John L. Doughty, Jr.

Copyright 1995

(Originally written for Sociology 4200 class at Northwestern State University)

Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

      The problem of homelessness confronts us almost daily. Virtually every newspaper and magazine contains an article on homelessness, and from the warmth of our homes, our televisions flash us images of homeless people warming themselves around burning barrels and sleeping in doorways on cardboard mattresses. But far from the prying eyes of reporters, TV cameras and even sociologists and anthropologists, some of the homeless warm themselves around campfires and sleep beneath trees deep inside national forests.

      This paper concerns participant-observation I did in Louisiana's Kisatchie National Forest in March 1994 with a group of homeless people called "A-Camp," a subculture of a larger and non-homeless group called the "Rainbow Family."

      Robert Merton saw anomie as a difference in the goals of society and some individuals and in the difference in the way society and some individuals achieved those goals (Babbie 1995, p. 118; Hilbert 1989, p. 244). I agree with Merton, and if we can accept the generally accepted definition of anomie as "normlessness" (Babbie 1995, p. 118; Hilbert 1989, p. 243), then I further define anomie as people who do not conform to our norms, i.e., in the case of this paper, the homeless, the homeless alcoholic in particular. Anthropologist James Spradley said this:
The tramp [the homeless alcoholic], by his way of life, appears to have rejected middle-class norms and values and this may be a greater threat than criminal violence. Perhaps this is why we have waited so long to renew our institutions--to do so would require that we accept different values and patterns of behavior as valid. (Spradley 1970, p. 262)

      Richard Gibson was interviewing a homeless man on a city street. A co-worker, a middle-class woman, walked by and, in obvious shock, saw Gibson sitting on a crate beside that homeless man. Gibson later asked her:
"You used the term 'regular people.' Can you tell me more what you mean by 'regular people'?"

"It's a bad term. [She replied.] It's judgmental. People who are participating in the expected, anticipated ways of society: going to work, producing somehow. As opposed to the person who is not--I'm making a judgement--making a contribution." (Gibson 1991, p. 39)

      Gibson's co-worker could just as easily have said, "As opposed to the person who is not like me, the person I see as anomia."

      But Gibson's homeless man does make a contribution. That contribution, however, is to his own culture, not that of Gibson and Gibson's co-worker:
[The homeless man told Gibson,] "I'll probably buy a lot of Popeye's chicken [tonight] and take it back to the shelter. That happens sometimes--we do that."

[Gibson then asked,] "What kinds of people come up to you in addition to those you've already told me about?"

"More panhandlers. [The homeless man answered.] I may give them a few dollars. I think I make the most money of any panhandler around." (Gibson 1991, p. 39)

      Some of the homeless are members of a culture of homelessness. That culture is not like ours and many of its members are homeless because of choice. Circumstance may have made them homeless, but choice and their culture keep them homeless. The A-Camp culture group actually enjoys their homeless lifestyle. This paper makes no judgement about their norms but, rather, simply describes those norms for what they are: traits of a culture. If we, the normal culture--if there is such a thing as a "normal culture"--can learn to deal with the culture of homelessness rather than simply homelessness, we can perhaps allow that culture to function to the betterment of its members and of ourselves. Anomia, or normlessness, has a cultural definition.


      On Sunday morning, March 20, 1994, a friend called and wanted to know if I wanted to ride out to Kisatchie National Forest and "look at the hippies." It seemed, he told me, that a huge group of hippies called the Rainbow Family was camped out in the woods about twenty miles from my home in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

      My friend drove his van; I rode in the passenger seat beside him, and two more friends sat in the back. All four of us were anthropology students. Far inside Kisatchie National Forest, alongside a remote gravel road, we found what we thought was the encampment. Several dozen vehicles lined the gravel road and more vehicles were parked in the woods on both sides of the road. At least six of those vehicles belonged to the Louisiana State Police, the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff's Department, and the City of Natchitoches Police Department. At least six more of those vehicles were painted a distinctive forest-green and belonged to Kisatchie National Forest Rangers. Hippies, it seemed, required lots of police supervision.

      But we saw no person that resembled our mental image of a hippie. However, about one hundred yards beyond the law enforcement officers, a bonfire blazed in the edge of the gravel road. Around that fire, we could see a group of men. My friend idled his van past the officers while they watched us as if they were sure the van contained bales of marijuana. As we approached the group of men around the fire, two of them, a white man and a black man, unexpectedly walked to the center of the narrow gravel road and stopped us.

      We were already uneasy because of the officers, and the unexpected stoppage made us more than uneasy. Both of the men were thin and young, in their twenties, I guessed, and both were dressed not much different from those of us in the van--all four of us poor college students. One of the men, the white one and the smaller of the two, had short black hair. The other man looked intimidating; he had a profusion of Rastafarian dreadlocks framing his face and draping over his shoulders. His hands clutched a beat-up aluminum hard-hat, perhaps discarded by a construction worker.

      They approached the driver's window of the stopped van, and I could then see that grime and soot from the fire literally covered both men. The man with dreadlocks suddenly thrust the hard-hat through the driver's open window. The nails of the fingers clutching the thrust-out hat were so dirty they looked like the man had black lines painted on the ends of his fingers. And the dented aluminum hat did have black lines painted on it--crudely drawn letters that spelled the words MAGIC HAT.

      They asked for a donation, so the driver and I dropped maybe fifty cents in the Magic Hat. Our friends in the back contributed nothing. The hat exited the window, and two dirty heads then thrust through the window. "Got any beer?" one of them asked. "What's in the ice-chest?"

      Then, in addition to the dirty heads, a dirty arm thrust through the window and reached over and past the driver for the ice-chest. One of my anthropologist friends in the back muttered, "Hey, you son of a bitch! Get the f--- away!"

      I raised the lid. "Cokes and ice," I said. "See?"

      The arm and heads exited the window, and the two men stood beside the van. While both anthropologists in the back muttered words I will not repeat, I asked for the location of the hippies. A dirty arm pointed to a well-trodden path meandering through and disappearing in the woods on the opposite side of the gravel road from the fire. The "village," the dirty man informed me, lay about four miles down that footpath. He further informed me that the group around the fire was the "A-Camp" and that they were the "guardians of the gate." The gate, I assumed and still assume, was the point where trees formed a green and living archway over the path.

      Then I saw people that fit my mental image of hippies. Even more vehicles lined the road beyond the fire, and from those vehicles emerged a few couples and individuals. Almost all of them carried backpacks, wore shorts, jeans, or loose-fitting dresses, and had on sandals, new-looking hiking boots, or no shoes at all. They wore flowers, rows of beads, and earrings, nose-rings, lip-rings, and tongue-rings. I saw a girl with a navel-ring. As those people disappeared down the path, similar-appearing people emerged from the path. One of those people, a girl, walked across the road to the fire and someone handed her food, which she ate.

      Around that fire I saw a conglomeration of people and things. Men sat on overturned buckets and ice-chests. Men and a woman sat on two bench-seats removed from vehicles. A man slept on the ground at the edge of the woods. The feet and legs of a sleeping person protruded from the back of a pickup truck parked near the fire. Scattered on the ground around the fire, I saw tin-cans, beer cans, discarded clothing, blankets, and rumpled sheets of shiny clear plastic. Something was cooking in a skillet atop a metal grating placed over the edge of the fire. I saw cardboard boxes and a dozen or more white Styrofoam egg-cartons stacked in a neat pile. And I saw that the A-Camp people were not hippies. They looked older, dirtier, thinner, and more haggard than the hippie-types I had just observed. They wore normal clothing, ragged and dirty, but normal, like mine and my fellow student-anthropologists' clothing. They all wore worn-out work-boots, with the exception of the seated woman who wore sandals. Some of them sipped coffee; some sipped beer. Most of them looked like they nursed an enormous hangover. I suspected I had found a group worthy of study. What, I wondered, is the cultural connection between this ragged group and the hippies?

      But my fellow student-anthropologists, repulsed and probably fearful, would not consider staying for even a few more minutes. So, when we returned to Natchitoches, I got my own car and went back to A-Camp.

      I observed the A-Camp group for exactly one week: March 20, 1994 through March 27, 1994. I was there when they broke camp and left Natchitoches Parish, most likely never to return.

      My ethnography of A-Camp has at least one problem: it is based almost entirely on my memory. But that memory of A-Camp is vivid. I did not take field notes due to the problem of gaining the trust of the group. That problem of trust was aggravated by the fact that glaring policemen and forest rangers were seldom more than a hundred yards away and often only a few feet away. It was extremely unnerving when a police or ranger vehicle would stop in the gravel road beside us and stay there for fifteen or twenty minutes while the occupants glared at us and never spoke. I say us because they directed some of those glares at me. But let me add that not all the officers and rangers did that; a few of them were friendly.

      I discovered that the Rainbow Family is a loosely-knit organization that holds family gatherings in national forests. There they commune with nature. A-Camp has an important function within that organization. The gathering, called the "village," is always several miles from the nearest road. A-Camp's function is to ensure that no alcohol or firearms reach the village and to guard the family's vehicles. Many "locals," the term they use for non-Rainbows, make the trek to the village, and A-Camp confiscates alcohol and removes firearms from them, by force, if necessary.

      In an article on page 1 of the March 24, 1994, Natchitoches Times, reporter Carolyn Roy wrote that A-Camp stood for "alcohol camp." It does not; it means "asshole camp."

      A hippie girl emerged from the peace and tranquility of the woods during my first afternoon at A-Camp and perfectly clarified that meaning. She glanced across the gravel road at the seemingly drunken chaos of A-Camp and screamed, "Assholes!"

      The comment bothered no one at A-Camp. As the girl walked toward her car, safe thanks to A-Camp, one of the members told me, "That's what the 'A' stands for 'cause that's what they call us."

      The "Assholes" call both sexes of the village family "Wing-Nuts," and they call the female sex "Buzz-Bunnies."

      The A-Camp group was all homeless people, and, with the exception of Joaquin, the black man with the dreadlocks, and his white wife, Leah, were homeless alcoholics. (I mention Leah's race mainly because I suspect her relationship with Joaquin caused some of the glares we received.) Joaquin and Leah were also the only members of the group with normal names, but I suspect the reality of those names. The group had seven core members although other people joined us for periods ranging from a few hours to as much as two days. The core group was there from the day I met them until the day they broke camp. That core group consisted of Joaquin, Leah, and five others: Papa Smurf, a man about fifty with long white hair and a bushy white beard; Crow Caller, a man about thirty-five with horribly rotten teeth and jagged scars all over his body; Fire Walker, a boy aged nineteen; Runaway, a man aged twenty-one and who had been with Joaquin at the window of my friend's van; and last but by no means least, Barely Normal, a man about thirty-five who seldom spoke, an emaciated man with flowing brown hair and eyes that never lost their glaze.

      The group had one other permanent member: a little fuzzy-haired dog belonging to Leah and named Moon Dog. To comply with Kisatchie National Forest's leash law, Moon Dog wore a collar made from a belt and a leash made of the dangling end of the belt to which was tied a short piece of string. The little dog wandered around camp, dragging his leash.

      They never mentioned their real names and I never asked. If they got in trouble with local police or Forest Rangers, "Tree-Pigs," they called the rangers, they changed their names. Papa Smurf, for example, was "Sarge" at the last Rainbow gathering. William Kephart and William Zeller noted the same trait among Gypsies:
The gadjo [a non-Gypsy] may find a John George, George John, Miller John, John Miller, Miller George, and George Miller. He may even find a Gypsy named Johnny John or Miller Miller. But he probably won't find the John George Miller he is looking for unless the man wants to be found. (Kephart and Zeller 1991, p. 104)

      Papa Smurf told me, "If a Tree-Pig walks up looking for Sarge, we ain't never heard of him."

      A-Camp had other ways to camouflage their identities. Fire Walker wore a floppy-brimmed black felt hat. "This ain't my hat," he informed me. "It's Runaway's. Two gatherings ago, he got in trouble and gave it to me. Cop walks up and says, 'Where's the guy with the floppy black hat?' I said, 'That's me.' He took me to the Tree-Pigs. 'He ain't the one we want,' they said."

      The group would probably admit to their alcoholism but not to their homelessness. Their home is with "Mother Earth and Father Sky," they told me. If they had alcoholic beverages, the alcoholic members of the group drank every waking moment. When they woke from sleep, they searched through cans and bottles, looking for one with a residual drop inside it. And all of their alcohol was furnished either directly or indirectly by locals. Many gawking locals idled their vehicles down the gravel road--just as did my friend's van--and Joaquin's thrust-out Magic Hat produced money and Runaway's prying hands produced beer and even whisky.

      Many locals visited the group at night to party and brought food and alcohol. A local brought out a huge pot of gumbo. Another local brought two gallons of moonshine whiskey. Another local brought five cases of beer.

      A-Camp has a semi-permanent home in a national forest in a nearby southern state. They camp there between Rainbow gatherings and engage in an illegal activity essential to their economic system: mining minerals, tiny quartz crystals. They remove the copper windings from electric motors they find in dumpsters, wrap the wire around the quartz crystals, making a pendant, and then trade the pendants. With money produced by trade or from the Magic Hat, they buy beer, tobacco, or gasoline for the three vehicles the group owns.

      A-Camp never buys food. What food the locals do not provide, the dumpsters behind local restaurants and grocery stores do provide. The cartons of eggs I mentioned earlier plus a box of assorted and dented canned food came from a dumpster behind Winn-Dixie in Natchitoches. A twenty-five-pound sack of rice came from a dumpster behind another grocery store in Natchitoches. Some of those commercial establishments help A-Camp, and some do not. Crow Caller explained the help: "There was a pizza place in a town near a gathering. They saw us in their dumpster, so they started putting their old pizzas outside the back door so we wouldn't have to dig through the trash for them."

      Crow Caller then explained the hindrance of businesses and both hindrance and help from policemen: "There was a fried chicken place in the same town. It was me, Leah, and Moon Dog. I was in the dumpster. Man, it was full of chicken. They called the cops. Up drove this young cop with his siren and lights going. Scared Moon Dog. Out jumped the cop and out came his pistol. He got behind his door and pointed his pistol at us and yelled, 'Freeze!' That pistol was cocked and the barrel was shaking. I said, 'Man, we ain't stealing nothing but trash.' He looked at me and I thought he was gonna shoot me. Man, I could tell he wanted to shoot me. Up drove an old cop with his siren and lights going. He got out and looked at me and Leah and Moon Dog. Then he looked at that young cop and said, 'Put that goddamned pistol away!' Then he told that young cop to git his ass out of there. Then he leaned back on his car. He was shaking. He gave me ten bucks and told me to git out of the dumpster and go inside and buy me some damned chicken."

      Papa Smurf related another incident of help: "I was sleeping under a bridge on the interstate. Went up on the interstate and started hitching. Here come a cop: 'You can't hitchhike on the interstate.' I went back down under the bridge. About dark, I went back up on the interstate. Here come the same cop: 'You get back on this interstate, an' I'm taking you to jail.' I spent the night under the bridge. At daylight I went back up on the interstate. Figured that cop was sound asleep. Here come a cop-car and damned if it ain't the same cop. So I say, 'F--- it,' and think, Three hots an' a cot [three hot meals and a bed].

      When that car stopped, I jerked open the back door, threw my bag inside, and jumped in after it and said, 'Take me to jail.'

      'Buddy,' he said, 'I don't want to take you to jail.' He took me about ten miles out of town to a truck-stop and gave me five dollars to buy something to eat. I went behind the truck-stop [to the dumpster] and found a sack of hamburgers. Ate for two days."

      Crow Caller has no fear of having to spend more that a few days in jail. He showed me the scars beneath his hair and tapped the top of his head with his knuckles. "All that," he said, tapping, "is a steel plate." He then pulled up his pant's legs and showed me the maze of scars on his legs. "An' all that," he said, meaning his legs, "is held together with steel pins and screws. They don't want no doctor lookin' at me." Then he grinned widely and showed me his grotesque teeth. "An' they'd have to fix my teeth."

      Joaquin performs a simple maneuver that keeps him from reaching a jail. He, of course, does not have lice, but while sitting in the back of a patrol-car taking him to jail, he starts scratching his scalp beneath his dirty dreadlocks. Then he scratches under his arms. He told me, "They slam that car to a stop, jerk open the door, and say, 'Get outta my car!'"

      Our cultural means of punishment, jail, holds little fear to A-Camp, the anomie culture. Jail to them is a place to dry-out their alcoholism, a place to receive free medical attention and plentiful food, and a place to rest. The only punishment they fear is from their own culture. My last afternoon with them and their last afternoon in Natchitoches Parish, we were sitting around the smouldering fire and I heard an example of what they consider anomia worthy of punishment. I should note that their concept of anomia worthy of punishment is one that affects the group, not the individual.

      A-Camp would leave at dusk. To minimize the possibility of the entire group's arrest, they would leave in three vehicles at three different times, head in three different directions, and eventually regroup at their mine. All would pass through Shreveport on different nights. With a stick, Papa Smurf drew a map of Shreveport in the sand beside the gravel road. Then, with the help of the memory of everyone in A-Camp, they named streets and major intersections, pointed out police stations and heavily patrolled areas, and located and named restaurants and grocery stores with the possibilities of dumpsters filled with food. Then they pointed out productive places to stand and hold up a sign reading: Will Work For Food.

      Papa Smurf pointed his stick to a particular intersection and said, "[Someone] collected sixty bucks in an hour at this intersection."

      A thought struck me. I asked, "Papa Smurf, what happens if somebody offers y'all a job? Mowing a yard or something."

      "We take it," he informed me. "If we find out somebody offered one of us a job and he didn't take it, we whip his ass. We beat the shit out of him."

      It seemed to me that the actions of one individual in not taking an offered job would lower the effectiveness of the sign and, therefore, harm an important component of the group's economic system.

      Discipline and control of the A-Camp group resided in Papa Smurf, possibly because of his age, but more than likely because of his authoritative manner due, I believe, to his military background, which I will explain later. He exuded leadership, and even I felt confidence in him. All conversations with police and rangers began with Papa Smurf. All money produced by the Magic Hat went in his pocket. Around the fire, his seat of authority was an overturned and broken plastic ice-chest. One afternoon, Runaway and Fire Walker engaged in a youthful and drunken wrestling match. While they playfully tried to roll each other into the fire, their boots kicked ashes and embers on the rest of us. Papa Smurf simply stated, "Boys, you don't want me to get up from this ice-chest."

      The wrestling match immediately ended.

      But I observed an even more vivid example of his control of the group and of the group's self-control. It was an early afternoon, and A-Camp had been out of beer for several hours. Few locals had idled down the gravel road, so the Magic Hat had produced very little money and the prying arm had produced no beer at all. A-Camp's situation, at least to the alcoholic members, was getting desperate. I saw that desperation and dropped about two dollars in change into the Magic Hat. The nearest package-store was about fifteen miles away and I volunteered to drive them for two reasons: 1) they could drive their vehicles only at night because all three vehicles had expired license-plates, inspection-stickers, or both; and 2) none of their three vehicles contained enough gasoline to get to the package-store and back to camp.

      And, so, three of them loaded into my car and off I drove. Crow Caller sat beside me in the passenger seat, and Barely Normal and Papa Smurf sat in the back seat. Their mood had much improved; we laughed and joked all the way to the package-store.

      I had to contribute another dollar to allow the purchase of a 12-pack of beer. I found it amusing that, while they would drink whatever brand of beer a local's ice-chest contained, they had a lively discussion over the brand to purchase with their own money. They finally settled on a brand and we left.

      A strange thing then happened. About a mile from the store, I noticed an unusual quietness inside the car. My passengers stared straight ahead at the road. I glanced back and saw Papa Smurf sitting still and quiet with the 12-pack of beer resting on his knees. They had been several hours without alcohol, and, having an addiction myself, nicotine, I could imagine how badly they wanted a beer. And they had 12 cold cans of beer within reach and probably, in their imaginations, calling out to them.

      I said, "Hey, guys, I don't care if you drink beer in my car."

      But they said and continued to say absolutely nothing. The drive back to camp was long to me and must have seemed an eternity to them. I could not understand their unusual silence, and I was amazed at their self-control. At camp, I discovered the reason for that self-control: group needs had precedence over individual needs.

      Papa Smurf quickly sat on his ice-chest, the 12-pack between his legs, and doled out the beer in exactly equal portions to all alcoholic members of A-Camp. No member got even one swallow more than another member. I found that fact truly amazing.

      I also found the A-Camp culture's totally non-taxpayer-funded economic system amazing. At the top of that system is their mining and pendant-making operation which provides the culture with money for beer, tobacco, and gasoline and which are also often traded for those three items. They see the quartz crystals as provided by Mother Earth. The National Forest Service would surely see the mining of those tiny crystals as against federal law.

      The Will-Work-For-Food sign and the Magic Hat both provide the culture with money for beer, tobacco, and gasoline. One might could say that the donation of that money is a voluntary tax. Emile Durkheim-sociologists would probably say that the donation and the very sight of the A-Camp culture group prevents the erosion of society's collective conscience, gives us a necessary sense of right, us, and wrong, them. James Spradley-anthropologists would probably say that the donation and the sight simply reaffirms our middle-class values.

      Dumpsters and donations by locals at Rainbow gatherings provide the A-Camp culture with all the food they eat. I see the donations as voluntary taxes and reaffirmation of values. I see the removal of edible food from dumpsters as a public--societal--service. It costs public money to transport dumpster contents to a landfill. It costs public money to operate a landfill.

      The A-Camp culture group could not exist without the Rainbow Family. The Rainbow Family gives A-Camp a sense of belonging to something larger, a society, so to speak. It reaffirms their very existence as a group needed by a larger society. It reaffirms their choice of an outdoor home on Mother Earth beneath Father Sky. It justifies what economists would probably see as A-Camp's occupation, mining of crystals and manufacture of pendants, and it gives them a ready market for those pendants.

      The Rainbow Family gatherings bring out hundreds of locals to gawk at hippies and to even join the hippies. I suspect few locals make the long drive to a gathering in order to gawk at drunks. (As a side note, I recognized many of the "hippies" making the trek to and from the village as fellow students at Northwestern State University.) Those locals provide A-Camp with money, food, and alcohol. I observed that as the gathering slowly ended and the number of hippies declined, the number of locals idling down our gravel road and partying with us at night declined in a direct proportion. So did the number of police and rangers watching A-Camp.

      I was able to discover the possible circumstances leading to the homelessness of three of A-Camp's members: Runaway, Fire Walker, and Papa Smurf.

      Runaway was once a local with a job he disliked and a home. He came to a Rainbow gathering, liked A-Camp, and stayed, hence his name.

      Fire Walker came from a home broken by divorce. Fire Walker could not get along with either his father or his mother's new husband. At a gathering, he found A-Camp.

      Papa Smurf had a home with the United States Marine Corps. One afternoon, I remembered him telling me he was named Sarge at the last Rainbow gathering. I asked, "Papa Smurf, were you in the military?"

      He did not look at me when he answered, "I spent twelve years in the marines."

      I said, "Damn, Papa Smurf, you could have stayed in eight more years and retired. Why'd you get out?"

      He still did not look at me and answered, "I spent two tours in Vietnam. They told me if I re-upped, I'd have to go back."

      I asked him no more questions about his background.

      My last day with them, Sunday, March 27, was like no other day at A-Camp. It was somber, somewhat sober, subdued. It was the afternoon of that day when we made our trip to the package-store. The Rainbow gathering had ended, actually several days earlier, and the hippies had trickled out of the woods and left. About an hour before dark, the last policeman watching us left and, soon, so did the last ranger. We were alone in the forest. A-Camp loaded up their vehicles. Papa Smurf then drew his map in the sand. Then we waited. They wanted to know why I would not go with them and could not understand the reasons I gave. They passed around a roll-your-own cigarette filled with Bugler menthol tobacco, silently smoked, and watched the setting sun.

      Without a word of goodby, Barely Normal suddenly ambled toward his rattletrap car and soon sped away in a cloud of dust.

      About fifteen minutes later, Runaway and Crow Caller left in Runaway's pickup. Just at dark, Joaquin, Leah, and Moon Dog left in Fire Walker's pickup. Fire Walker and I waited a few minutes and left in my car. Fire Walker, it seemed, wanted to stay in Natchitoches for a few days. Therein lies a happy ending to this ethnography, this story.

      I let Fire Walker stay with me for several days, letting him sleep on my couch after almost having to force him to bathe. I washed his few articles of clothing and gave him food every chance I got. Sometime during those several days, Crow Caller called collect. A-Camp made it to their base-camp, their mine. Fire Walker would join them later, he told Crow Caller.

      But Fire Walker's welcome at my home ran out when I ran out of money to buy him beer. After that, he found a home at Northwestern State University--without the knowledge or permission of the university. He stayed in an empty room in Rapides Dormitory for a week and even attended several classes with myself and other students. One afternoon, after my last class of the day, I reached my car and found Fire Walker asleep in nearby grass. I woke him. "I'm ready to go home," he told me. "To my mother."

      He called his mother, and she wired him a hundred dollars for a bus ticket. I took him to the bus station in Natchitoches. The last time I saw him, he was walking toward the entrance to the bus station, the beat-up suitcase he used for a backpack hanging from his bony shoulders by rope straps. In my mind, I suspected, no, I almost knew, that as soon as I drove away, he would walk out to the highway and hitchhike to his A-Camp friends.

      But Fire Walker broke the cultural bounds of A-Camp and homelessness. A few months ago, he called me. He was alcohol-free, living and working with his mother and attending trade school.

      As for me, I will never stop wondering what happened to Papa Smurf, Crow Caller, Barely Normal, Runaway, Joaquin, Leah, and even Moon Dog. May Mother Earth and Father Sky protect them and break the chains of homelessness that bind them.


      I safely conclude that A-Camp fits our and Robert Merton's definition of anomia. There is a large disparity between our--society's--goals and means and A-Camp's goals and means. My friends in the van saw A-Camp as anomia. The policeman that wanted to shoot Crow Caller for stealing trash saw him as anomia worth killing. The policemen and rangers that stopped beside us in the gravel road saw us as anomia. But wait. They saw us as anomia.

      They saw me as part of an anomia culture simply because I was with that culture. On the campus of Northwestern State University, they would have seen me as just another student with goals and means similar to theirs, a productive member of society. But like Richard Gibson's homeless man who provided food and money to his friends in the shelter, the A-Camp members are productive members of a society--their society, their culture. Anomia, it seems, is in the cultural eye of the beholder.

      Now, fellow anthropologists, I would like to pose some questions: Are homeless groups like A-Camp an anomaly or part of a much larger phenomenon hidden deep inside national forests?

      In woods about fifty miles from this writer's home and belonging to a timber company, a homeless Vietnam veteran lives in a tent. He survived this past cold winter by means of a campfire and by sleeping in that tent with several large dogs. Is he an anomaly or do the privately-owned woods of this nation contain many men like him?

      I suspect that both A-Camp and the veteran are the tip of a large and hidden phenomenon, a phenomenon in dire need of further study. But who will study them? Most anthropologists study only dead people, and most of the few anthropologists who study living people spend their time with Native Americans and with exotic third-world cultures. Is A-Camp less exotic than the Dobe !Kung? What happened to cultural anthropology since the death of James Spradley?

      A search of the scholarly literature on homelessness will reveal hundreds, even thousands, of articles and books on homelessness written by psychologists, sociologists and medical doctors, etc., etc. A search of the ethnographic literature on homelessness will reveal only a handful of articles and books written by anthropologists.

      Like my fellow student-anthropologists I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, do we fear homeless groups like A-Camp? Do they repulse us? Why then do we not feel fear and repulsion for exotic third-world cultures? Or do we fear the diseases of the homeless?

      James Wright, in "Poor People, Poor Health: The Health Status of the Homeless," states that "the illnesses [of the homeless in general] threaten not only their own health but affect the public health as well" (58). Wright estimates that "the rate of tuberculosis among [the homeless in general] is at least 25 times higher, and possibly several hundreds of times higher, than the urban population in general" (59).

      I now pose my last question: Is the rate of tuberculosis among Wright's urban homeless and Spradley's urban nomads less or more than the rate of tuberculosis among groups like my rural nomads? Someone should answer that question.

      If the answer is, as I suspect, Yes, the rate is much lower among rural nomads, then the forest service should leave groups like A-Camp in peace--to the betterment of their health and the health of us all.

      In conclusion, let us remember that homelessness, like anomia, has a cultural definition. And if the reader passes a ragged and filthy group of people holding a sign that reads, Will Work For Food, hand them some change and reaffirm your middle-class values.

For more on the Rainbow Family, visit their unofficial web site at

You'll find much of that site devoted to the ongoing controversy between the Rainbow Family and the National Forest Service. The reader of this web page already knows what I observed during a week spent with A-Camp. Now, let me state my opinion:

During the Rainbow Family's brief visit to the Kisatchie National Forest in Natchitoches Parish Louisiana, I'll bet that the City of Natchitoches Police Department, the Natchitoches Parish Police Department, the Louisiana State Police, the National Forest Service and probably even the FBI and the CIA and the BIA wasted more than $200,000 of my and your tax money observing mostly Northwestern State University students skipping classes for a week.

That, my friend, is a dirty damned shame.


Babbie, Earl
1989 The Practice of Social Research. Wadsworth, Inc. Belmont.

Gibson, Richard
1991 "Broken Brothers and Breaking Stereotypes." Public Welfare, 49, 34-41.

Hilbert, Richard
1989 "Durkheim and Merton on Anomie: An Unexplored Contrast and Its Derivatives." Social Problems, 36, 242-250.

Kephart, William and William Zellner
1991 Extraordinary Groups. St. Martin, New York.

Roy, Carolyn
1994 "Lost in the sixties?" The Natchitoches Times. March, 24, 1-A.

Spradley, James
1970 You Owe Yourself a Drunk: An Ethnography of Urban Nomads. Little, Boston.

Wright, James
1990 "Poor People, Poor Health: The Health Status of the Homeless." Journal of Social Issues, 46, 49-64.

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