Home is where the heart is
Former Detroiter recalls the path to homelessness in new documentary
Detroit native Robert Rabbit Barringer
lived a carefree life, residing in the one place he figured no one
would bother him: a closed landfill on the edge of San Francisco,
with a scenic view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
This landfill stands as a brooding monument
to obsolescence. What could be a more appropriate refuge for Americas
unused people? Here, they can be hidden away from a society which
regards them as a nuisance and an eyesore, Barringer says
in Bums Paradise, a short documentary about his journey from
college graduate to homeless man.
In honor of the films Michigan debut
at Detroit Docs, Barringer will return to his hometown this weekend,
to reunite with his family, whom he hasnt seen in 20 years.
After departing Detroit at age 16, Barringer traveled, eventually
settling in the Bay Area. He was accepted at the University of California,
Berkeley, where he graduated in 1975, with a bachelors degree
in painting and a minor in art history. He married and worked as
a graphic artist and picture framer for 16 years. However, his luck
took a sharp turn downward when he divorced, lost his job and was
evicted from his apartment.
Barringer says his lack of credit and San Franciscos notoriously
exorbitant rents meant he couldnt find another apartment.
I took out a loan in college, paid it off in a couple of years,
Barringer said in a telephone interview. I couldnt keep
up with the rents. Expenses went up. I couldnt hang on.
However, instead of despair, Barringer found personal freedom within
a community of homeless on the Albany Landfill.
I didnt go to pursue another job, no unemployment,
he says. Im really having a good time. Its incredibly
easy, a sense of community. The people here are disassociated from
regular society. They have physical and mental disabilities.
Barringer lived on the landfill known as the Bulb
for six years, until the encampment was forced out in 1999, when
the property was slated for development into a state park. His attempt
to rejoin society was unsuccessful.
I tried to get off the street, Barringer says. Its
really kind of different. Each program [available to help] has its
own criteria. I wasnt able to fit in.
San Franciscan Tomas McCabe is the producer and co-director of the
Robert spent two days to get into a shelter, spent six hours
there, then they kick you out, McCabe says. Its
almost impossible to get off the street with no disabilities. Its
really a bummer.
McCabe was inspired to film a documentary on the Bulb community
after reading an article about the landfills residents and
their impending eviction.
McCabe met Barringer on a visit to the Bulb. He and co-director
Andrei Rozen shot the landfill residents for five months; they also
gave Barringer a camera, to capture the essence of the community
from an insiders point of view.
Barringer hadnt spoken to his family since becoming homeless,
because he was embarrassed about his situation, he says. The documentary
inspired him to regain contact with his loved ones.
Its very exciting, I didnt think Id ever
get back to Michigan, Barringer says of his return. Theyre
planning a big family reunion on Friday. Im getting e-mail
from aunts and cousins. They were flabbergasted and excited to hear
from me, glad to know I am doing well.
Barringer says the Bulb is somewhat similar to Belle Isle, where
many of Detroits homeless stay. I loved the fishing
and wilderness on Belle Isle. [But the landfill] is total wilderness,
out in the bush, close to an urban setting. I have no income, no
welfare, no disability.
The project to turn the landfill into a park is on hold, and Barringer
is still living at the Bulb. He now conducts tours of the artworks
created by the residents and drifters, and hosts overnight camping
tours on the landfill. He describes himself as a kind of groundskeeper,
and is responsible for some of the landscaping.
Still, its impossible to escape the hard reality of life without
Eric lives in his car on the waterfront, Barringer says
of his neighbor. Hes a loner and a drinker. He looked
ill, skin was dry, stomach distended, eyes glassy. He had lymphoma.
I drove him to emergency. He had a zero white blood count. They
stabilized him and let him go after 10 days. I kept watch on him
through the winter. He lived, but over a dozen have left this earth.
See Bums Paradise on Saturday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. at Wayne
State Universitys General Lectures Auditorium, Room 100, 5045
Anthony Wayne Dr., Detroit; 248-435-3792. On Sunday, Nov. 14, at
noon, Barringer and McCabe will conduct a workshop and discuss the
renegade tactics they used in the making of this documentary.
- Rhona Mays
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