David Cook: The homeless man who came out of the woods

David Cook: The homeless man who came out of the woods

November 21st, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Last summer, as the Thursday night music of Riverbend played across the water, the Wingfield family -- all 24 of them -- gathered to throw Frisbee, grill burgers and toss fishing lines from their six-acre lot into the warm Tennessee River.

Their square-shaped sliver of Manufacturer's Road property -- right across from Greenlife Grocery -- is undeveloped and grassy, with a fence that keeps out the heavy brush and overgrowth that runs thick on the adjacent land.

Thick enough to hide a homeless camp.

Thick enough to lose a wandering little boy in.

The Wingfield grandkids -- all 14 of them -- were playing and running and laughing in the summer night. Adults kept a close eye, but Win and Wilder -- cousins, each 3 years old -- managed to wander off.

Something in the distance had caught their eye.

A few minutes later, the adults realized they were gone. They hollered. Searched. Grew panicked. After five, 10, 15 minutes ... no Win, no Wilder.

"Not in the cars. Not in the tents. Not with any other kids," said Joseph Wingfield, 36, father of Wilder.

That's because the two kids had crawled through the fence and onto a working train yard.

And within arm's reach of a homeless camp.

I want to pause here. Because it's important to connect what was about to happen to those two boys with Thursday morning's big event.

The Grateful Gobbler.

Starting at 8:30 at Coolidge Park, the Gobbler is a fine way to begin Thanksgiving. A beautiful morning is forecast. Hot coffee, T-shirts, lots of food. Great folks and families, laughing, chatting and walking a mile or two through the downtown streets.

The proceeds fatten up the Gobbler Fund, which the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition uses to support local agencies that serve homeless Chattanoogans.

"It's bad," said Brother Ron Fender, case manager at the Community Kitchen. "On any given night, between 300 and 500 people are sleeping outside, many of them children."

That means that, in a way, the Gobbler route will take you and me right through someone's bedroom.

"The pavement is people's beds," said Fender. "The street corners are their living rooms."

The Gobbler folks hope to raise $100,000 this year; as of Tuesday afternoon, they were less than $4,000 shy.

But even if we raised 10 times that, homelessness would still exist. Just as canned food drives will never end hunger, the Gobbler is only a big Band-Aid.

Solving homelessness means a substantial change in the order of things. We have multimillion-dollar downtown buildings, but no homeless shelter and barely any affordable housing?

"As long as people see each other in terms of us and them, there will always be a 'them,'" said Fender. "Only when that relationship changes, will things change."

That's why Win and Wilder's story matters so much.

"My sister sees this guy in ragged pants. No shirt. No shoes," said Wingfield. "And he's walking and talking with [Win and Wilder], coming out of the thick shrubbery by the railroad tracks."

"Once he sees they had hooked up with their mom ... he just kind of waves and walks away, disappearing into the woods."

Win and Wilder later said the man called to them as they got close to the moving trains. Boys, they remember him saying, you need to come with me.

And he walked them through the woods, back to safety.

"Jesus provided a guardian for our kids at that time," said Wingfield. "This homeless guy served my family, and gently, kindly, patiently brought these little boys back. He was not high on drugs, or schizophrenic, or dangerous. This guy broke every one of those stereotypes.

"The Grateful Gobbler? Everybody in my family will add their names to that list because of this one guy's service."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.