Thursday, February 27, 2003

Activist knows cold and fear of living on the riverbank

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BELLEVUE - For the past year, Mark Teegarden has been the "in-your-face" advocate who's badgered everyone from the press to elected officials in the name of homeless activism.

For sometime before that, he lived on the banks of the Ohio.

"He's developed from Homeless Joe along the river to a homeless advocate for Northern Kentucky, which is sorely needed," said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "He's articulate, he's very knowledgeable, and he's a good organizer. We feel good about him representing us in the Covington area."

When Covington public works crews razed riverfront homeless camps last April, the burly, pony-tailed Teegarden - known for his blunt manner - was the first person campers called.

For weeks afterward, Teegarden focused media attention on their situation, and he served as their go-between with police, social service workers and city officials.

Last June, Teegarden helped organize 300 homeless people and their advocates for a march on Covington City Hall featuring national speakers. Throughout the summer and fall, he worked with other homeless advocates and Covington officials to get a shelter open on the city's Eastside for anyone needing a place to get out of the extreme heat or cold.

More recently, the 44-year-old Bellevue resident has served as a one-man speakers bureau on homeless issues for schools, churches and volunteer organizations throughout the Midwest.

`Too confrontational'

Covington Mayor Butch Callery, who engaged in public exchanges with Teegarden during last spring's riverbank sweeps, begged to differ.

"In my opinion, I think he's too confrontational, and that's not the way to get things done,'' Callery said. He added Teegarden also "doesn't check out his facts before he makes statements."

As an example, he cited Teegarden's accusing him of making an issue of the riverbank camps last year because he was running for office. Callery was the only city commissioner not up for re-election last year.

These days, Teegarden says that he's learned to check his facts and control his anger "before I engage my big mouth."

"When I do comment now, I know the facts, and I think I can understand what a homeless person feels like because I was there," he said.

Callery says he's upset at how Covington officials were portrayed as "heartless" by Teegarden and others when they razed riverbank camps last spring because of health and liability concerns.

Teegarden maintains that it wasn't until a wealthy out-of-town businessman drowned in the Ohio River, with his body discovered near the camps, that "suddenly the homeless were in such violation."

Callery also said city officials have worked with various agencies to secure 34 housing units in Kenton County for homeless veterans and others in the past couple of months "with no publicity at all."

Teegarden will take time out from speaking engagements in October to participate in a Washington conference for the National Coalition for the Homeless, leading workshops on organizing to combat homelessness.

Now living on a $624 monthly Social Security disability check, the Dayton, Ky., native considers himself "one of the lucky ones."

"I feel I owe a great debt to my community and to the homeless folks who are still out there today," Teegarden said of his full-time activism. "This is my way of paying them back."

From college into the bottle

Forced to drop out of Cumberland College when federal funding for his student loans was cut, Teegarden hauled freight and cooked in the off season, earning as much as $40,000 to $45,000 a year in the late 1980s. By the early '90s, he'd settled in Lebanon, where he went into the antiques business with a friend.

"When we were on the road doing (antique) shows, I remember looking for motels that had a lounge," he said.

Teegarden's substance abuse problems escalated in the mid-1990s, when he temporarily relocated to North Carolina to be with his dying mother.

His problems came to a head one night when he tossed three days worth of deposits for the store he was managing into his truck, stopped to have a drink, and forgot to deposit the money.

To prison and the riverbanks

When Teegarden sobered up and realized what he'd done, he just kept running. A family member convinced him to turn himself in, and he spent a year in prison.

Teegarden returned to Northern Kentucky in December 1998 with the clothes on his back and 37 cents in his pocket. Too embarrassed to turn to his family, he headed to Covington's Ohio riverbank, after a man he met on the street told him about people camping there.

For the next three years, Teegarden settled into what he now calls his "surviving style."

"You were safe because you were with a group and you were with people who understood your situation because they were in the same boat," he said. "We kept to ourselves. We went to work for these day labor companies, then we went right back down to the river."

Trapped in the cycle of working menial jobs just to survive, Teegarden dulled the pain with whisky and marijuana.

"You're not able to get housing when you're only making $5.50 to $6 an hour," he said. "And the first thing they ask you on a housing application is, `What is your address?' What are you going to put down? The riverbank?' "

For Teegarden, the low point came on chilly winter nights, when he avoided building a fire, fearing it would trigger a visit from police.

"You just feel that God and everyone has left you," he said. "So what's your alternative? It's either kill yourself or self-medicate yourself through drugs or alcohol to the point where you just don't care any more, or you don't wake up the next day."

Welcome outreach, treatment

Teegarden's salvation arrived in September 2000 in the form of Rachael Winters, then a case manager for Welcome House.

"Rachael Winters came down there every Sunday morning rain or shine, snow or sleet, to get us to go up to Goebel Park and have coffee," Teegarden said. "She started working with me, and I made a choice to better myself."

With Winters' help, Teegarden went through treatment programs for his drug and alcohol addictions, and he received counseling and medication for his depression. She also helped him find housing.

"He was very low on himself," Winters recalled. "I don't think he thought that anything was ever going to change. When you get trapped in that cycle, your mentality changes."

On the speaking circuit

Winters started inviting Teegarden out to eat and speak to various churches about his situation.

"After I got out of rehab, I started to become more involved with homeless issues," Teegarden said. "Rachael and Michael Stoops of the National Coalition had me go around and speak on homeless issues at colleges and high schools, and it just snowballed from there."

So far, Teegarden has spoken to more than a dozen groups - from Miami University to Isaac M. Wise Temple to the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky - and he's currently scheduling engagements throughout the Midwest in exchange for his transportation and meals and a small honorarium. He gets $35 and up for each talk.

"For me, one of the most striking things was that he wanted to visit with local agencies," said Karin Cotterman, program coordinator for student volunteers and service learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where Teegarden spoke last year. "Even before he left Springfield, he was giving the national office a report, and talking about how they could help the homeless in our area. He didn't just show up to talk to students, get his check and leave."

When Teegarden recently portrayed the stereotypical homeless man for seventh-graders at the Isaac M. Wise Temple, rabbinic intern Michael Shulman recalled, "you couldn't hear a sound."

"He believes in his cause deeply and it really shows," Shulman said. ". . . It was a powerful experience.''


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