Using the support beams as a shelf, Sumner has collected a single-sized mattress, blankets and planks of plywood to form a lean-to, where he spends his nights, but he doesn’t go hungry.
He rises at around 5:30 a.m. each morning, rounds the corner to purchase a cup of coffee and a couple of beers from the corner store, and a man picks him up to offer him daily part-time work cleaning yards, painting, washing cars and other things.
When his day is done, and he returns to his outdoor residence, he prepares a dinner using a gas cookstove, a toaster or a crock pot to warm his food, if he so desires. The overpass is across the street from the Valdosta Human Resource Center, where he picks up food stamps and uses the toilets during the day (at night, when the doors are closed, is another story).
If food is scarce, he can get a bowl of soup from the Department of Labor that flanks the overpass on the eastside. And there is an electrical outlet in Olympic Park to the southwest where he can plug in his appliances.
When the nights are cold or windy, he hangs a blanket to seal his quarters from the elements, and he keeps his quarters clean. He uses bleach to strip the filth from the embankment that leads up to the eaves at about a 45-degree angle, and uses a rake he bought from the Dollar Store to clean trash out of the dirt and keep the ground neat.
All things considered, it would appear Sumner has this harsh lifestyle figured out. The one thing he hasn’t solved is how to find a full-time job.
Sumner is from Adel, but he worked in Florida for about 10 years. A DUI charge left him jobless, he said, and he has no family to rely on but one cousin who occasionally helps him out when times get even tougher. He needs money to go to “DUI school,” he said, so the state will allow him to drive again and hold a steady job.
In January, Sumner is scheduled to appear at the doctor’s office to have his teeth pulled. Gum disease from so many years of not brushing has ruined his mouth, he said.
Sumner is one of about 15 homeless individuals living under the James M, Beck Overpass. And while food donations are always welcome, he and others want not for sustenance, but need employment and a safe place to stay and sleep comfortably. For someone to be on their side when they genuinely call for help.
One of Sumner’s favorite people, for example, is the man at the corner store who welcomes him into the shop for coffee every morning.
“He doesn’t condemn me just because I’m homeless,” Sumner said. “I never do credit, but I can go right down there and get my coffee and a pack of cigarettes, and sometimes he just gives them to me.”
Sumner is the oldest of the group of permanents and transients taking residence near him. He doesn’t like dogs, because they bring fleas and defecate near where he sleeps, and he remains wary of some others who display violent behavior — those convicted of sexual assault, who have drug addictions or go on alcoholic binges.
Sumner drinks every day, but he keeps to himself, he said. He obeys city laws the best he can and encourages others to do the same.
“Life’s got to be lived right, even out here,” Sumner said. “I’ve got to live under your rules no matter where you are, and we have to live like that here.”
Sumner wants for nothing but a full-time job and an apartment — and maybe a portable toilet in the park to keep human waste to a minimum at night, when there is nowhere to go but in the dirt.
Others, however, are not as confident and thriving as Sumner.
Ben and Debbie Shipe, a husband and wife also out of work, struggle to adjust to the hard truth that they have become homeless. They have lived under the bridge for about a week.
“It kills you, having to live like this,” Debbie said. “Waking up at four in the morning having to fight rats off of you. We’re not used to living like this.”
Ben was assaulted Friday over food. Another man struck him over the head with a stick, Ben said, spilling the food over the ground and leaving Ben with an inch-long cut on his head. The man fled the scene on a bicycle, but the Valdosta citizen who was bringing the food followed him, reporting his location to the police.
Police arrested the man minutes later in the parking lot of the Church’s Chicken on Hill Avenue. Paramedics responded to Ben’s wounds.
Ben used to be a GS-7 level government worker, but his job was reduced to construction. He built at Florida State University until funding was cut and he lost his job, he said.
Debbie was hit by a car a year ago, which put her into a coma for two days. She has heavy scars on her knees from the accident, and said there are several stitches in her scalp.
Her injuries make life on the hard concrete difficult to endure, she said. Just having to climb the embankment to get up to their bed under the eaves is hard enough, and having only blankets as a cushion, she suffers through the night with the aches and pains brought on by the cold.
The one thing Debbie wants is a mattress to alleviate her pains. Ben needs a watch with an alarm so he can get up for work in the morning, he said.
“I’m tired of having to see her suffer,” Ben said of his wife, before the Friday incident. “She’s my driving force, and I’m not going to give up, no matter what the world does to us.”
Paul Borusch, another resident at the bridge, said incidents like the assault happen every day.
Borusch quit his job when his boss began taking more money out of his paycheck, he said. His home is back in Philadelphia, and he is stranded until he can raise enough money to “work his way back up to Pennsylvania,” he said.
His family has no money to pay for his travel expenses, especially during the holiday season. Borusch walked 23 miles from Jennings, Fla., to Valdosta Monday, leaving at 5 a.m. and arriving at 3 p.m.
“I will walk to Pennsylvania if I have to,” Borusch said. “God will provide.”
Faith is a common theme under the bridge.
“This is God’s trial,” Ben said. “It’s OK; we will overcome. We just have to stay positive.”