"Vietnam was hell, but these damn streets are a war," is the description Geno Hinman offers of his life in Covington. For two years he has been sleeping in the back of cars and U-Hauls at the Chevron on Fourth Street. Geno is not alone. The lot is the unofficial home for the homeless in the heart of town. The gas station owner leaves old cars on the lot for the men to sleep in. "He lets us use the bathrooms too, as long as we don't make too big of a mess of things. Usually I just go to McDonalds, it's warmer," says Geno with a smile.

Wake-up is at 6 a.m. when the gas station opens. The owner doesn't mind the men sleeping in the cars overnight, but he doesn't want them there when the station is open. They are allowed to hang out under the railroad tracks and in the open U-Hauls, out of sight of the station's customers. The surrounding area is dotted with fast food restaurants and liquor stores providing the basics for the men living on the streets. The men cruise the parking lots looking for potential panhandling customers. To avoid excessive attention only one or two of the men panhandle at a time. Later, they return to the group and share the"licks" or earnings with the others. Usually the money buys booze and cigarettes at local liquor stores.

Up the road, the soup kitchens of Pike Street are within walking distance. Typically, Geno and John Horne head up to the Parish Kitchen early to get coffee. The kitchen staff frequently allows some of the homeless in before the official opening at 11:30 a.m. The workers arrive at seven, and welcome the company of the men - if they were sober. Geno, John, and a few of the others have developed close relationships with the workers at the Kitchen. They allow the men to clean their clothes in the washing machine and will supply them with new clothing, blankets, gloves, hats and shoes when necessary. One morning Geno walks in with purses he has picked up at the Free Store for all of the women working in the kitchen. "They do so much for us, so I try to let them know I love them," says Geno with his ever-present smile.

After lunch is served the homeless congregate in small pockets outside. A few shoot some hoops, others smoke cigarettes and socialize before they head out to the streets in small groups.

Someof the homeless go to the library after lunch, as Rodney Derr regularly does. "I go to the library when it's cold, I enjoy studying German. I have ancestors who are German. It keeps me busy when I can't do nothing because it's too cold," he explains.

Originally from Decatur, Illinois, Rodney has been homeless since he landed in jail on drug charges at the age of 18. He has been living on the streets for 16 years, spending the last two wandering the streets of Covington.

His body twitches visibly as the result of five PCP overdoses. "That's why everyone thinks I'm a drunk even though I don't drink, it's because of all of those overdoses," Rodney says of his condition. "I survive by hitting dumpsters and getting cans (to recycle). People help me," he says.

A young homeless man walks up to Rodney and asks him if he has any cigarettes. Rodney tells him he is sorry, but he doesn't have any. The friend reaches into his pocket and gives Rodney a brand new pack. Rodney smiles and thanks him. "See what I mean... people take care of me," explains Rodney, still grinning, "I like living out here on the streets... "It makes me feel like a soldier," he says.

A note from the author:
-- This story was written in March of 1994, since that time the homeless are no longer allowed to congregate at the U-Haul lot on Fourth Street. During the summer of 1994, there was a fire on the lot which destroyed one of the U-Haul trailers. Homeless men were suspected of setting the fire. The owner of the gas station still allows some of the men to sleep in the old cars on his lot, but dosen't want them around the U-Hauls. In October of 1994 Rodney had been approved for Social Security disability because of his condition resulting from drug overdoses. He was part of the payee program at the Welcome House in Covington.

All photos © 1994 John Decker

Home | Weddings | Portraits | Photojournalism | Contact | About
Photo Blog | Photojournalist's Coffee House | Vashon Island Photo Gallery


©2008 JohnThePhotographer.com