Fisherman sways as he urinates on the dirt, splashing his split leather moccasins. The soles have come loose at the toes in a gaping grin. “I gave my life for the earth I’m pissing on,” he says. In the lapping waters of the river close by, a silvery catfish flounders upside down, struggling against the thick brown rope that was thumbed through its gills. Concentrating again, Fisherman spears another chunk of fried chicken with his fishing hook and hurls it into the bayou as bait. “In the service I learnt to live by my own means,” he says. Frog waits ten feet above on a dirt bank hidden in the dark. His 20-stone outline is crouched awkwardly under the pain of embedded lead. He tends a propane stove, bubbling pan of oil and gutting equipment. Fishing without a licence will cost them a fine they can’t afford and time in jail.
Fisherman and Frog served in the Gulf War as a Navy Seal and a Marine over 20 years ago, a decision they regret. “You go to fight for this country, then you come back home and you’re living under a bridge,” says Fisherman. They sleep under downtown Houston in a network of tunnels and alcoves that line the bayou and nestle under the highways.
When it rains, water runs off the ceiling and the open sewer beneath their beds geysers into the air, marooning them. They share this space with three other veterans, an HIV-positive security guard and the 25 cats Fisherman raised from birth. Throughout the night people come and go, shuffling in the dark, drowning in memories in a haze of alcohol and crack cocaine. The percentage of veterans in the homeless community is double that of veterans in normal society, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In the United States, around 300,000 veterans sleep rough every night, and around 1 million will have been homeless at some point last year.
As the US withdraws troops from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next two years, 100,000 soldiers will be sent home. They’re expecting continued medical support, job training and programmes to help them transition to civilian life. But as Congress continues to disagree on defence spending, many social benefits will automatically default from 2013 onwards, affecting the certainty of these safety nets, and putting greater numbers of veterans at the risk of ending up on the streets.
“You want to come to America? Shit, you can have it all, bro,” says Fisherman. “I want to get far away from here.” I met Fisherman and Frog as a Brit trying to scratch a way into a city hidden behind plate glass and air conditioning. They offered me a place within their family, showing me a world unknown – panhandling hustles, bicycle crack deals and weapons made of steel cable. We’d hang out in parks and under bridges, drinking Steel Reserve beer, talking education, religion and Metallica.
Without realising, Fisherman had accrued debt while in the Seals. After his return to the US he was evicted from his apartment. Frog struggled to reintegrate after his time in the Marines, eventually serving a 12-year prison sentence. “This is a subculture, a community under a community. But even though society may frown on me, I know I have a lot to offer,” says Frog. At night, Fisherman’s head torch highlights his cheekbones and the broken bridge of his nose, his yellow eyes peer out of the skeletal shadows of his eye sockets. His heavy military boots are hidden beneath layers of mud as he picks his way over the bare earth, avoiding broken glass and gaps in the floor. He checks for his possessions – sometimes the police steal things. His cats move about his feet, an innumerable black and grey blur in the dark.
“You know, we don’t just go do jobs, come back and everything is OK,” says Fisherman. The aroma of super-strength ale, poor oral hygiene and menthol cigarettes blends with the stench of raw sewage. Fisherman and Frog ease themselves from the plastic crates they use as stools. “If you really want to make a homeless person happy, take them to eat, talk to them, maybe you’ll see the other side,” says Frog. With heads bent against the low concrete roof they shuffle towards a crack of streetlight and head out to their hustle.