Michael “Rico” Phelps smokes a cigarette during a sun shower behind a row of bushes near a shopping center in Durham, N.C. Phelps, 61, fought in the Navy during the Vietnam War, patrolling the Mekong River on a gunner boat. When he returned after his tour, his fellow citizens spat on him, calling him things like “Baby Killer.” After decades fraught with alcoholism, tenuous family relationships, jobs, jails and stress, Rico finds himself living in a nearby campsite, panhandling to get by.
Anticipating rain, Rico Phelps removes a blanket from a clothesline strung between trees surrounding the campsite he’s been living at in Durham, N.C. Although he has been staying at the site for the past two years, Rico cannot truly call the campsite his own; it belongs to a man named Bill who set up the campsite with his fiance Anne several years prior to Rico moving in.
Rico Phelps stands on a corner outside of a busy shopping center in Durham, N.C., holding a sign that reads, “Help A Vet – God Bless,” and wearing his Veterans Affairs identification card. Rico has seen an increase in homeless civilians wrongfully holding up signs claiming to be veterans, so his ID card can immediately authenticate him to those considering giving him money. Panhandling is wildly unpredictable and the amount Rico can bring in fluctuates daily, ranging from a few $1 bills to several $20’s. Rico would rather have a job, but it’s nearly impossible for him to hold down regular employment while living in the woods and relying on public transportation.
Rico Phelps gets into an argument with Bill, the proprietor of the campsite where Rico has been living in Durham, N.C. Meanwhile, Rico’s fellow homeless friend Linda watches helplessly. Bill’s aggressive and confrontational nature often puts Rico on the defensive when he’s at the campsite, making an uncomfortable situation ever more uncomfortable. “Sometimes I fucking hate the guy. He’s a control freak. He wants to control everything you do,” Rico said.
By the request of his pastor Matt LeRoy, Rico Phelps opens up his palms in prayer during a Sunday service at LOVE Chapel Hill Church in Chapel Hill, N.C. LOVE Chapel Hill is very involved with the area’s homeless population, regularly donating meals and items to those in need. LOVE also offers a free bus service to pick up and drop off homeless service-goers since there is no public transportation offered on Sundays. As a child, Rico was very involved in his family’s church, but stopped attending after returning from Vietnam. Over the past two years, Rico has been trying to reconnect with his faith.
Rico Phelps walks through a hallway leading to the street after attending a LOVE Sunday service in a local cinema. Rico attends service nearly every Sunday and enjoys the normality and positive community the church offers.
Taking a break from “flying a sign” on a corner in Durham, N.C., Rico Phelps climbs into a cooler at a gas station looking for a specific type of malt liquor. Upon purchasing a different brand, the cashier asked Rico, “Back for more, huh?” and Rico responded, “Yeah, but y’all don’t have what I’m looking for.” Rico’s history with alcohol is long and rocky, and Rico has attended rehab on several instances to try and quit. “If I don’t stop, it’s gonna kill me someday,” he said.
Desiring to add stability and security to his life, Rico applied to live in the Denson Apartments for Veterans, but the process is laden in bureaucracy and does not move quickly. Rico had to stay in the campsite while the application process was underway, not knowing if he would be approved to turn his life around.
Through his community at the local Veterans Affairs hospital, Rico Phelps discovered and applied to live in the Denson Apartments for Veterans, a veterans-only apartment complex created by CASA, an area nonprofit aimed at housing low-income residents, in Durham, N.C.
After a long and involved application process, Rico Phelps was approved to live in the Denson Apartments for Veterans. During a tour with several CASA staff members, Rico enters his new bedroom and lights up, sharing a laugh with the staff and his Veterans Affairs case manager. “This is one of the happiest days of my life,” he said.
Rico Phelps’ old campmate Bill pulls him in for a hug near the checkout line at a Walmart in Durham, N.C., after Rico agreed to use his own food stamps to purchase Bill some supplies for his campsite. Despite Bill’s erratic temper and behavior, Rico still remains in contact with him and tries to help wherever he can
Rico Phelps sits on a reclining chair in his living room as his friend Angelique rests on his lap. After living in his apartment for several weeks, Rico met Angelique nearby where she was living on the streets. Rico offered her a hot shower and a meal, but she has been staying there since. When Rico signed the lease for his apartment it stated that only the leaseholder could live there, but Rico has been allowing her to stay with him against his better judgment. “I can’t just kick her back out to the streets,” he said.
Rico Phelps leans over his dining room table and reads a letter from the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital regarding his renewed Hepatitis C treatment as Angelique sits on the couch and smokes a cigarette. When Rico was homeless he was ineligible for treatment as he had no formal address, but now with the acquisition of housing, the VA offered to continue his treatment. With stable housing, Rico can now begin to work on himself, in both securing steady employment and renewing his ailing health.