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Displaced Part II: Meet Mark Twiggs

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Flip-flops were a bad choice, I thought, as I followed Mark Twiggs, carefully inching down the steep berm to his camp on a sandy bank of the Ocmulgee River. My back to the river, I snapped a couple of photos of Mark’s camp and stumbled as I shifted my weight on the sand. “Careful,” he said. “I just pulled a drunk man out of the river; I don’t want to have to pull a sober one out now.” Mark elaborated, “He had to go to the bathroom, and the next thing we know, he’s falling in the river and hollering for help.”

Unlike other areas around the Ocmulgee that are clustered with tents of homeless people, Mark only has two neighbors. I ask him what it is like living here. Mark tells me it replenishes him. “You just kind of sit in your chair and watch the water go by,” he says, “and it kind of eases you for the whole day. You really think, ‘Lord, how’d you make all this water come out of the ground in a little bitty stream and turn it into a big river?’ It’s nice and comfortable.”

It is indeed nice and comfortable. He tells me this is his third or fourth tent. One was set on fire by a man Mark angered when Mark sat in the man’s seat. “He was very, very high on drugs,” Mark says. “He kept threatening to kill me. He said, ‘I know where you live. I’m going to burn your tent down.’ And he did.” His previous campsite was an abandoned tower beside the railroad tracks on 7th avenue. He says it was formerly used by the railroad to load sand and coal onto trains. Mark says that rats chewed holes through his tent there, which is why he moved to the river.

At one point, Mark made his home in this old tower.

Mark takes me to the tower and gives me a tour. We enter through a hole in the fence, and he takes me to a ground-level room in the tower where he stayed. It appears that other tenants have occupied Mark’s old room since he moved; he says he kept the room much neater when he lived there. “When it rained in the wrong direction, I’d get wet,” Mark explains, “so I just put a tent up inside it. And then the rats started eating a hole in the tent, started getting into the food and stuff, and then here come the ants, so it was time to go then.”

Hearing his stories of rats and ants, I wonder how Mark became homeless. He tells me he grew up here in Macon and had a happy childhood. His father was a successful contractor in town and Mark inherited his father’s building skills. In fact, Mark says, he built his own skateboard out of a wooden plank and a pair of old roller-skates when he was six-years-old.

However, Mark did not simply want to replicate what his father had done; Mark wanted to be a structural engineer. He attended Georgia College for two years before transferring to Georgia Technical College where he began studying engineering. Tragically, however, Mark’s dream of becoming a structural engineer ended when his father died of a sudden heart attack, and Mark returned to Macon. After his father’s passing, Mark remained in Macon, working in construction.

A few years later, it was while working on a construction site as a foreman one day that would forever change Mark’s life. He was on a rooftop when a crew member accidently pushed a bundle of panels into Mark. “I lost balance and fell,” Mark says. “I really wasn’t supposed to live that day, but I guess for some reason I’m still here.” Mark says he fell 30 feet and landed on his left side, injuring his shoulder, knee, and head. “I lost sight in my left eye,” Mark says. “I got a steel plate with plastic buttons holding Humpty Dumpty’s head together [laughs]. I lay in the hospital for about nine weeks.”

One year and three surgeries later, Mark returned to work, but his abilities would never be the same. He was 26 years old at the time. It also was during this time that he began experimenting with powder and crack cocaine. He believes his drug use was a major, if not the primary, reason for the ending of both of his marriages. Over the next several years, Mark worked many different jobs and, though he had periods of clean time—even years of clean time—his addiction worsened.

After Mark’s second marriage ended in 2008, he hit a low point. That same year, Mark was arrested and charged with a felony possession of drugs. “I had gone in the hood,” Mark explains, “and I thought everything was put up, but apparently . . . they said I didn’t turn my turn signal on at the correct time. I had one officer on each side of the truck, and the one on the passenger side saw it.” Mark was given probation but could never pass a drug test, so he went to jail multiple times over the next few years. Finally, Mark says, he went to rehab in southwest Georgia in 2012.

Mark has been clean for five years now. And while he has turned over a new leaf, his drug possession felony remains on his record, which, Mark says, has been a major barrier to finding gainful employment. In addition to his criminal record, Mark still faces some physical limitations from his fall. He tells me about losing a job as a maintenance man. He says, “I had a wreck, and they did a physical. And they said, ‘Well, you’re blind in your left eye!’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah. I told you.’ They said, ‘Oh, we can’t have that.’” Mark also cites his homelessness as a barrier to employment. “Where do I take a shower?” Mark asks. “I’d have to make enough money to stay in a motel where I’d have a place to take a shower and be clean. I don’t want to take a bath in the river.” Daybreak’s day center helps support Mark and others in homelessness with many of these issues.

While Mark faces many difficulties that have contributed to his homelessness over the past two years, he is not without hope. He cites his faith community as a source of personal strength. Mark is a member of Faithfulness Church of God in Christ, a small, Black Pentecostal congregation, which surprised me. Mark spent most of his life outside of the church, with the exception of the few years he attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church where he was confirmed as an adult. I am surprised because it seems Mark’s experience could not be any further removed from Faithfulness. After we leave the tower, Mark takes me next door to the church to meet his pastor.

I ask Mark how he came to be a part of that community. “[The church] was right across from the tower [where I used to stay],” Mark explains. “And this girl who was staying with me said, ‘Let’s go to church over there.’ We walk in and everybody’s eyes got kind of big like, ‘What are y’all doing here? Been friends with them for over a year now.” Of Mark’s first visit to the church, Elder Charles Spry, the minister at Faithfulness, says, “When I stopped praying and looked up, there he sat. And I said, ‘OK, Lord.’ We look for people to come in and we try to welcome people.” Elder Spry says the congregation might have been a little reluctant at first, but they turned to their pastor for guidance. “They look for me to set the pace,” Elder Spry explains, “so there was no problem welcoming Mark.”

Mark has been faithfully attending Faithfulness Church of God in Christ every Tuesday and Thursday night for close to two years now. “Everybody [at the church] gets to talk,” Mark explains, “and it makes you feel good.” Reflecting on Mark’s presence in the church, Elder Spry says, “We’ve just cemented a bond through the love of God, so it is all God’s doing. We have this message across the pulpit: ‘This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.’” Listening to and watching these two men interact, I am inclined to agree.

As I walk around the outside of the church with Mark and Elder Spry, Mark’s hands skim over the church building instinctively examining its soundness. He stops to observe a window frame; he tells his pastor what he will do to fix it. It is clear that one of the ways Mark cares for his church is by helping to maintain the building. It is also clear one of the ways the church cares for Mark is by helping him to maintain. Of how the church replenishes him, Mark smiles and simply says, “Its where I go to get my gospel in me.”

Daybreak is a day center in Macon, Georgia where men and women living in homelessness can escape the streets to a place that offers a warm welcome and the services they need to move toward lives of stability and dignity. Services offered include hygiene, education, employment, and healthcare. To learn more about Daybreak and how you can support it as a donor or volunteer visit: https://us.depaulcharity.org/depaul-home/our-work/programs/daybreak-center-macon-ga or call Gaye Martel at 478-955-4519

 

 

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