A survivor: At Jim Petway's camp, paying dues and hoping for permanence

Today is dues day for Jim Petway. He plans to take the bus—"I call it my chauffeured limousine," he says—to the carpenter's union hall on Patapsco Avenue and pay his $47 quarterly membership.

Union carpenters earn $26.25 an hour, Petway says. He worked a few hours on Friday last week for Local 31, which he says he has belonged to for three decades. Today he says he turned down a job in order to talk to City Paper about his campsite near Port Covington. Petway has lived here, he says, for almost four years.

"As you can see," Petway says, "I'm not your stereotypical homeless guy."

Crisply dressed, Petway leads a reporter and two photographers down a packed trail to a compound with two nice tents. His effects are in order, boots and shoes lined up neatly behind the tent pitched atop a platform he built with marine plywood that cost him $40 per sheet. Two paper-towel racks hang on a chain-link fence, sheltered from the rain. Gallons of water are stacked in milk crates. "I shower every day," Petway says, and he doesn't just mean every summer day. "You'd be surprised what you learn to adjust to. I've actually taken a shower out here in 40-degree weather."

Two enormous tarps, draped over a steel pole strung 15 feet up across several trees, shade the two tents and the rest of the compound, which is also screened from the trail by smaller camouflage tarps. "I put this wall up for the wind," he says, "and because I want some privacy."

The result is a cozy but capacious outdoor room, which would be utterly charming but for the mosquitoes that alight to suck the blood from every inch of exposed skin. A half-dozen citronella candles discourage them minimally. Petway supplements those with a DEET-free repellent. "I'm a naturalist," he says.

As homeless encampments go, this place is first class. But it is still a campsite. It lacks running water. There is no heat. Petway says he has a sleeping bag rated for 10 degrees Fahrenheit. He plans to get a better one before the snow flies.

Before Petway was homeless, he says, he lived in Bel Air in a basement apartment. He says he did yard work in exchange for slightly cheaper rent, but had a disagreement with the owner. "Then I rented a garage for a couple of years."

After that Petway found himself in a homeless encampment on the Gwynns Falls Trail, "with the Mexicans." He says he moved here a while before that camp was broken up by police in 2012.

Petway says that for three years he lived on the other side of the fence, on property owned by The Baltimore Sun. Then one day this past January the security guy told Petway he had two days to move out. "He was a real gentleman about it," Petway says, so he moved to this side of the fence and started clearing brush for a new campsite.

Right after he moved, Petway found out why he was asked to vacate. "President Obama landed on the other side of the field," he says. "Three helicopters, his motorcade, all the Suburbans that he had." Police and Secret Service told Petway he could keep his stuff, he says.

Lately, Petway is worried he'll be asked to move again with little notice. He says he's seen surveyors in the area, and outreach workers have told him that he's going to have to go. But he doesn't know when, or why. He does not know who owns the land he's squatting on. He knows that Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has bought up a big chunk of Port Covington, but does not know what development may be in the works: "Nobody tells me nothin'."

So Petway picks up a little union work, and a little side work, and he works to keep his campsite tidy.

"I don't cook back here," he says. "It draws the animals. There's raccoons back here, groundhogs, fox. I don't want 'em coming back here." So Petway eats at restaurants or, when money is low, at Beans and Bread, St. Vincent de Paul's center for the homeless, and other places like that.

Petway says he does not get food stamps. He does not get benefits from the Temporary Disability Assistance Program (TDAP). "I don't get anything," he says. "I work."

As a preteen, Petway worked in his father's body shop masking off cars. After high school he became a machinist for Black & Decker, he says, then joined the Air National Guard and did aircraft maintenance at Martin Airport, where Foxtrot flies from today. "Then I got introduced to show business," he says.

And by show business he means that he sets up stages and convention booths for $26.25 an hour, when the union calls.

When the union doesn't call, he tries to get work as "Around The House Handyman." But that's not easy.

Nearly three years ago Petway sold his 2000 Tacoma truck. It had 290,000 miles on it, he says. It got too expensive to keep.

Being a carpenter without a truck is tough. Petway says his son, Jeremy (who also goes by Jim), sometimes drives him to handyman jobs he picks up on the side. "I charge it to the job," he says. "I always tell the homeowner, you can save $50 if you drive me back."

His son confirms: "All the time, I'm like, Dad, you don't have to pay me. 'Well, I counted it in the whatchacallit.' It's like, whatever. I don't even argue with him anymore." When it got below zero last winter, he asked his father to come to his house in Essex. "He didn't want to come," he says. "He's pretty stubborn. He's set in his ways. He works hard, he just doesn't make enough money."

Petway says he was off work for pretty much all of August and July, and two weeks in September. Carpenters collect unemployment when they're not on the job. That can pay up to $430 a week—not bad. But not all that good either. And not knowing whether he'll have work or not makes it hard to commit to a rent payment of any significance. "The cost of living is way up here," he says, "and our income is way down here."

Petway says he came back to his compound one day and found cards strewn around from outreach workers, social workers, and such. "I don't think they can help me," he says. "I don't qualify for disability. I'm not 62, so I don't qualify for Social Security." Petway turned 61 in early August.

Petway helps himself. He shows a photographer his trash-can washing machine. He uses a plunger as an agitator.

"I was blessed with two parents that never drank or drugged," Petway says. "They taught me how to live in the world today—which my pastor said is going to hell in a hand basket."

It's a mostly solitary life, and that is how Petway likes it. "Tony and Pat come visit once in a while," he says. "Joe comes back once in a while." Their tents are off yonder, out of sight. They aren't there just now.

If you ask Petway what he hopes will happen, he cracks open a hidden compartment below his deck and pulls out a notebook, where he has written it down. Item one is an affordable place to live. He stresses that "affordable" has to be based on his definition—not the common one used by millionaire developers, which starts at half the area's median income. "I don't want to go over $400 a month," he says. Petway already pays $180 per month to rent a 10-by-20-foot storage shed, where he keeps his tools and other valuables. He says he has kept up these payments for years.

Number two on Petway's wish list is "financing or training to be a Vacants to Value property owner." He says he attended some classes in the city program, which aims to repurpose some of Baltimore's 16,000 vacant homes. But life intervened.

Number three on Petway's wish list: "Meet with Kevin Plank. Have him offer me a position with Under Armour." Petway thinks Plank's mega-development in these parts is the catalyst for what he believes is his pending eviction.

"I want to get my life back together and if I do have to move, I don't want it to be in two days like the last time. I feel like I have some rights here, because I've been here so long."

Petway says he knows that squatters' rights in Maryland are not so strong. But still—four years is a long time. He's working with the Homeless Persons Representation Project to learn more, he says. He hopes this story will help with that.

"I'm comfortable," Petway says. "But I need a place to live. That I can afford."

At the edge of Petway's campsite is a new, coffin-sized plastic cabinet with a 2-foot square solar panel jutting off the roof. The panel is rigged to a small car battery which is wired to a car socket. Petway plugs in a miniature AC/DC converter there, and plugs a long yellow extension cord into that, which runs to his tent. Starting yesterday, he plugs his phone charger in there.

"I was spending a couple hours every day just wasting time trying to keep my phone charged," he says. Now he can wait for the call here, as long as the sun shines.

The forecast is for rain—four or five days of it.

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