ATLANTA — "I'm independent. I can come and go as I please here, and I've got a place to put all of my stuff," says James, pointing to his plywood box built by the Mad Housers.
His home is a small hut covered with carpet remnants and plastic, and crammed with blankets and clothes. His hut is one of three standing in a littered lot less than half a mile from the regional headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank. The huts, which are hidden by a mangled wire fence and a pile of rubble, are accessible only by foot.
James and his neighbors get their water from a nearby office building, and they shower and wash their clothes at the city's labor pool. The wire fence doubles as a clothesline.
They eat at one of Atlanta's soup kitchens, where they also pick up their mail. Sometimes they cook on the makeshift grill that they have built with some old screening and a couple of large bricks. In the winter, they usually build a fire in one of the large drums standing close by and wrap themselves in blankets.
Before moving into the hut a year and a half ago, James, who has been homeless for three years, slept in abandoned houses and under bridges. Although he had been in several different shelters, he disliked the regimentation. "I didn't want somebody telling me when to go to bed and when to get up," he said. "It was like being in prison."
A quiet-spoken but articulate man, he has spent time in the military and held a variety of jobs. He has also spent five years in the Arkansas State Penitentiary, serving a sentence for armed battery.
But he says he was innocent of the charge. "It was a setup. I was framed." He hopes to reopen the case and overturn the conviction so he can clear his name.
Occasionally, James goes to one of the labor pools and works for a day or two. But he has had health problems related to his stay in prison. He spends most of his time working as the unofficial coordinator for the Mad Housers, referring new clients and helping build huts.
"After I get my court case settled, I'd like to save up enough money to get an apartment," he says. "I want to work with the homeless and someday write a book about living on the streets in America."