By Kailey Sherrick
Photos by Kailey Sherrick
I stood on the bridge and looked out over the scattered patches of tents that rose from the land like wild mushrooms, clustered yet separate. This area was known to its inhabitants as the Chickahominy Indian Tribal Rescue Mission, but the citizens of Wooster, Ohio, simply called it “Tent City,” and its residents were about to be evicted.
At that moment, Tent City was still, save for the solitary American flag that snapped and twirled on its crooked, makeshift flagpole. I swung my legs over the guardrail, and my feet landed on a dirt pathway, which twisted down the steep slope. The path, created over five years by weary, trampling feet, was the only way to access Tent City.
As I stepped down the hillside, clinging to small trees for support and tiptoeing around exposed roots, I caught glimpses of feral cats stalking the high grass. They hunkered down, their eyes following my slow descent, sizing up the new face that had entered their territory. Two roosters strutted between the tents, occasionally lifting their heads to crow.
The first true rays of spring sunshine had chased away the ominous rain clouds, but they weren’t strong enough to dry the earth. At the bottom of the path was thick, squelching mud – the type that swallows shoes without discretion. Only a few small strips of plywood allowed for safe passage into the heart of the city.
More dirt paths snaked between tents, connecting them like a system of roads. I walked along these tiny highways, scanning the area for any signs of human life. I was met only by bags of trash, old rusted bikes, empty propane tanks, plastic chairs, tables, shoes, clothes, tattered mattresses, and broken lawnmowers.
A wide creek ran beside the tents, and the sound of running water mixed with the crowing roosters was calming. I closed my eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath. Even with all the garbage clustered towards the entrance of Tent City, the only odor that hung in the open air was the inviting scent of rich, damp earth.
A tent flap rustled, and a woman emerged from its cavernous maw with a large dog at her side.
She seemed to glide towards me, navigating the mud with practiced, agile feet. Her graying hair was long and swept to the side. A large Darth Vader hoodie draped her willowy frame, and small reading glasses were perched on her nose.
I wasn’t sure how to greet her. In my haste, I simply blurted out, “Hi, is Roger here?” – Roger Dale Adkins, I meant, the self-appointed Chief of Tent City.
“No, I think he went to breakfast. Can I help you?” She was smiling, and her dog was busy sniffing around her tent.
“Do you know when he might be back?” I showed her the stack of papers I was carrying. It was the first draft of my essay about the city and I wanted Roger to have a copy.
“Not sure. He might stop here afterwards or go straight to the library. I can send him a text if you want.”
“That would be fantastic. Thank you so much. Do you care if I wait around for a little and see if he shows up?”
“Not at all. I could use the company. I’m Leah.”
I stood with Leah and talked for a long time. She introduced me to her dog, Nigel, who shared her same sweet temperament. She showed me pictures of her children, pictures of possible makeshift shelters she would use once the eviction was carried out, and her necklaces. One was a Mother’s Day gift from her son. It read: A Mom always has a way of making the Ordinary Extraordinary.
As Leah and I grew comfortable, she told me her story, breaking herself into tiny shards and reassembling them into a fully realized mosaic.
“I went to jail for thirty days. I had to call my daughter’s dad when she was eight years old and have him come get her because I lost my apartment I had for seventeen years raising my other kids. Lost my job, didn’t have money to pay the rent, and they gave me a three-day ‘Would you leave?’ deal. And I didn’t want to go through the whole eviction thing, so I did. I just did.
I was a drug addict. I went to Pennsylvania, where I didn’t know nobody. Didn’t go to rehab, I got clean by myself, which was tough. I got a job up there, but then I was constantly alone and I worked with Alzheimer’s patients. I almost started going a little bit nutty up there, and I was like ‘Man, I gotta go back home.’ Plus I couldn’t stand Uniontown, Pennsylvania. It was dirty.
Of course I have cravings every day, but they go away in a few seconds.
I met this guy, David. He wanted to go to a Rainbow Gathering. I was like, ‘Cool, let’s go, let’s go.’ You had to park at the bottom of this mountain and carry all your stuff up this mountain. We went back down the next day to get more stuff, and someone had tried to break into his car, and it had an anti-theft unit on it. We were stuck in the mountains for two and a half weeks eating potatoes and rice.
We finally got a ride from a hippie to Ironton, Ohio. It has one head-shop. It just so happened the hippie that took us home, owned like a third-generation head shop. They put us up across the street in a half woodshop, half apartment thing that they owned. They turned the electric and water on for us. It was summer, we did work for them, stayed for like two months, come back and my sister’s like ‘You was just out partyin’, runnin’ around, doin’ whatever.’ And really, I wasn’t. I come down here, and I’ve been here since.”
Leah’s living space was almost pristine. While many of her neighbors had turned to hoarding, Leah had carefully tended to her surroundings. There were handmade wreaths, figurines, hand-written signs, and other ornaments adoring the small trees by the opening of her tent. There was little to no trash to be found anywhere.
She called the area her “dead garden,” as she had once used deer skulls, antlers, and other skeletal remains to decorate, but had since given them all away as the eviction date drew nearer. She was very attached to the wildflowers that grew outside of her tent. Fragile with lilting white heads, they had just begun pushing their way through the damp earth towards the sun.
“All of my flowers are gonna start coming up right as they start tearing crap up. They’ll stomp over them and it’s going to make me mad.”
Leah was trying to get out of Tent City. She was eligible for housing, but kept getting bumped. She was waiting on a call about an apartment while we talked, and every time her phone made a noise she jumped and raced to answer it.
“It’s like a bucket of crabs. You’re the little crab that has your little hook on the top of the rim, getting ready to crawl out, and another crab grabs your little leg and drags you back down, you know. Or you’re right at the top of a pit and it starts storming and you get washed right back down in. It’s hard to get out up of it. I’ve had approved housing for over a month, and I still cannot find nothing. And I don’t want to start out lying to a landlord. I just tell them, ‘I’ve been homeless for three years. I finally got help.’ And some of them are like ‘Oh my gosh’ and some are just like ‘Eww. You’re homeless, you must be a pig.’ I’m one of the cleanest homeless people you’ll ever meet.”
While we were talking, Leah allowed me to take some photographs of her and Nigel. I told her that I would give her copies when I saw her again. Then Roger arrived as we were talking, so I wished her luck and hurried to catch him before he disappeared.
That was Thursday, April 9, four days before the eviction.
On the following Saturday, Leah was dead.
A Story of Origins
Wooster, Ohio, is a sleepy place, with an intricate mix of factories and farmland. It is a small industrial city, filled with manufacturing plants and smokestacks that emit clouds of pollutants high above the heads of its dozing citizens. It is also a rural community, where harvesters, combines, thrashers, and sprayers are commonly seen on major highways. Home to a prestigious liberal arts college, Wooster is picturesque; it is quiet. No streets ever bustle, no one ever seems to be in a hurry.
Wooster also has a homelessness problem.
No one really knows how Tent City came to be. The residents of Wooster woke up one morning and there it was. A small patch of undeveloped land had sprouted tents overnight, and a small group of men and women had claimed it as their own. The community climate surrounding discussions of Tent City was either one of disdain or apathy. For five years, Tent City stayed afloat on an ocean of indifference and indecision.
The local newspaper, The Daily Record, jumped on Tent City every time a blade of grass moved. They made it a spectacle, and no one could look away. Noted one article:
“There are several who reside at Tent City because they have no where else to go, as places such as Salvation Army do not take individuals with convictions for violent crimes or are sex offenders.
“It’s difficult to obtain a solid figure for the number of people who are at Tent City at any given time. But the fact remains while church and youth groups visit the property in attempts to help, many people there have violent criminal pasts or the capacity for violence, including Tent City’s self-proclaimed ‘chief.’ “
We met at the Wayne County Public Library in a secluded side loft. It was a place he haunted often, spending most of his days doing research. He’s in his early sixties, but looks much older. That day his clothes were stained, but looked recently washed. His face was a map of deep lines, with large bags beneath his eyes, and fresh wounds on his forehead. He smelled of freshly hewn pine chips. Underneath his startling appearance was an uncannily charismatic personality. He had an innate sense of when his audience was losing focus, and could pull you back in with some new nugget of information.
“Everything you’ve found from the Daily Record, it’s derogatory. They have slandered me, they’ve made my character all kind of things. I set back and I wait, and people says, I wonder why he don’t say something, you understand that? Well I go by moral what the Bible tells me, I don’t throw my pearls before swine … Now my question to you, girl, is do you want the truth, or do you want something candy coated? … You do have some time right?”
We talked for over two hours, where Roger proceeded give me a lecture on his ideas of law, philosophy, history, religion, and ethics, as well as snippets of his background story and the origins of Tent City. I couldn’t decide if he was extremely intelligent or deranged. While he seemed educated, it turned out he was mostly illiterate.
When I started out at six months of age, they misdiagnosed me as an epileptic, and from six months of age up until the age I was twelve, they gave me Phenobarbital and Dilatin. Now this is the part that makes it hard for me to spell. Close your eyes. I want to think of a white cat. Visualize it in your mind. Can you see it? I can’t. The Phenobarbital burnt my inner eye out.
So spelling, I don’t do. It’s the only thing I’m lacking.”
Roger’s inability to spell didn’t seem to hold him back. His worn and tattered bag was overflowing with documents relating to his claimed Native American heritage, pictures, and maps, as well as copies of his police records and various lawsuits, all of which he shared without discretion.
Tent City had been a long time in the making. Roger claimed to have lived beneath Wooster’s Madison Avenue bridge for five-and-a-half years before taking up shelter on the adjacent plot of land.
“The city police and the county sheriff would bring people down there and drop them off and say ‘If you want to survive the winter you better go down and talk to the old man under the bridge, he’s been down there for years.’ They’d bring ‘em to me, right? But then, see, that’s so long as I was underneath the bridge. Out of sight, out of mind.
Once I become God’s tempered sword, that five and a half years, cannot be moved, broken, bought, you understand what I’m saying? Then the Old Man said move it out there, outside, you’re not going back in again, you’re going to be out here in the open. From that point on, it was war, because now I’m showing Wooster, the community of Wooster, what their public servants has been doing to you all these years, and stealing, and robbing you blind. And you don’t know it, you don’t want to, and their children have grown up to it, and to them its norm. No. It’s criminal. And I’m an old man, and I see it, and I know what the laws are.
So here’s these two police officers coming off the hillside. And here’s what they said, five and a half years ago, ‘We are your friends. We are here to help you.’
And he listened to what I said. I go, ‘You mean you want to get me a place to stay here in Wooster? Wayne County?’ ‘Oh, no, no. You’ll have to go to Cleveland, Akron, Mansfield, Canton, Massillon. We’ll get you a bed somewhere in there. Not here in Wooster, no.’
‘Well, I guess I’ll just stay where I’m at.’
And it went from ‘We are your friends’ in this amount of time to ‘You’ve got seven days to get off this piece of property or we’re going to get you for trespassing.’
And I looked him dead in the face and I says ‘No, you won’t, and no, we’re not leaving.’”
Roger claimed that his Native American lineage gave him the right to establish his own tribal community on that plot of land, which he had believed to be federally owned. According to Roger, he was a direct descendant of the same Chickahominy tribe that had first signed a peace treaty with Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale in 1614. That peace treaty allowed the Chickahominy people to practice their own form of tribal governance. Roger felt that this treaty extended to him, since he allegedly stood in the chieftain’s bloodline. He showed me old photographs from the Smithsonian Institute, pointing out a Chickahominy chief named O. W. Adkins, who he claimed as his great-grandfather.
“Now, me, standing in Chieftain bloodline, gives me the right to go start my own village anywhere I so please, as long as I follow certain guidelines under Federal Law and Indian treaties. So under this setup here, not in 1888, but 1988, the United States Government gave all Indians the right to go on any open own or any open control Federal Land.
“That made my family, my tribe, a sovereign nation under treaty, not reservation. Now my blood’s – my blood, chieftain blood of mine, goes all the way back to that first signing. Now, I stand on my blood, you hear what I’m saying? My blood. Mine. Anytime they want to do a DNA, I’ll more than willing do a DNA. The only problem is, is once they do the DNA then they have, what? No plausible deniability.”
I have been unable to independently verify Roger’s lineage. If his claims are true, it could be difficult to prove them due to the Virginian Racial Integrity Act of 1924. This was basically a eugenics bill, which effectively eradicated records of Native American heritage from this time period. It created a race binary, allowing for only two choices of race classification on birth and marriage certificates: “white” or “colored.” A white person could have no traces of black blood and no more than one-sixteenth Native American blood.
The act also made interracial marriage or lying about race on registration forms a felony conviction that carried a penalty of a year in prison.
All of the old photographs Roger provided were easily accessible through a Google Images search, and I questioned the validity of his claims. Was it possible the Racial Integrity Act could be a red herring for those who tried to verify his ancestry? Could he be that forward thinking? I came to one conclusion: I believed that Roger believed he was Native American.
While Roger’s argument may or may not be true, in the end it didn’t matter. His blood, Chickahominy or not, would ultimately fail him.
The land in question is not federally owned or even state owned, although many people, including Roger, believed so. In an initial effort to evict the residents of Tent City, the City of Wooster – particularly Mayor Bob Breneman – sought a lawsuit through the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). Because the parcel was located off of a right-of-way, and ODOT had easements on the land in 1959 and 1960 when they were in the process of building a new highway, it was believed that the agency owned the land. A judge sided with ODOT, and plans were made to evict the Tent City residents, but those plans fell through when it was discovered that ODOT did not own the land.
The acreage was actually privately owned by a man named Joseph Perrone, who passed away in 2009. Perrone had placed the ten-acre tract in a trust fund, which he allegedly left to Penn State University. However, Penn State had made no effort to claim the land, and the question of ownership was in limbo.
On September 11, 2014, a group of private citizens formed a limited liability corporation called Troutwater LLC. Their mission was to quietly acquire the land and evict the residents of Tent City. They succeeded.
Troutwater LLC purchased the land from Perrone’s estate for $1, and all back taxes were waived. As soon as the purchase was made, eviction notices were printed. The first set, giving the residents three days to gather their belongings and leave, hit Tent City in the middle of winter, while the thermometer was dropping rapidly and snow blanketed the ground.
This eviction attempt failed, as a magistrate dismissed it, saying that Troutwater did not give the residents a thirty-day notice as required by law.
This small victory for Tent City didn’t last long, and within a few weeks, the ruling was overturned, citing that the people living on the land were not actually “tenants” and thus did not warrant a thirty-day notice.
A new eviction date was set for April 13, 2015, at 9 a.m.
On Saturday, April 11, The Daily Record reported the death of a forty-nine-year-old woman in Tent City. I knew in my heart it was Leah. The harsh winter had reduced the population of Tent City to only four or five people, and Leah was the only woman remaining.
The coroner didn’t suspect any trauma or foul play, and is doing an autopsy, the results of which could take anywhere from twelve to fourteen weeks to be processed. At this point, the cause of her death is still unknown.
The story of Leah’s passing garnered quite a bit of attention. Many locals used it as a platform to scold the City of Wooster and Troutwater LLC, or Tent City itself. Many dismissed her as a drug addict. Rumors of overdoses and suicide flooded The Daily Record’s Facebook page and website.
On Sunday evening, the night before the eviction, a large group of people met on the Madison Avenue bridge, candles in hand, and watched the sun set over Tent City one final time.
I found out that night that Leah was known as the “Mother of Tent City.” She distributed blankets, tended wounds, and her attitude kept many people going when they had nowhere else to turn. One former resident named Bill Wallace recounted a story of a time when Leah had noticed his shoes were bad and had put peroxide and antibiotic ointment on his feet to heal the cuts and blisters. A rabbi from West Virginia traveled to the service to give his blessing and read scripture in both English and Hebrew.
A man named Dean Nelson, a controversial yet outspoken advocate for Tent City and its residents, led the service. He read a single Bible passage: Luke 16:19-31, KJV. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
On the morning of April 13, I arrived at Tent City shortly after 8 a.m. and found that the Wooster Police Department had already been there to post NO PARKING signs along the bridge. Roger arrived at the same time, and a handful of others waited with us for the eviction crew to arrive. Daily Record reporters stalked around. I had received a text that morning from a friend saying the eviction would possibly be moved to 2:30 that afternoon, but we stayed and waited anyway. Nothing happened, except for the flurry of onlookers who stopped to gawk, heckle, and take pictures with their phones.
While we waited that morning, I met a man named Verton, who volunteered serving breakfast at a local church. He knew the residents of Tent City well, and told me he had seen Leah on Friday morning. He said her last act of generosity was to donate fourteen inches of her hair to make wigs for cancer patients.
At 11:30 we dispersed – and when I came back at 2 p.m. the police had returned as well. Three police cars with lights flashing, eight police officers, three bailiffs (two in bulletproof vests) and a group of about fifteen or twenty volunteers under the direction of Ted Amstutz had arrived to serve the eviction.
Ted runs Amstutz Maintanence, and was hired by Troutwater LLC’s lawyer to do the cleanup. His objective: tear down all the tents so they couldn’t be rebuilt, and topple the structures on the property.
During the eviction, men took axes and hammers and knives to tents and makeshift buildings. The sound of shredding nylon, snapping framework, and the cracking of wood was the symphony of the afternoon.
“We’re just taking everything down today. We have to wait until the ground dries up, and then we’ll bring in a bulldozer.”
The eviction took less than an hour. The only thing Amstutz and his crew took out of the area was a trash bag containing twelve American flags, one of which was taken from the crooked mast beside Roger’s tent. The debris, the tents, the trash, all of it was left to sit under the sun while Roger watched helplessly from behind the guardrail. Tent City was destroyed.
I stood in the empty area where Leah’s tent had been. Her family had already collected her belongings. Heavy boots had crushed her flowers, grinding their white heads down into the mud.
I had watched Amstutz closely during the cleanup, which wasn’t a cleanup at all. Tent City was left in such disarray anyone would have mistaken it for a junkyard. He was barrel-chested with a shaved head and a goatee. His presence and size were intimidating. He had a tattoo on his left arm that read:
I am a punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
While I was only able to talk to him briefly during the eviction, we followed up on the phone a few days afterwards.
“I’m done. I’m out. Good luck to whoever they hire next.”
He was finished with Tent City. He and his family had been receiving too much scrutiny, and he alleged that his twelve-year-old son had been attacked at school. His arrest record had also been brought into question by the more vicious advocates for Tent City. Most of his past charges were minor traffic violations and a few disorderly conducts from the late 1990s. There was one felonious assault charge that was dropped from a period where he worked as a bouncer.
“It had nothing to do with the fact they were homeless. It was the way they lived, and how much trash was down there. If they would have cleaned up after themselves, and not made it such an eyesore, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal.
I was hired to do a job, and that’s what I was going to do. I had no problems with them being homeless, and it’s great to care about homeless people. I volunteer, I help people. I do a lot of volunteer work in Wayne County with football and softball.
If Roger was really Native American, he should know to take care of the land, not trash the place.”
I asked about the way the crew demolished the tents, and about his claim that he would store them for residents to pick up later.
“We didn’t bother trying to keep the nasty ones. I wasn’t going to risk anyone’s safety. If they were full of trash, I had them cut down or destroyed. The nicer ones we packed up, and to my knowledge they’re still sitting in bags at the bottom of the hill. There are about four trash bags with two tents each in them, ready to go.”
As for the tattoo, it was in memory of his nephew who passed away at the age of seventeen in a car accident. The quote is attributed to Genghis Khan, and it was one of his nephew’s favorite sayings.
Thousands of cities around the world have their own Tent Cities, many of which have been around much longer. Wooster is not unique in the way it handled its homeless population by treating them like common criminals.
Yes, many of the citizens of Tent City were criminals in some sense of the word. Most, if not all, had some sort of record, ranging from serious sexual offenses to minor drug charges.
But biggest argument against Tent City, from City Council and the Mayor as well as the citizens, was simply that it was an eyesore. The fate of Tent City was set from the moment Roger stepped out from underneath the bridge to set up camp. It was a miracle it lasted as long as it did.
Roger plans to leave for Washington D.C., where he will try to make an audience of anyone who will listen. He also plans on travelling to New York City, where he intends on inviting every homeless person he encounters to move to Wooster.
His objective is to get enough homeless people – in his words, an “army of bums” – into Wayne County so they can vote out the city government.
Leah’s legacy lives on in those who called her mother, sister, daughter, or friend. With help, I was able to locate those who loved her, and shared her photos with anyone that wanted a copy. Nigel is safe, and is currently living with Leah’s relatives.
Troutwater, LLC never hired another company to finish the cleanup – they didn’t have to. The City of Wooster sent in its own crews to finish the job Amstutz started, ten days after the eviction. It turned out Ted wasn’t content to sit on the sidelines. He stayed involved, directing the City’s cleanup crew as they worked. They brought in bulldozers to haul away the scattered wreckage of what had once been the Chickahominy Indian Tribal Rescue Mission. All that remains of Tent City today are tracks from gaping treads that ripped the wildflowers out by their roots, leaving behind no evidence that people once lived there, save for the memories of those who used to called it home.
Kailey Sherrick is currently a graduate student at the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio Masters of Fine Arts), where she is studying to receive her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Wooster, Ohio, with her family, where she enjoys running a photography business with her husband. Apart from her professional and academic life, Kailey spends her time being involved in her community, reading, and being outdoors.
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