Street signs: A view from the streets

This sidebar ran on the front page of the Sunday edition of the Medford Mail Tribune on Dec. 12, 2010, alongside “Between the law and a homeless place,” which won the 2011 Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s first-place award for Best Lifestyle Coverage.

By Hannah Guzik
for the Mail Tribune

Joshua Scott sits downtown in front of a sign that reads, “Random acts of kindness” and a wool hat that slowly fills with change.

“It could be anything,” says the 38-year-old, who’s been homeless in Ashland for eight years. “A smile, conversation, anything. I don’t want a pitiful sign. I don’t want to be pitiful.”

Scott’s nickname among the homeless is Zero, which he earned from Southern Oregon University students who wrote a song about him being a “zero-gravity hippie.”

“Because I don’t judge anyone, I accept everyone how they are and I love everyone,” he says.

In about two hours on Wednesday, Scott makes about $1.50.

“You get a lot of rude looks or sometimes you say hi to people and they act like you don’t exist, so you become invisible to some people,” he says.

Putting the change in his pocket and the hat on his head, he walks to the Lithia Park gazebo for a 3 p.m. free meal served by Aaron Reed, youth outreach worker for Community Works.

Scott walks slowly, using a homemade cane. He broke his right leg in two places and it didn’t heal properly, causing him to become permanently disabled, he said. His disability, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder keep him from finding work as a carpenter, something he did for 18 years, he says.

“I’ve got the knowledge to run crews, but I can’t handle the stress levels,” he says.

Scott grew up in Colorado and also spent time in Montana. He’s been on his own since 16.

“That’s how my family is,” he says. “When you hit 16, you either leave the nest or you get ate.”

At the gazebo, Scott takes two pieces of pepperoni pizza. He says there’s one free meal every day in Ashland, except in the summer, when a Monday breakfast goes on hiatus. He and the other homeless folks call the gatherings “feeds.”

The homeless share a common lingo, Scott says. Holding a sign on the street is called “flying a sign” or “going to work.” “Spange” means spare change. Counting the money in your hat is “counting your duckets.” A cigarette butt is a “snipe,” and when you “pitch,” you are going in on a purchase with others.

Scott and some of the other homeless residents are on Oregon’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which Scott calls “tramp stamps.”

The stamps sometimes aren’t enough to cover the cost of food, Scott says.

“If one of us runs out, another one will go to the store and buy them some food,” he says. “We take care of each other.”

Scott acts as a father figure to many of the younger homeless people, even though he’s only 38, he says.

“Someone said to me, ‘Hey, Zero, you’d look 20 years younger if you shaved your beard off,’ and I said, ‘I know, but you tell me where I can shave twice a week?’ ” he says.

The 20 or so homeless folks Scott hangs out with share meals and gather in the evenings to tell stories, he says.

“They’re my friends, but I call them my family,” he says.

The campers try to carry an extra sleeping bag or two because sometimes new people show up without gear in the dead of winter, he says.

“We call them dead-man bags,” he says, “because without them, they’d be dead.”

At Wednesday’s free meal, two of Scott’s friends show up whom he hasn’t seen in about a week, because one of them has been sick.

“Good to see you up and about,” he says. “Glad you’re feeling better.”

He and another man begin to talk about a dog.

“One of us unwisely acquired a dog and couldn’t keep it,” Scott explains. “We’re trying to figure out what’s best for the dog in this situation.”

A few minutes later he adds, “I would love to have a dog, but I’m realistic about my situation.”

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