Robert Gibson and Orlando "Unc" Giles are the last people to leave the homeless camp along the Mississippi River in East St. Louis.
They were slow packing up. Gibson, 59 years old with a long gray beard, had lived there more than three years and considered it home — a place with neighbors, regular routines and a sense of belonging. Giles, 51, arrived less than year ago but shared his friend's appreciation for the place. Rather than bouncing between shelters, imposing on relatives or sleeping on the streets, they had been able to settle in and control their own lives.
But the collection of tents and wooden huts, which had sprawled into two camps, had grown too big and too public in recent months. Both camps were on private land, and when the owner decided it was time for everyone to go, the nearly two-dozen residents saw no choice but to clear out. A 30-day order to vacate was followed by a seven-day extension. In four hours, at midnight on February 26, the extension will expire, too.
"You see how hectic it is," Gibson says, juggling phone calls from supporters checking to make sure he's OK. "We're trying to get things done."
During the final days, Pastor Tina Crawford drove the men and two other camp residents back and forth across the river, trying to pin down driver's licenses and arrange appointments with service organizations. The bureaucratic untangling may pay off in benefits, but that is still in the future. The immediate concern is how to get their things out of their old home and into somewhere else.
The way other residents moved out irritates the two men. They lived in the camp closest to the road, on a cracked concrete slab they call simply "the platform." The back camp, an intricate collection of homemade wooden huts with a communal kitchen at its center, was set out of sight in the woods. Residents supported each other, sharing food and chores. But in the stress of the order to vacate, people scattered in all directions and tempers spiked. Second- and third-hand accounts of who is getting help from which organizations ran rampant. Rumors of slights spread.
"We supposed to be like a family," Giles says, "but when people get their places to go, they start downgrading us."
He and Gibson decided to stick together. They spent the first part of the day pushing wheelbarrow loads of their stuff to their new place, a windowless cinder-block building that is a five-minute walk from the camps. A friend put down $25 to rent the space for Gibson.
"It's not the Taj Mahal," Gibson says, leading the way to the new place, "but it's better than a tent."
The one-room structure is small and dirty, and living there surely violates some sort of building ordinance. Gibson has killed eight brown recluse spiders by his count, smashing them against the walls with his thumb. But there is an honest-to-God door with a lock. The walls are not at risk of collapsing in a strong wind, and there is enough head space to stand up and even stretch your arms overhead without hitting tarp.
"We're going to make it, ain't we," Gibson says to Giles.
Gibson's twin bed is pushed against a wall, and an Army cot for Giles sits on the other side of the room. A single light bulb dangles overhead from an extension cord, powered by the generator chained up outside. There are still piles of clothes, tools and furniture to move from the platform, but that will have to wait. The men are worn out. They sit sipping 24-ounce cans of Milwaukee's Best Ice, gingerly flexing sore knees and shifting in their seats every few moments to realign aching backs. The air is filled with the smoke of Show-brand cigarillos.
"We're chilling," Gibson says. After five weeks of stress, tonight feels like their first opportunity to relax.
"Last night, I went into my tent, I sat down on the bed, and I just cried," Giles says.
The place has potential, but there are already signs of trouble. Relatives of the landlord chastise Gibson for inviting visitors to the space, and he says they seem bothered after spotting Giles moving in. As long as the rent is paid and he is not causing problems, Gibson says, he should be able to do as he likes.
"Come on, people, get your thumb off us," he fumes.
The mood lightens as the hours pass. The two men soon fall into old tales of life in the camps, which often include wildlife encounters. Giles, a part-time DJ and natural storyteller, recalls the night he was walking back to his tent from the East St. Louis MetroLink station when a massive buck, brandishing a menacing set of antlers, stepped out of the fog and stared him down. Gibson has heard the story, but he still laughs out loud as his friend describes freezing in fear and then racing home when the buck finally sauntered away.
"I ran in the tent," Giles says, his eyes going wide as he recreates the fright. "I put the lock on. I jumped in the bed fully clothed. I was shaking like a leaf."
They have arranged a pair of folding chairs around a propane heater. A battered stereo sits on a small table near the wall. After a while, they pop open new beers and smoke more cigarillos. It is 1 a.m. when they finally turn out the light.
"What it all boils down to," Giles says. "We — Orlando Giles and Robert Gibson — we went down with the ship."
The next morning, the landlord orders them to move out.