail is it's boring," says Cluster, who returned to prison a few years later for a probation violation. "I mostly played Scrabble, wrote letters, and went to [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings."
After his release, Cluster floated around shelters and halfway houses, and, for a time, worked and lived at the now-defunct Fells Point coffeehouse Funk's. Eventually, he married and moved in with a woman he met online and had a daughter, Rachel, who is now five and the subject of many of his blog posts.
After five years struggling to stay clean and hold a job, Cluster suffered pneumonia in 2006, requiring extensive surgery, and leaving permanent neuropathic pain in his abdomen. He took six months to recover, unable to work. In the aftermath, he and his wife were evicted from their apartment and separated. While his wife found another apartment, Cluster squatted in the old building, first in the apartment, then in a closet in the basement. Once he was discovered and locked out, he was officially homeless. It's been three years.
Cluster has tried to get help from various social service agencies, but ultimately finds that he doesn't have the energy or patience necessary to get real help. When he really needs money, Cluster will panhandle on the JFX's North Avenue exit ramp, but he doesn't like consorting with the other homeless people there.
He stopped going to shelters after police officers at one particular shelter mocked him for carrying around a B.U.M. Equipment Co.-brand bag. Standing beneath a sign that read "You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect," one of the cops yelled out to him, "I see you have your name written on your bag."
On Thanksgiving last year, he wrote an entry on his blog explaining why he—and a lot of other homeless people—avoid holiday dinners sponsored by Our Daily Bread or Bea Gaddy's organization.
"The attitude of some of the volunteers, (NOT ALL!, by a long shot) but there are some whose self serving attitudes of . . . 'you poor homeless wretch, aren't you grateful that I am here donating my precious time in such a visible manner, to be seen handing a plate of food to someone who I am unable to see the rest of the year...why are you not kneeling and kissing my ring,' " he wrote. "The sometimes palpable air of desperation that permeates some of these affairs leaves me feeling worse than when I came in."
Cluster has built his life in an effort to feel as normal as possible.
"I can sit in the Starbucks—it's warm, it's dry, drink my coffee, get the free refills, or I can go sit in line at a social service agency with all these people," says Cluster. "Then the anxiety kicks in, I get all sweaty. What am I gonna do? I'm gonna take the easy way out."
"I have $0.15 cents, no food, and crazy cops hassling homeless and panhandlers, medical care access is in limbo at present, I need clothes, and I have not seen Rachel in close to a month, and the increasing isolation and lack of human intimacy and physical contact I am feeling, and I do not only mean getting laid, though in all seriousness that is a factor too, and increasing pain and discomfort."
Published on HomelessCide. 09/30/09 11:24:00AM l 0 comments
In his three years on the street, Cluster has stayed sober and worked out a routine—but he hasn't put much effort into finding a way out. For a while, he posted on Craigslist, offering to do odd jobs in exchange for a place to stay, but nothing ever came of it.
Part of the problem is that Cluster is in denial. "I'm not going to go to a halfway house or rehab," he says. "I don't want to be around the people." And he's largely stopped going to N.A. meetings. "They're not where I want to be," he says. "I'm not comfortable there."
But Cluster—who is exceedingly smart—knows that the problem runs deeper than that.
"I'm my own problem. I know this," he says. "I could put more effort into it. I could probably talk to a line of psychiatrists and find out the real problems, why I'm scared of change, scared to take a chance, scared of ridicule, scared to look like a fool, scared to fail, scared things'll get worse. What if I go to a place I don't like, end up in a worse situation? Knowing I'm not the best, having it run around inside my head: 'Am I worthy? Not worthy?' I'll take what I can get, make myself comfortable with it."
Cluster's blog is often funny and always friendly, but is also littered with self-deprecation and signs of real mental illness.
"I feel like a pariah or a leper," he wrote last September, in a particularly dark entry, "as if I should be walking around ringing a bell and shouting . . . 'Beware, Unclean . . . Unclean.'"
When Cluster wrote that entry, he hadn't seen Rachel in a month. Since he has started seeing her more and staying with his older daughter and grandchildren more frequently, his blog entries are sunnier—even on brutally cold days. Nothing makes him happier, it seems, that spending time with Rachel and buying her gifts.
"Rachel and I had a great day yesterday," he wrote in a recent entry. "After we left the library we walked to McDonald's, then walked up to Target. The 'Dollar Racks' are just inside the door and she got to choose 6 things."
Cluster's older daughter, Jenn, knows that he is not as proactive as he could be, but is nonetheless happy to finally have her dad as a regular presence in her life for the first time since she was 15. "I've wanted a relationship with him my entire life," she says. "It's definitely as good as it's ever been. He comes over and we wind up talking half the night."
Cluster's not sure what might motivate him to make a change. He's hoping to get an increase in SSI that might allow him to save a little money, but, even then, he admits, there's no guarantee he'll rock the boat as long as he's in it.
"It's not that painful yet," he says. "When things get too painful, real painful, that's when I tend to make a move. I think things'll come to me eventually. Things have always come to me eventually. I just sit and wait, but sometimes I sit and wait too long."