Huck Finn had his river, Kerouac his road, Ishmael his sea. Sham has his abandoned buildings. All 21 of them. Eighteen abandoned, two under construction, one still operational. Ten cities. Thirty-five hours of exploration.
By Lauren Abunassar
The sky over Detroit’s long-shuttered Herman Kiefer Hospital is dense and dark, punctured only by the dim light of a few weak street lamps. Passing cars fill the night with a thready and echoing roar, not unlike the illusion of an ocean contained in a shell. Every now and then, their headlights needle through the darkness and Shamseddeen “Sham” Moussaoui has to turn off his headlamp and duck out of view.
What Sham needs is not light. It is luck.
There are, after all, security guards posted around the hospital’s perimeter. As he holds his camera in front of him, hands shaky but voice steady, Sham whispers into the recorder, “Hopefully there’s nobody walking around. They’re going to be on the lookout for me. Moreso, they know the terrain.”
The terrain – toppled traffic cones, ramparts of barbed-wire and chain-link, padlocked doors and marooned construction vehicles. Somewhere, a Jeep is making lazy but dutiful circles around the parking lot, looking for trespassers. Looking for Sham. And then, there is some luck. After scaling a bit of slackened barbed-wire, Sham finds a cracked door and is able to squeeze his way inside the hospital.
The corridors are crowded with construction supplies and trash. Cracks web the white brick walls, a firehose hangs lazily from the door like the shed skin of a snake. Two bicycles are propped against the wall, tools laid out beside them as if someone was repairing the chain or refilling a tire before being called away.
This is the nature of abandoned buildings. Often, they dwell in a state of limbo. There are the shadowy traces of care and life but there is also the fast-eclipsing hand of disrepair. The hospital, for Sham, is an adventure. But it’s also a monument to just how sad forgotten things appear. The histories that lie hidden and, too often, unexamined.
Sham pauses briefly by the bikes. “Holy crap,” he says. He has made it inside.
It hasn’t even been ten minutes when the unnerving echo of barking surges down the hall. It is hard to tell if the dog is a stray or another form of security. But these questions become less urgent than the fast-approaching sound of snarling. Suddenly, Sham is in view, his camera shaking dangerously as he runs away full-speed from the dog. The chaos of film pivots between shaky shots of Sham’s gray gym shorts, his black sneakers, concrete stairs, and the surround-sound of his uncertain panting as the dog gives chase. He is trying to narrate for his internet audience as he makes his cinematic getaway.
Today he insists that he wasn’t scared. He never is when he does this.
Huck Finn had his river, Kerouac his road, Ishmael his sea. Sham has his abandoned buildings. All 21 of them. Eighteen abandoned, two under construction, one still operational. Ten cities. Thirty-five hours of exploration.
You could say he’s a man with many names and just as many lives. Digitally, he is a compressed “iamshamtheman,” on Instagram. He reduces his biography on YouTube to: “Unconventional Journey & Rare Explorations.” Sometimes he calls himself the Road Trip Renegade.
He keeps a digital map that tracks his travels— a thin blue line charting the path he took from Jacksonville, through Charlotte, Morgantown, Pittsburgh, Dearborn. He drove across the country six times. He hit forty states. He snuck inside a children’s hospital under construction in West Virginia. A sanatorium in Cleveland. The old Heinz Factory in Pittsburgh. He has hidden in meat lockers and behind filing cabinets, trying to avoid security looking for trespassers. He has been caught by trees while escaping from police into the forest after exploring Forest Fair Mall in Cincinnati. He has faced guard dogs and squatters, his own demons even—crouched in the shadows with the detritus of what has been left behind. His journeys verge on Odyssean. But it’s not home he’s looking for; it’s something harder to pinpoint. The opportunity to explore the abandoned has a siren-like pull. There is a story behind everything, after all.
When his car broke down in November 2021, he flew from Detroit to Las Vegas, using a plane ticket his friend Abe bought him. He had three bags. They were all stolen when he arrived at the airport. “At that moment, all I had was everything I was wearing. I had my wallet. I had my cell phone.” Maybe it’s weird, he says. But again, he wasn’t scared.
He felt fearless again when he left Las Vegas to get to Chicago in October 2022.
He’s a fan of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius and Seneca are taped to the digital walls of his online profiles. It is in this philosophy, he says, where his absence of fear draws some explanation. “The whole idea is to literally focus on only the next step,” he says. “So even if everybody took everything I own on planet Earth, I would still be calm. And that is what I taught myself. It’s like, nothing is too big to overcome.”
Sham wakes up surrounded by a copse of calligraphic oak trees. The nearby Des Plaines River runs like a green lung along the border of the nature preserve where he sleeps, the mummy bag he bought cheap, a chrysalis-like shelter against weather that sometimes swings well below zero.
Aside from the weather, it’s not totally unlike his set up in Vegas—where he’d dumpster dive for food if he maxed out his monthly EBT allowance. It was easier to find food this way in Michigan. Whole pizzas, frozen supermarket pies, a Gatorade or some discarded buffalo wings. In Vegas, it was trickier. In Chicago, trickier still.
He uses his SNAP benefits to buy baggies of crystallized ginger for energy, huge tubs of spinach, cans of sardines and tuna and chicken because, joking that “you’ve got to diversify your meats. And no, that’s not my advice for women.” It’s a balancing act that sometimes leaves him out of benefits only part way through the month. He knows what it’s like to go hungry.
Sham likes parks because he likes getting some distance from the homeless. Homelessness, after all, comes with a certain set of stereotypes he’s trying to avoid. “My joke is the two most common homeless questions are ‘do you have X? Or do you know somebody who has X?” he says. He faced this when, one night, he woke up to a twenty dollar bill being shoved in his face, accompanied by a voice asking for crystal meth. And in Chicago when he got on the train to shelter from the cold, he says that “This older crackhead guy was sleeping next to me. He wakes up, looks at me. He’s like you got any change? I’m like, No. Then he got pissed off. He’s like, ‘Every stop has an ATM…’ He got in my face and tried to block my way out. I had to pull out my knife.” It was his first night wandering the transit system while he figured out where to go next.
The unfortunate part of being who he is, Sham says, involves the labor of correction. He has to correct the story people assign to him because he is homeless. This is not a challenge unique to him. But what people don’t understand is the way he has, to a certain degree, elected to this path. He has a hard time imagining himself traveling to see his buildings, he says, if he did have a home. He has a hard time imagining a home that wouldn’t feel like a prison.
When he wakes up, he usually goes to McDonalds to buy a $1 order of fries. He wants to keep finding work, temporary gigs that will help save up for a car and restore his travels, looking for his next abandoned building. When he’s fully woken up, he’ll head over to Panera Bread where he’s a member of the monthly Sip Club. He’ll get coffee, use the WiFi to post videos, update his social media. Sometimes people will approach him, again, with a specific story in mind. “There’s a group of old ladies talking,” he says, remembering one such interaction back in a Panera in Vegas. One of them asked if he was traveling—a cautious disguise for the question she really wanted to ask. “I know what she meant. And I’m just straight up – No, I’m homeless… They’re always shocked.”
In the face of this shock, the woman gave him a $100 bill. He tried to refuse it but she was an adamant do-gooder. So too was her friend who came up after her and gave Sham another $100. “They’re not coincidences anymore,” Sham says. “I’ve gone through too many of these months where things just happened; they’re meant for something.”
Sham tells me about a childhood friend, Ebrahim “Abe” Siala, in his native Corvallis, Oregon. He calls him weekly and they talk, sometimes, for upwards of eight hours. Recently, Abe had an idea. “Maybe look at it this way,” he told Sham, “you were put in a place so that others can do good deeds. I was like that’s a real interesting perspective. You know, I’m allowing others to do goodness, in a way.”
Sham is an instrument and an agent. He receives the good and he tries to push the good back out.
One of his followers on Reddit—ChargerGirl82 because in Sham’s world, a digital name is as valid as a Christian one—got in touch while living out of her car in San Diego where it’s illegal to do so. Deaf, she didn’t hear when the cops came knocking on her window one day. And so when they broke the glass, she didn’t know what to do. She was only 20 when she first reached out, a fact that took Sham by surprise recently as he thought the 82 in her handle was her birth year. She reached out to Sham, first, to talk about donating plasma. “Happy 5 months!,” she wrote to him near the anniversary of his homelessness. “You have such a cute face.”
Again, the idea of the secret story became an organizing part of their interactions. Rachel, the real ChargerGirl82, aged out of foster care. She did a big search. Found her birth mother across the country. Went to see her birth mother and, through a series of disasters, ended up having to call CPS on her.
“I mean, this person has gone through a lot of suffering, you know, to be just cast out, given nothing,” Sham says. “I feel in a weird way, not to be delusional, but that I was meant to kind of be a voice for these things… To make people feel human again.”
Life goes on. Rachel replaced her window with tarp. Started offering to work for free just to prove that she could work. Sham became a pseudo big brother to her, guiding her through the intricacies of survival. Maybe one day she’d come meet him wherever he was and they’d go exploring together.
There are so many more stories to tell. Sham wants to be a part of that.
There are the people who live in the tunnels back in Vegas for example. The homeless that huddle inside the 24-hour train-route to O’Hare, sleeping for an hour and half only to wake up when the train reaches its endpoint, swap cars, repeat all over again. There’s the parking garages. Gyms, stairwells, ATM cubicles. Sham went to a medical office recently that was undergoing renovation. He stayed for a few days, rejoicing in the luxury of heat, power, five indoor toilets. Then he got caught and had to move on again. “In a weird way, it’s like I’m channeling some sort of criminal instinct in terms of how to survive. I noticed a big part of urban exploring is being able to adapt knowing how to survive. Finding these little tricks. Like right now, my eyes are so conditioned to always scanning buildings, scanning for places I can sleep…”
Everywhere he finds people who are lost. Also abandoned. It’d be cool to go down into those Vegas tunnels, for example, he says. An adventure of another kind. “To get life stories and start doing portraits on them. To try to bring information and bring people back to the light, so to speak. Because I didn’t have any of that.”
A construction site is a ruin in reverse.
This is a lesson social and cultural geographer and urban explorer Dr. Bradley L. Garrett learned firsthand. With his doctoral thesis focused on a community of urban explorers, Garrett remembers Mark Explores approaching him about sneaking into a skyscraper. He didn’t get the appeal. After all, the skyscraper was just under construction. It didn’t have a story yet.
He had spent his time following explorers drawn to the decay of a place. Ruination as a memorial—history tucked between ragged fence lines and broken windows, dry rotted floors and rusted metal frames. But then Explores said something that hit – “We’re the story now.”
So Garrett joined in. And from there, his exploring community would go into skyscrapers to photograph them as the floors were added, inching higher and higher above the skyline, understanding the structure of the finished building before even the developers. “I think what happens for a lot of people is that it began with an interest in places,” he says. Reconfiguring one’s mind to store blueprints of forgotten sectors and tunnels, buildings people don’t yet see as beautiful or have stopped seeing as beautiful, it all involves an interest in that which is hidden. “Carrying around that secret knowledge is very empowering.”
Traveling with explorers around Europe, he remembers weeks spent sleeping in abandoned buildings, traveling from place to place. Just like Sham. The question of urban exploration and homelessness becomes a chicken before the egg type of paradox. The passion for exploring could push one to homelessness. And homelessness could certainly push one to explore. In each case, it becomes an issue of survival and how we tender this through movement.
Transiency unfolds, according to Garrett, like something out of a China Miéville novel where the world is composed of two cities on top of one another. “People in one city can’t see people in the other city,” he says. “And they have totally different cultural contexts… We just had this completely upside down agenda of, you know, climbing through windows and sleeping in boarded up buildings. And we had a lot of conversations on those trips about why we’re paying rent.”
The world is full of abandoned buildings and abandoned people. Garrett remembers the base jumper he came across while scaling Heron Tower in London. He leapt off the side wall, opened his parachute, landed, and ran off into the night.
And then there was the campsite Garrett and his team discovered in an abandoned Soviet Military base in Poland. Hidden in a dense forest with a treacherous circuit of dirt roads and an intricate network of buildings, the sudden image of a tent was a mind boggling prospect. There was laundry hanging. There was a mirror for shaving. “And we just realized, like, this is someone’s home.”
For weeks, Garrett and friends spun secret histories for the mystery camper. Garrett, with his PhD and his postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford, envied the squatter. After all, he had a whole military base to himself. The feeling of disconnection from society is not always a burden. Sometimes it’s a liberation. And it’s a liberation perfectly paralleled in urban exploration. Permission to enter a space tempers the excitement of it. Discovery of a place exudes power. Evasion is accompanied by euphoria. A crime is not always about what you can take or destroy but about the thrill of being able to walk away at the end of it.
In Sham’s case, though Garrett has never met him or heard of him, his story of self-removal makes some sense. “If you’ve experienced trauma,” he says, “if you’ve experienced alienation and frustration, there would be a huge draw to just going into the drains under Las Vegas and vanishing into a secret world that you have control over…”
Corvallis, Oregon sits along the eastern edge of the Pacific Coast Range. Snow is rare but often, thick shelves of fog cover the verdant green landscape like sheets of tulle. Sham grew up in the city in low-income housing with seven brothers and sisters. His mother immigrated from Algeria and his father from Morocco.
Today, Sham tracks their passage to America the way many children of diasporas do – one family member followed another. First a few uncles. Then grandparents. Cousins. In Corvallis, Sham says, assimilation became tricky. “The theme,” he says of his upbringing, “was that society is evil. The outside, the American system is evil.”
Piecing the story together, there’s not much Sham doesn’t trace back to his upbringing. Secret worlds shelled themselves out behind closed bedroom doors in his childhood home. These bedrooms were not abandoned buildings but there was the same mordant tinge that comes with life as it vanishes. Everyone withdrew from each other, he says. “I didn’t have those fishing trips. I didn’t go out to a restaurant. We never went as a family to eat out in my entire life. Never went to a movie theater… It has to have a psychological effect.”
The penchant for wandering was present in his childhood as well. He began walking the streets, the western sky flat and dark above him like a sheet of construction paper. He began getting into trouble in school. Teachers were perplexed: “you could be a leader,” they told him. And then one day, a kid made a racist remark on the bus and Sham broke his nose. He was expelled and spent a few days in juvenile detention.
Still in Corvallis today, Sham’s childhood friend Abe remembers Sham as a sparring partner and de facto little brother. Abe got Sham into Jiujitsu and the two would spar in the inner prayer room of their local mosque. It was a hobby Sham ran with, leveraging his fighting skills into a career as an amateur MMA fighter. In 2011, Sham was making promises to a local Oregon paper to “control my opponent and impose my will,” while preparing for a fight against lightweight champion Justin Mark at the Chinook Winds Casino Resort.
In those post-fight interviews, it’s as if a pressure valve has been released. His eyes winnow down to a thrilled squint, his smile breaks open like an egg. Blood pools around his cheekbone where a bruise is already forming. His chest bears a tattoo of the emblem on an Algerian flag—his mother’s homeland. Even as a victor, his past is something he wears.
“The more I think about it,” says Sham’s childhood friend, Abe, “I feel like what he’s doing, he has to do it. What he’s doing, it can’t be done any other way.”
In a world far away from Sham’s, there is something even Abe recognizes in Sham’s wandering. He was there to watch his power evolve into his downfall and he remembers one of the last in-person conversations he had with Sham in his backyard in Corvallis. Sham opened up to him about his own mental health, his struggle with bipolar disorder and addiction. And he opened up about what homelessness was really like. “He was talking about the brain and how—and I can relate to this—because you don’t have someone to talk to constantly, your brain just wires differently. So I guess what he was communicating was the idea that these people out there alone, these people don’t have anybody to talk to… and it sort of turns them into a zombie.”
Tucked inside this translation is some rationale for Sham’s exploration and his social media exploits. Don’t we all long for a sense of community? Don’t we all have something we want to escape? Don’t we all want something that restores some illusion of control that life, in all its prevailing unfairnesses, has taken from us?
Again and again, Abe insists that “I just want to emphasize how big a dichotomy there is between the Sham that was and the Sham that is. It’s just day and night.”
As proud as he is of Sham’s growth, there’s a simple confession to make: “I worry.”
Sometimes, there isn’t much more to say.
Luckless, life becomes a series of close calls. Before Chicago, in Vegas, Sham hadn’t eaten in three days.
More urgently, Rachel. She went missing for a while. Unable to get in touch, he planned his own search for her, preparing to call Walmarts across California to see if she might be in one of their parking lots.
When he finally tracked her down, he listened to her story about being stabbed while sleeping in her own park some 330 miles away. Maybe someone had asked her for something and she couldn’t hear them so they stabbed her. “That is the difficulty with not being able to hear,” she writes to him. “Sometimes you just have to make guesses about how things happen.” Sham listens to it all. Together, they are linked by their acutely attuned ability to just keep going. Rachel’s kidney was pierced but she only spent one night in the hospital because she wanted to get back to her search for work.
Sham had his own ER stay recently when he spent a few summer weeks recycling garbage in a small warehouse. Cinched inside a column of arid heat, Sham had to eventually call an ambulance to take him to the hospital with severe hydration. These stories they share become a vessel for confronting life. For saying one has survived and keeps surviving.
When Rachel resurfaced, “She was excited,” Sham says. “And that’s why I came to Chicago.”
According to Sham, Rachel was in hospice here with late-stage cancer, surrounded by caseworkers and healthcare staff buffeting his attempts to get in touch. In hospice, Rachel would send Sham updates about her worsening condition, the nose injuries she was enduring from congestion, a rotating cocktail of painkillers, the enduring struggle to breathe. Sham looked into experimental trials, alternative treatments, alternative facilities. He insists the staff wouldn’t tell Rachel the name of the hospice center. All Sham could see was a state of Illinois badge on a nurse in an innocuous photo Rachel once sent him. She hadn’t been outside in five or six months.
“Rachel’s garbage to the system,” Sham explains bitterly. He senses a conspiracy in that as soon as he started trying to pin down plans to come and visit, he was disconnected by her care team. “I got through one time a couple of weeks ago,” he explains, “a woman picked up and it kind of sounded like her caseworker. And when I’m like, you know, is Rachel around, it’s an immediate hangup. I called right back. And then nobody answered. And then I was blocked.”
From there: Her email was blocked. Her Reddit deactivated. Messages unreturned. “It’s 100% clear there’s something really dark about this whole system of just rushing her through towards death, not having any resistance from outside forces.”
Because Medicaid will not provide coverage to you in two states at the same time, he took a big gamble and went off his medication when he made the move to Chicago to try and find her. It wasn’t long after he arrived that Rachel disappeared again. “I started to lose my way, because, again, mental health,” he says. Her absence was a crushing blow. “I was just kind of going through the motions…just kind of wandering.”
He met another homeless man who was also born in Oregon. The coincidence buoyed him in the face of his growing depression. His new friend found them another kind of abandoned shelter – a three bedroom empty apartment in Dekalb where Sham was able to stay for a week before he woke up one morning to commotion and a voice saying, “you’re not even supposed to be here.” He went back to his park. He rode the trains again when the weather got bad. He used GoodRX to get back on his medication, $86 out of pocket. When his camping gear was stolen from its hiding place in the woods when he was out for the day, he found an office building open to blood donations 24 hours a day. He hides in the hallway and has been camped there for the past month.
“It’s the monotony that makes me restless,” Sham says. “And it’s a sign, I find it’s a sign within my body. Something has to change.” He’s giving it a month before he gives up on the possibility of closure with Rachel. He’ll save enough money to invest in film and survival equipment and then who knows? Maybe he’ll hop a freight train. Chicago, he says, is the train hub of America after all. Maybe he’ll get as far out as Washington where he wants to take some work on a friend’s new farm. Maybe he’ll go to Detroit. Maybe he’ll go to D.C. to see the RFK stadium, do some exploring before its demolition is complete.
His next paycheck he wants to buy some new video equipment to do some exploring in Chicago; he refuses to leave without this. At least two places, he says. Grain silos first—something he’s never explored but that dot the Illinois landscape as regularly as vertebrae on spine.
“Part of me believes I could have saved her,” he says of the guilt and sorrow that needles him as he wonders where Rachel could be.
Still, there are issues that, when brought up, irritate him deeply. He’s never video chatted with Rachel. Because she is deaf, phone conversations have also been unrealistic. When Rachel was in San Diego, she assured Sham she wanted him involved in her care. They were going to coordinate paperwork with Sham so that her information could be shared with him. Right before this, Sham says, he was blocked. Sham shares the name of the high school Rachel supposedly attended in Chicago. But their alumni database lists no one who corresponds with her name, and a school staff member Sham spoke to recently had never heard of Rachel.
He angrily rejects a cruel possibility – Rachel might not be who she says she is. More than anything, he resents the possibility that people might not hear about her story, so extraordinary it seems downright unbelievable. Then again, he resents the possibility that people might not hear his story either. “Nothing is wasted,” he says of the time he has spent in Chicago looking for her. The trick is to find a way to use your story for something bigger.
Once, Sham was walking to the bus stop when he was attacked. Three men threading through traffic on the strip closed in on Sham, screaming for him to hand over his bags. He still regrets the fact that he wasn’t able to get it on camera.
And though he recalls the story with a thrilled pride that he’s survived, in the moment, he didn’t have much choice. “I’m guarding my entire life,” he says. Of course he didn’t hand over his bags. As the fight ensued, a tangled scuffle backlit by the churlish glow of neon lights, revelation dawned on Sham – there must be a hundred people right there in person, just watching. As he frantically mimed “phone, phone,” to his audience, he grew more and more perplexed as to why no one would help him. “The only call that went through was made by me,” he says soberly.
In this way, Sham embodies a complicated set of contradictions. He is passionate about his presence online, advocating for what it really means to be homeless. But he is also rankled by the moments in which he is victimized by spectator culture. He lives his life publicly but he has his secrets too. He has an unchecked optimism and a desire to find his community but he’s also a self-described lone wolf. When he explores his abandoned buildings, he always explores alone.
Every now and then, he speaks of loneliness. But these confessions are absorbed by a firmly held belief that luck will always return. The misfortune will equalize, another kismet gift will come along at just the right moment.
“Zeno went through a shipwreck, and he swam to shore,” Sham explains, returning to his philosophers. “Edison’s factory burned down. And they looked at this as an opportunity of rebirth. There was no complaining. They’re like, it’s done. All that stuff is done. Let me focus on the present… Present means gift. So you’re being gifted this moment. Let me let me use it for something.”
Something Sham believes: No one else has recorded and posted footage from inside the long abandoned Veterans Affairs Hospital in Pittsburgh. But Sham has.
Just off the Allegheny River, the building has been closed since 2013. In October 2021, less than two months shy of losing his car and becoming fully homeless, he risked federal trespassing and military police patrol just to get a glimpse at the hospital. He describes it as a mini city, removed from the world, and still largely lit. The aerial view of the 168 acre medical campus looks not unlike the box fort city a kid might string up in their living room.
Inside, there are gessoed floors and drop down ceilings. An old bowling alley and a couple nature portraits on the waterlogged wall of the old canteen. A chapel with colored glass windows. A cafeteria and a kitchen with peeling ceilings and an “incoming delivery” sign still posted to the wall. These are the rooms people used to sleep in. These are the tables where they ate. The chapels where they prayed. The labs where they studied new PTSD treatments, the basement where they did laundry, the corridor that filters the light in chunks through the blue-tinged windows.
“When I find myself there,” Sham says, “alone in a seven-story lit hospital, and I’m standing there in the hallway by myself, like, this is unbelievable. Imagine that…I’m just in my mind, I’m envisioning other people experiencing this through the lens of my GoPro in that first person view, which is what I want to recreate. Just that amazing feeling of being in this place alone.”
For all its criminal connotations, trespass in Old French means “to pass over.” This is the act of exploration, also. To pass over what is gone and what is left. Who Sham has been and who he may or may not become. Standing alone in a hallway, marveling at the light, feeling some alloyed sensation of thrill and peace.
In just two days, he will be a couple miles further down the river exploring an abandoned factory. But for a quiet moment, in a place he should not be, he is happy to stand still. He is not afraid of anything.
Lauren Abunassar is an Arab-American journalist and writer. She holds graduate degrees from NYU and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and her work has appeared in LA Magazine, Salon, The Offing, Narrative, Poetry, and elsewhere. Her first book is forthcoming from University of Arkansas Press this fall as the recipient of the Etel Adnan poetry prize.