Sunday, February 18, 2001

Online and off the street

Homeless man reboots his life

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For six years, Mark Pierce lived under a piece of canvas near the Ohio River. He slept on a foam mattress retrieved from a Dumpster. He kept clean with jugs of water. In his own words, he was “tired, depressed, resentful and hateful” - just one of the region's estimated 1,400 homeless. Then Mr. Pierce found the Internet, and everything changed. He became a man with a home page, if not a home.

Mark Pierce and the tent he lived in. (Patrick Reddy photos)
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        Using the free computers at public libraries, Mr. Pierce, 43, learned the code for creating Web sites. He made friends through e-mail and shared his expertise with them. One woman, a grandmother from Tacoma, Wash., was so grateful for his help that she shipped him clothes and money.

        Today, Mr. Pierce talks of applets, shell systems and proxy servers. He works part-time at a computer lab. And three months ago, he took his biggest step yet, leaving the sketchy woods between Eastern Avenue and Columbia Parkway for an apartment in Covington.

        His journey hasn't been easy. But it illustrates how computer technology — commonplace in the middle class — can help even the hard-core homeless find their way.

        The Internet doesn't discriminate. Online, Mr. Pierce could be anybody and explore any topic. Web access eased his sense of isolation, distracted him from his sorrows and helped him find his voice.

Pierce shows off his Web site,

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        “It was another thing for me to stand up and say, "OK, I have the same rights as anybody else,'” says Mr. Pierce, who occasionally tangled with librarians over his computer use.

        His story delights the social workers who know him. An essay he wrote about homelessness, called “Please Forgive Me,” is so raw and insightful that one agency, Welcome House of Covington, uses it as a sort of training manual.

        Mr. Pierce has never stayed at Welcome House, but last year he met staff member Rachael Winters through an outreach program. She and her colleagues recognized his gifts and enlisted his help with a fund-raising Web page.

        “He's a different person. He carries himself differently now” says Linda Young, executive director of the shelter.

Spiraling down

        Mr. Pierce's camp is still here. Standing amid scattered clothes, blankets and trash, he can almost see the Montgomery Inn Boathouse in the distance. Just below, cars rush along Eastern Avenue.

Pierce is reflected in the broken mirror he used for grooming.
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        “I was depressed,” he says. “This was the only place I could go to heal up, I guess.”

        Protected by trees, he built a tent out of plywood and tarp. He shaved in a jagged fragment of mirror, using discarded lipstick to write a message on the glass: “I am homeless. Please leave my home alone.”

        Mr. Pierce arrived at this juncture in 1995, after years of drinking, losing jobs and hating life.

        Born and raised in northern Cincinnati, he attended St. Xavier High School and graduated from Roger Bacon. Childhood traumas gnawed at him, but instead of confronting bad memories, he drank heavily and got into street fights, he says.

        He threatened suicide and spent a few weeks in psychiatric care. For a month in 1993, he lived out of his car in the parking lot of a health center, Hamilton County court records show. Police arrested him. Soon enough, he was homeless.

        “I'd sit in church and pray — pray to die, most of the time, because I was so miserable,” he says.

        By day, he “walked the soup kitchens,” trudging from Cincinnati to Covington and back. By night, he hid in the urban woods.

While bathing, Pierce stood on a chunk of bathroom tile to keep his feet out of the mud.
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        Over six years of homelessness, Mr. Pierce avoided alcohol and managed to attend a 12-step recovery program. His campsite is still littered with cans of generic soda.

        He scavenged for what he needed. After fireworks celebrations downtown, he combed the riverbank for cast-off blankets. His foam mattress came from a Dumpster behind a nursing home; he figures somebody died on it.

        Most of all, Mr. Pierce worried about personal hygiene. To bathe, he hung water jugs on a wire, stood underneath and unscrewed the caps. He kept his feet out of the mud by standing on a discarded chunk of bathroom tile.

        His social skills atrophied.

        “It got to the point of, "Why should I care about anything? Just live this way,”' Mr. Pierce says.

A refuge, a talent

        In between hitting soup kitchens, he and other homeless people took refuge at public libraries. This is where Mr. Pierce discovered his knack for computers.

        Libraries often serve as day centers for the homeless. Traditional shelters lock their doors during the day, expecting people to find work or enroll in self-improvement programs.

        But individuals like Mr. Pierce chafe under too many rules, says Ms. Young, the Welcome House director. By listening to him and others, her staff has learned to “meet people where they are” instead of trying to control them, she says.

Pierce helps James Griffith of Covington with an Internet search at the Recovery Network of Northern Kentucky.
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        In this respect, libraries are ideal: They require only that patrons stay awake and respect each other's space.

        But at the same time, librarians aren't psychologists or social workers. When people have personal problems, clashes can result.

        The Kenton County Library got its first computers about four years ago. Mr. Pierce says he quickly became obsessed with “Chip's Challenge,” a maze-like game in which players outmaneuver traps to collect chips. He began arriving at the library before its doors opened each morning.

        Then came the Internet.

        “I pushed buttons until I figured out what it did and hoped I didn't blow anything up,” Mr. Pierce says.

        The library had few rules at first. He started using to bookmark favorite Web sites. When staff people objected, he learned how to make his own Web page so he could store bookmarks there.

        Mr. Pierce says he wanted the same rights as a middle-class person with a home computer. So, among other things, he looked at pornography.

        “I had to explore that avenue of it,” he says simply.

        Library employees were upset. But when they tried to monitor Mr. Pierce's activity, he resisted, director Wayne Onkst says.

        In May 1999, Mr. Pierce was arrested after arguing with a library staff member, court records show. The charges were withdrawn, but four months later, he was arrested again, this time for disorderly conduct, terroristic threatening and menacing.

        Covington police, who assign an officer to the library, said three children complained about Mr. Pierce's behavior. When questioned, he “started to scream and then squared off to fight,” according to a police report.

        Mr. Pierce thinks the children's complaints were fabricated. He refused to plead guilty, and the charges eventually were dismissed.

        Nevertheless, he was banned from the library for a year, Mr. Onkst says.

        “At the time, we said, "It's a shame he can't use his talents in a better way,'” the library director says. “He understands the computers much better than I ever will.”

        Mr. Pierce is now welcome back any time, Mr. Onkst says.

A Christmas package

        The clashes with police weighed heavily on Mr. Pierce. Fearing a jail sentence, he sought comfort online. Using computers at the Newport Public Library, he sent a prayer request to a ring of Christian Web sites.

        “I'll pray for you,” wrote Ferne Beier, a 70-year-old woman from Tacoma, Wash.

        Thus began an important correspondence. Mr. Pierce shared the details of his homelessness and library problems. Ms. Beier mentioned that she would like to start her own Christian Web site.

        He offered his expertise, and soon they were corresponding several times a day. Ms. Beier had many questions.

        “This was a new adventure for me, and Mark was/is a marvelous teacher in every way,” she told the Enquirer.

        In December 1999, she sent him a Christmas package, shipping it to one of his friends in alcohol recovery. The gifts included a winter coat, clothes, backpack, lantern, poncho and M&Ms.

        “I was like, "Oh man,'” Mr Pierce recalls. “I was elated that somebody even gave a damn.”

Back to civilization

        He began seeing “Trust Jesus” graffiti everywhere. He decided God was protecting him from harm.

        Switching to the main library in Cincinnati, Mr. Pierce continued sending e-mail and building his Web page, adding a message board, prayers, games and photographs.

        Around the same time, Rachael Winters of Welcome House was launching a new effort to reach homeless men. Every Sunday, on her own time, Ms. Winters served coffee and donuts at Goebel Park in Covington. Mr. Pierce and others straggled in from their river camps, and Ms. Winters gradually gained their trust.

        She met with police to improve relations with the homeless and helped some of the men obtain housing. When the Recovery Network of Northern Kentucky opened in Covington, she went with Mr. Pierce and introduced him around.

        The network was started by the Northern Kentucky Mental Health Association. It offers free computer access to people recovering from substance abuse or mental illness. Some participants also are homeless.

        Mr. Pierce's talents quickly became apparent. He now works at Recovery Network for $6 an hour, 16 hours a week, and designs Web pages on the side. He'll soon be getting his first home computer, in exchange for revamping the Web site of the mental health association.

        In November, Ms. Winters helped him get a government-subsidized apartment.

        Leaving the woods wasn't easy, Mr. Pierce says. The stakes are much higher now. He has responsibilities, obligations.

        “I'm relearning how to be civilized without taking people's heads off at work,” he says.

        Looking back on his old self, he can see that he was “hard to help,” he says.

        Here's how far he has come: At the Recovery Network, he was shocked to find no policies for protecting the computer system from abuse.

        So the man who once hated rules ended up helping set a few. Among them: No deleting files, no viewing pornography.

        “I'm growing,” Mr. Pierce says with a smile. “I'm growing.”

Computers give homeless a sense of connection


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