Street Scenes

A Leisure Learning class discovers the truth about homelessness: It's no place for the uninitiated.

 The Urban Jungle Challenge Are you a survivor? Can you handle the real life experience of living in the "urban jungle" of Houston for 2 nights and 2 days with nothing but the clothes on your back, your most basic IDs and $5 -- food and shelter to be discovered? There'll be a one-hour orientation on Monday. Then, from Friday night until Sunday noon it's time for you, either with other members of the class or by yourself, to put your survival skills to the test. Your instructor, who lived through this challenge for six weeks, will be available as a guide and last ditch safety net, not as a buddy. This is no TV show, this is real life!

-- from the "Adventure Unlimited" section of Leisure Learning's catalog

You're stupid, one co-worker told Paula Bullock and Amy Meadors.

Paul Corio

You're brave, said another.

Why are you doing this? most people asked. Why would two white-collar working moms pay $35 apiece to experience simulated homelessness?

Their husbands asked the same question.

Because we want to know what it's like, Paula and Amy explained. Because it'll be an adventure.

The instructor, Michele Gaddis, wasn't what Paula and Amy expected. Michele describes herself as "a little person who talks a lot," which is, if anything, an understatement. Michele speaks as if her four-foot, six-inch body contains emotions and opinions under high pressure. The merest conversational pinprick can release a torrent of words, and at the class's orientation meeting, the torrent turned into a tidal wave, and out gushed the particulars of Michele's complicated life.

In the spring of '99, soon after Michele and her husband had moved to Olympia, Washington, their marriage exploded. During a violent fight, Michele called the police, expecting them to rescue her. Instead, the police found her husband's story more plausible and charged her with assaulting him. She complained vigorously, and the cops added another charge: resisting arrest. It was an outrage, she says. She urges a reporter to investigate.

She spent a miserable weekend in jail, followed by a few days at a women's shelter. After complaints from her roommate -- wholly unjustified, Michele says with a look of wounded innocence -- the shelter kicked her out, and she found herself on the streets of a city she barely knew. She was too scared of her husband to return to their apartment; she didn't have a job, or a driver's license, or money, or a change of clothes. For once in her life, talkative, assertive Michele didn't know what to do.

She ran into one of her few acquaintances, a guy who had just escaped from homelessness himself, and asked if she could stay at his apartment. He said yes, and four days later, he began hitting on her. "There was a price for staying with him," Michele says. "It was that or the streets." She chose to stay.

She says that without her ID she couldn't land a job, so she learned to panhandle, asking strangers in bars to contribute to her "cab collection" so she wouldn't drive home drunk. Eventually, she recovered her ID, and using it, signed up for social services. Later that spring, she returned to Houston to stay with her mom.

A year and a half later, she lives with her boyfriend in a Clear Lake condo owned by his parents. At 37, she's taking computer classes at San Jacinto Junior College and serves on the student senate.

Not long ago, Michele was walking on a treadmill in the condo's exercise room. Through the window, she watched sailboats scudding across the lake. She thought, "I've come a long way." And: "Nobody I know would have any idea how to survive on the streets. I need to do something with this knowledge." She imagined that she'd teach her skills to people on the verge of homelessness, people one or two paychecks away from the street, women working up the courage to leave a battered spouse. They'd be inspired. They'd learn to cope as well as she had.

She called Leisure Learning to pitch her idea: a short class, followed by a weekend on the street.

It'll be like Survivor? asked the woman on the phone.

Michele hadn't watched the show, and she thought the idea behind it was stupid. But she recognized a marketing hook when she heard one.

Yeah, she said. It'll be like Survivor.

If Michele wasn't the instructor her students had expected, then the three women who signed up for "The Urban Jungle Challenge" weren't what Michele had expected, either. They were white-collar, technical professionals, people for whom living on the street seemed as remote and exotic a possibility as being stranded on a desert island.

Paula and Amy were disappointed that the Monday night orientation meeting didn't offer more useful tips and strategies, the stuff they'd need to negotiate their weekend. They were unimpressed by Michele's life history. "A sob story," Amy called it.

The third student, Lorna Owens, politely declines to talk about the class. Her mother taught her that if you can't say anything nice, you shouldn't say anything at all.

"This is no TV show, this is real life!" the catalog had proclaimed. But of course, the presence of a TV camera often heightens the vividness of real life, lending weight and importance to the moment. On Friday, a Channel 39 news team followed Michele and her students as they embarked on their adventure. The balmy October weather seemed to augur well, and the camera rolled as the women optimistically rode a Metro bus from the Leisure Learning offices to the downtown Foley's.

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