D.C's 'homeless homeless' advocate
Monday, December 13, 2010
Eric Sheptock has 4,548 Facebook friends, 839 Twitter followers, two blogs and an e-mail account with 1,600 unread messages.
What he doesn't have is a place to live.
"I am a homeless homeless advocate," he often tells people. That's the line that hooks them, the one that gives Sheptock - an unemployed former crack addict who hasn't had a permanent address in 15 years - his clout on the issue of homelessness.
His Facebook friends and Twitter followers include policymakers, advocates for the homeless and hundreds of college students who have heard him speak on behalf of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Being homeless has become Sheptock's full-time occupation. It's work that has provided him with purpose and a sense of community. But it's also work that has perpetuated his homelessness and, in a way, glorified it.
Sheptock, 41, wouldn't take a 9-to-5 job that compromised his advocacy efforts or the long hours he spends tending to his digital empire, he says. He wouldn't move out of the downtown D.C. shelter where he has slept for the past two years if it would make him a less effective voice for change.
"Too many homeless people have come to look up to me, and I can't just walk away from them," he says in a recent blog post titled "Tough Choices." "My conscience won't allow it."
Having 5,000 friends on Facebook is more important to Sheptock than having $5,000 in the bank. And he lives with the consequences of that every day.
'Lots of drama'
At 6 a.m., the lights flicker on at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, where Sheptock has occupied the same top bunk since he arrived at the 1,350-bed shelter in 2008.
Eleven other men share a 15-foot-by-18-foot room on a floor that teems with more than 200 people on a typical night. There's not much privacy, Sheptock says. Younger people tend to be loud, older people cranky, and there's drama. "Lots of drama," he says.
That's why, on most days, Sheptock takes a shower as soon as he wakes and then walks the four miles from the shelter near Judiciary Square to Thrive DC, a nonprofit organization in Mount Pleasant where he gets a free breakfast and Internet access. On the days he can afford it, he'll take the bus.
His income varies. November was a good month: He made $330 from his blog posts ($25 a pop at Change.org) and his speeches ($40 for those he gives in the Washington region and $100 for those farther away).