Without much hope of gaining any more insight into the organization, I decided to head an hour east to a tent city in Athens that contained some of their structures. I had done a bit of research on this particular tent city, but the newspaper articles were few and far between.
Instead I talked with Frank Jeffers, a former president of the Mad Housers. As a resident of Athens, he was able to offer some local insight into, what he called, “camping out.”
Jeffers made it sound like a fairly common thing to do there and estimated that there were about 500 people spread throughout the city who were doing it. One of the reasons he offered for this being possible was a landscape feature that was distinct to the geographic location. This was the abundance of the Kudzu -- a plant brought to the South for the purpose of controlling erosion that also is effective for keeping people who are “camping out” out of site.
He informed me that the tent city where Lexington Highway crosses Perimeter-Route 10, the one I was interested in, had been there for about 20 to 30 years and usually had around 30 people staying there. Like the majority of unsanctioned tent cities today it was located on land owned by the department of transportation. While the camp does not have permission form the DOT to exist, the local police have allowed them to stay on the land. In fact, Jeffers added that they have been known to pick up homeless off the street and drop them off at the tent city.
After talking with Jeffers I decided to check the site out for myself. Like the two previous tent cities I had visited, I entered the site by finding a narrow trail leading into the woods near a highway interchange.Reaching the end of the trail, I found that it was the smallest one I had been to with only 5 tents and 7 Mad Houser structures. One of the first things I noticed was the presence of two port-o-pots near the back of the site, which I later found out were brought in by a church group.
Moving further into the woods I was thrown off guard by a dog that came charging out of one of the units that read "beware of dog!". Luckily he was tied to a chain. The camp seemed pretty empty and it appeared he was there to protect the camp while people were away.
There was only one person, Ethan, who was present in the camp at the time. He was staying in a tent rather than a mad houser unit because it provided better ventilation in the hot summers. Ethan had been living there for about three months after being released from the hospital and described the place as quiet and peaceful. I was told that many of the people that stay have some sort of housing available and usually split there time between the two places. Ethan felt these people still chose to stay there because there was "more freedom than traditional housing."
In the very back of the site I found that there was actually one other person there. He didn't talk much and didn't want me taking pictures. Looking at his space I could tell he had put a lot of time and effort into his shelter. It was made to protect him from his specific local environment, and further personalized with hanging pieces of art made from recycled materials. To me this demonstrated the potential for creative expression that comes with constructing your own shelter.