Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Homeless Advocate, thy name is Eric Sheptock!"

Finally finished my final paper for my Journalism of Identity class. It's due later today. It was supposed to be 1400-1600 words on someone else other than myself. I chose a wonderfully bright and funny young man who happens to be homeless and living in D.C. His name is Eric Sheptock.

There are so many intriguing layers to this guy! With only a high school education, he has managed to become an expert on the homeless situation in Washington, DC. With a mind like a steel trap, he can quote homeless facts and figures, dates and places and of course, the many names and titles associated with the numerous non-profit and governmental agencies with whom he has dealt. He has it all in his head! Amazing I tell you, just amazing!

After hanging out with him over time, I realized there was no way possible I could write his story in 1400-1600 words! Here is Part I:
“Um, excuse me Ma’am? I’m sorry, we need the chairs.”

Confused, I looked up into the smiling, pecan-tanned face of the young Cosi cashier, who it seemed, had just rung our sandwiches up an hour or so ago inside.

“We’re closing now and we have to put the chairs away” she said softly, motioning toward the other chairs already stacked near the door leading into the restaurant. Rattled, my eyes quickly darted to the apparently, long-empty tables around us. As I looked toward the sky, I noticed the sun had become low, and fat, and warmly orange as it began its slow descent toward the horizon. The bright sunshine, that had forced me to fish my sunglasses from my purse when we first sat down, had waned and there was a slight chill in the air.

Initially suspecting I was having a senior moment, I stood to surrender my now-warmed seat as I asked the cashier, “Is it really that late?”
She laughed out loud this time, revealing twin rows of perfectly white teeth as she said, “Yes Ma’am, it is!”

It was then that I realized, I’d been sitting on their patio near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown for well over four hours - talking to Eric Sheptock, homeless advocate extraordinaire.

I’d been trying to decide who the topic of my final Journalism of Identity paper would be for some time. Meeting Eric that first Sunday in April was one of those, all-the-planets-aligning kind of things one never expects to happen, but certainly welcomes when it does.

A Washington Post story last month, about the increased use of cell phones and computers by many of the District’s estimated 14,537 homeless people, linked to a blog, “On the Clock with Eric Sheptock,” hosted at Streats.tv. Following the link, I discovered some of the most informative, often hilarious accounts of homelessness and homeless advocacy I’d ever read. The self-described, “Homeless Advocate, G.A.B. (Government Agitating Bigmouth),” dishes out a true, Man on the Street (no pun intended) style of advocacy that kept me up all night reading each post -- from first, to last.

At the end of the last post, surprisingly, I read, “Finally, I was quite impressed to find out that a certain young lady named Meghan who attends Georgetown U. has been following my blog for 2 months and has read ALL OF MY BLOG POSTS. Gotta love her. She's definitely interested in the issue of homelessness.”

A smart, unassuming young lady in her twenties, Meghan and I were taking our second class together. Thinking this was no coincidence, I ended my rather lengthy comment to Eric’s post writing, “And this must be your week for Georgetown students! Though we'd never discussed this before, I am a graduate student there as well and get this - Meghan is in one of my classes!!! I'll have to tell her you gave her a nod here on the post.”

The next day in class, I told Meghan about her shout-out. Smiling, she shared she’d actually spoken to Eric several times for a project in another of her classes this semester. Delighted, I asked if she could introduce us because I was kicking around the idea of homelessness in D.C. as a topic for two final projects as well. She said she’d contact him and let me know.

After a flurry of emails between the three of us over the course of two days, the date was set, Sunday at 3 p.m. at the entrance of the MLK library.

As I entered the glass doors, I saw Meghan sitting in the lobby with a slender, goateed Black man of about 35 or so with a baseball cap turned backward on his head, wearing a T-shirt partially covered by a hoodie, jeans and sneakers. He could have been any of the many young men one sees walking the streets of the city. As Meghan made the introductions, I looked into the doe-like brown eyes of a clean-shaven and, contrary to what folk project about the homeless -- clean-smelling Eric Sheptock.

An unseasonably warm and beautiful day, we took our conversation outside to Cosi’s restaurant where we could enjoy the sun and talk freely. After about 15-20 minutes in “getting to know you” chat, Meghan stood up, saying she was leaving so Eric and I could talk, but not before taking some pictures of the three of us together. She hugged us both goodbye and headed for the Metro.

As I turned to Eric, I only got a chance to say, “So,…” before he launched into his advocacy-speak. I interrupted, telling him I’d gotten how vociferous an advocate he was for the homeless from the blog and from Meghan, but for right now, I just wanted to know more about Eric and how he became the homeless guy.

Having to talk about himself seemed to throw him for a loop - at first. Searching for a place to begin he said, “A lot of people think all homeless people are drug addicts and that’s why they’re homeless. Actually, particularly for me, it’s the other way around. I became addicted to crack cocaine after having become homeless.”

As it turns out, young Eric Sheptock had lived a pretty good life as a foster child - after a decidedly rocky beginning that is. At six years-old, his adopted-mom told him the story of young Eric Gooden, born on March 15, 1969 to two young parents unfit to raise him. After having been found alone and near-death in an Atlantic City, New Jersey hotel room with his head bashed in and covered in blood, he was put into the foster care system - at eight months old.

Removing his baseball cap and leaning over to show me the deep, disfiguring scars on the back of his head, he said matter-of-factly, “Since I was obviously a baby, I don’t really remember much about it, but my foster-mom told me what happened. She said I had three craniotomies as a result.”

Temporarily placed with an elderly Black woman whose husband was very ill and in a nursing home, Eric doesn’t remember a whole lot about the time he spent with her, but says he was happy there.

“I was an only child and she was kind of old, but I do remember us talking a lot. I remember her taking me to Atlanta to visit an “Aunt Joanie” and I remember an “Aunt Rose” who lived in New York.”

He would stay with his foster-mom until he was five years-old. By that time, her husband had died and she was frantically trying to get him legally adopted before she died too. She was successful. By the time he was five years old, young Eric Gooden had legally become Eric Jonathan Sheptock (“I got to choose my middle name for myself,” he told me proudly). And a new life, with a new family began in Chester, New Jersey.

Joanne and Rudy Sheptock, were white, God-fearing Pentecostal Christians with seven children of their own and three adopted children, which now included Eric. They lived for a year in Chester, then Rudy, Eric’s favorite parent, moved them all to Peapack, New Jersey where he was the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds for four schools in the borough of Mountain Lakes.

Their new home had been the library of the convalescent hospital. Sitting on five acres of land surrounded by woods, the three-story mansion with 13 bedrooms, seven bathrooms, two dining rooms, a library and an above-ground pool with a barn and corral, provided plenty of room for the growing Sheptock family. They would live there for 10 years until the family moved to Interlachen, Florida in March of 1985. "By the time we moved to Peapack in 1975, my parents had adopted a lot more kids!. When I graduated high school in June of 1987, they had a combined total of 28 - but some of us had started to move out by then.”

Rudy Sheptock was the family disciplinarian. At 6’1” and 220 pounds, he was an imposing, but always honest and fair figure to Eric and his siblings. Joanne on the other hand, was not seen in the same light. As a matter of fact, Eric has not spoken to her since he left home in 1985. And the feelings seem mutual -- he learned of his beloved father’s death on September 13, 2000 from an old supervisor of his in Florida.

Stay tuned for Part II - “From Happy to Homeless.”

2 comments:

ea said...

I just now saw this post. Years ago I used to work with the homeless. All shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and backgrounds--that is was I found.

This piece seems like a cross between human interest and investigative. Do you have a preference?

Deb said...

Both! Are you sure you're not my half sister or something ea? :-)

I am going somewhere investigative on this - which is why I couldn't possibly do it in one paper of 1400-1600 words. I learned a lot about homelessness in the nation's capital and I want to show that, but I had to show Eric first in order to put what I learned into perspective. The instructor - again - was not very helpful in teaching that, so I'm winging it here. Very interesting story if I do say so myself! :-) It puts the hypocrisy of it all in one place for me. Stay tuned!!

You can click on the link to "On the Clock with Eric Sheptock" in the sidebar to get an idea of who this young man is. He is, IMHO, an incredibly amazing human being.

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