Street Scenes

Paul Corio

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.

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.

But the camera team left, and it was getting dark. Michele had doled out "survival kits" that contained bus maps, trash bags, and a list of phone numbers for homeless shelters. You decide where we're going, she told the students. Paula and Amy had expected more support -- specifically, they'd thought that Michele's boyfriend would join them, lending a reassuring male presence as they wandered the dark streets. Michele said he couldn't make it.

The students called the Salvation Army from a pay phone, only to be told that they'd have to appear on the shelter's premises for an interview before they could even find out whether beds were available that night. If they were going to make it through the weekend on $5 apiece, they couldn't gamble with a sum as significant as bus fare.

For a while, they hung out in the lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel, a place where four clean white women could loiter without fear or harassment. Hungry, one student asked a bartender for snacks, saying that she needed food to accompany a medication. The bar produced a freebie tray of nuts and olives, and the students felt only a little guilty.

Other matters were more embarrassing. Michele had brought with her a little wheeled carry-on bag, and in the bathroom, she moved from stall to stall, filling the suitcase with toilet-seat covers and rolls of toilet paper. This, she told the class, is what you do to survive. You spot resources, and you gather them.

The students knew they couldn't camp in the hotel lobby forever; they had to find a place to sleep. Around 10:30, the four women struck out for St. Joseph's Hospital, on the theory that it's a public building that's open all night long. Unnerved by the dark downtown streets, the three students walked fast. Short-legged Michele, waving a flashlight and dragging her suitcase, fell behind.

The students took turns pulling the bag, and the duty fell to Paula during one especially seedy stretch of sidewalk. If anybody demands this bag, she said, I'm gonna drop it and move on.

Michele said, Give it back.

Paula did. What would you do if somebody attacked you? she asked.

I'd pull out the handle and start whopping them, said Michele.

Paula didn't think the suitcase's handle would slow an armed crackhead. And she didn't want to risk her life to protect stolen toilet paper.

From then on, none of the students would pull the suitcase.

They got lucky at St. Joseph's. Following an intern through a pair of swinging doors, they hit paydirt: an unoccupied lobby, a relatively safe place to sleep.

They stretched out on the hard floor. Amy was nervous. Anyone might find them, she thought -- a security guard or a homeless person who'd wandered in like they had. Paula worried only when Michele began adjusting the lobby to her comfort, turning the air-conditioner down to 62 degrees, and flicking off lights. Stop that, Paula told her instructor. They could have an operation going on next door. Paula returned thermostat to 72.

The women slept fitfully. You awake? Michele would ask during the night, looking for a conversational opening. The students were in no mood to chat.

They left the hospital around 5 a.m. Michele said that SEARCH starts serving breakfast at 6 a.m., and they needed to be right on time.

It was raining as they trekked down Fannin, and the temperature was falling. The women made ponchos from their survival-kit garbage bags. Amy's made her look like Gumby; Paula looked like a Hershey's Kiss. That, says Paula, was the fun part.

As it turned out, SEARCH doesn't open for breakfast until 8 a.m. A staffer spotted the four women and knew immediately that they weren't real denizens of the street. After they explained themselves, the students asked for survival tips. Get rid of that carry-on bag, he advised.  

The staffer told them they could wait inside SEARCH's fenced area -- along with roughly 50 homeless men. You don't look homeless, he warned them, so be careful. Don't make eye contact. And don't get upset if someone calls you bitches and whores; that's just how homeless guys talk.

To their relief, nobody called them names. The students were beginning to relax when a boisterous guy, near the shelter's door, began extolling the joys of pork products. Oh, I love pickled pig's feet, he said. I love hog's head.

Michele said, I wouldn't put that shit in my mouth.

Paula and Amy looked at each other: Michele was going a lot further than making eye contact. Lorna, the other student, tried to pretend that she didn't know any of the women.

The homeless guy didn't erupt into violence. Instead, he egged Michele on, goading her, teasing her, trying to get a rise out of the little woman: Oh, I looove to eat that stuff. Michele rewarded his efforts with more torrents of opinion.

Lorna had learned all she cared to know about the urban jungle. When at last SEARCH opened its doors, she used its phone to arrange a ride home.

At McDonald's, Amy and Paula ordered lunch: one set of fries and a pair of scrawny two-for-$1 cheeseburgers. They counted their change carefully. Feeling sorry for them, the woman behind the counter gave them a Coke and an extra order of fries.

Michele wanted to use the phone. Among other items of business, she hoped to hook up with Channel 39, so the station could update its story. Amy and Paula were shocked to see their instructor walk behind the fast-food counter -- people don't do that. Over the course of several hours, while her students twitched at the table, Michele repeatedly commandeered the phone, making her calls as confidently as if she were the restaurant's manager.

Paula and Amy were anxious to get back on the street. They wanted to scout for a place to sleep during the cold night; they'd decided it wouldn't be right to take beds in a shelter, beds needed by real homeless people.

But this wasn't real life; it was TV. Eventually, the three women met the news team at No tsu Oh, a late-night coffee shop. That night, the update story claimed only seconds of news time.

Out of time and out of prospects, Paula and Amy decided to try St. Joseph's again. This time, their luck didn't hold: A cop barred them from the lobby where they'd spent the previous night. They took refuge in another lobby, where they told a security guard a fishy story: They'd had a flat and were waiting for friends to come repair the tire; no, nobody at St. Joseph's could help fix it, the car was parked too far away. The guard said they could stay for ten or 15 minutes, but would have to leave when he closed the lobby. He apologized: I could lose my job if I let you stay.

Michele urged Paula and Amy to wait anyway; then, after the guard left, they could sleep in the lobby. No, thought Paula. I'm not going to get this guy fired. I'm not going to get him into trouble because I'm out on some whim.

Suddenly, the adventure seemed altogether too real. It was 10 p.m. on a cold, rainy night. They were out of money, and Michele wasn't offering any safety nets. Amy and Paula, both mothers, decided they owed it to their families not to risk their lives with any further adventures. Amy called her husband, and he drove them home to the suburbs, away from the urban jungle.

On Sunday, at Paula's house, Channel 39 interviewed the class one last time. The news segment was fairly upbeat -- yes, they'd bailed out, but they'd survived, and they'd learned something about homelessness. Michele regarded the class as a success, and asked Amy and Paula if they'd like to serve as her assistant teachers in future classes.

They declined.

Which is not to say that the class made no impression on them. At work the next week, they sent e-mail to their co-workers, asking for donations of the used clothing SEARCH needs most: men's t-shirts, underwear and socks. Channel 39 wasn't following Amy and Paula as they dropped off their 13 big bags, and Amy and Paula didn't care. They felt good and right and useful. This was no TV show, no simulated adventure. This was real life.

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