With factors such as Interstate-10, Big Bend National Park, and various highways converging, the city of Fort Stockton brings in a lot of travelers. We see many unfamiliar faces that are passing through on vacation, maybe stopping to visit our landmarks, but what about the recurring faces behind cardboard signs? Many hitchhikers come back to Fort Stockton, and some of them you might even know on a first-name basis.
There are a lot of mixed emotions toward the homeless community and various perceptions of what is actually considered a “homeless person.” A traveler named Ralph, who goes by the street name “Chief,” has been wandering for 40 years now. He returns to Fort Stockton every year and has become acquainted with many Fort Stockton residents.
Ralph opened up about how things work when you are living out of a backpack:
“I just got back into town; the longest place I stay is actually Fort Stockton. I like this place. The weather is not bad, and the people are pretty friendly. I consider myself a tramp; I just tramp from town to town. I am homeless, but that’s because I don’t stay in one place long enough to get a home. I’m a U.S. veteran; I served in the army from ’72 to ’75. The war really did a number on me. When I got out of the service, I almost killed my wife in my sleep because I was suffering with horrible night terrors. The VA told me ‘Just drink some booze and get some sleep,” and I told them ‘That’s my problem—I can’t sleep!’ But at that time, the VA didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was. After the service, I was laid off from my job and then went through a divorce. I fell into a deep depression, and all I did was smoke weed and eat Cheetos. I gained a lot of weight, and I wasn’t taking very good care of myself. The doctor told me I wouldn’t last two more years. All of the night terrors, health issues and depression led me to hit the road. I lost 60 pounds becoming a tramp, and I’m still alive today.”
The seasoned drifter turned the conversation to the homeless community at-large and addressed the ongoing discriminations and swindlers:
“There’s a lot of discrimination against us tramps. We’re everywhere; so people might as well know about it. There’s a traveling culture. We are homeless, but there are different crowds of us. There’s the homeless bums who just stay in one spot and are not hitchhiking. They are the ones who are down and out, and they are out living on the streets because of bad circumstances. There are the tramps like me; some call us travelers. Then there are the hobos who ride trains town to town and work, just like the old cartoon hobos with the sticks and handkerchiefs. There are also the hippies who are called Rainbow Family. Rainbow Family are travelers like us tramps. They ride hippie buses or hitch rides. Rainbow Family sometimes play music or make jewelry to make their money. They believe that everybody is God’s children and they love to help others. Rainbow is good people. Unfortunately, there are the scammers out there who give all of us a bad name. The scams have houses, money, and they are imposters. There was one year that I came out to Fort Stockton that the Sagebrush Cafe allowed me to wash dishes for them to make a little money. There was an employee there who showed me a video of a couple begging for money here. In the video it showed them jumping inside a brand new car at the end of the day. It was a brand spankin’ new car, and it still had the sticker on the back window (shakes his head). This is why people have a bad impression of us. They put all of us in the same category as the scammers and alcoholics. People are scared to hand us money because of the alcoholics who will sit on the corner, make six bucks, and then go straight to buy some liquor. People see it. It’s true that there are some bad people out here, but you would be blown away by how many good people are out here too. There was one lady traveling back home with her little boy, and she got a flat tire. Five of us homeless people dug into our pockets and helped them out. There was one tramp with us who said ‘Give me an hour.’ He went to fly his sign on the corner and came back with $40. We put up every penny we made combined to buy her a new tire, feed her son and fill up her gas tank. One of the best Thanksgivings I’ve ever had was actually with eight tramps. We served hot dogs with chili and chips. Everyone was together because of love, and that’s why it was the best one ever.”