Greetings from the streets of Asbury Park


Published February 10, 2015 by the Asbury Park Press

Duane “Hammer” Hammary was backed into a corner.

He prefers to sleep that way, feeling safer with his bed on a secluded edge of the freshly mopped tile floor of the mission. Hammary’s bed, like other men seeking shelter, is made of green mats and Stack-A-Bunk plastic platforms. The bunks are about six feet of gray polyethylene, 8 inches tall.

Some men sleep with the mats on top, some men flip the bunk and sleep cradled inside it. Hammary sleeps inside, adjusting a row of folded cafeteria tables to form the third and final wall of his space. It’s part of a routine he carries out each day, like Sisyphus rolling his boulder.

Welcome to the Jersey Shore Rescue Mission, a place that bills itself as “a lifeboat to the least, the last and the lost.” It’s a place for those without four walls to call their own. They can find some comfort, a little warmth, residential drug treatment if they need it.

The rescue mission was busier than usual on Wednesday because they were offering extra services to complement an annual point-in-time count of the homeless. Folks filtered through, filling out a survey on things like where they spend the night, whether they’re veterans, whether they’re victims of domestic violence. Upstairs they could get an HIV test, a chance to sign up for job training, a package of hygiene products like shower gel, lotion, toothpaste, and lip balm.

Hammary is like the two dozen or so other men who are calling the rescue mission home, grateful for the chance to spend a night indoors. He’s 51, lean, missing an incisor tooth, with gray in his short hair and goatee. He sometimes struggles to make eye contact with the person he’s talking to.

In an office near the cafeteria, he explained that he was born and raised in Asbury Park. He came from a comfortable home, but didn’t like being told “no.” If he wanted something, he would go get it. He hung with the wrong crowd, led a criminal life. He used drugs, particularly heroin; he didn’t care, he rebelled and he resented. He went by “Hammer,” embarrassed by his first name.

He said he’s done dozens of bids behind bars at the state and county level for crimes like theft and burglary.

He went through a drug program in Camden County, then lost a room social services had provided him when he didn’t show up for a mandatory meeting. Men at the rescue mission are allowed to stay for 10 days, give or take. They’re supposed to move on to a more permanent situation.

It’s cold outside and Hammary is thankful for the shelter though he would like to have his own place. He speaks about his rough life in the past-tense. He’d like to write a book about it, and he tries to reach out to those he sees making his mistakes.

“My goal in life is to save at least one life,” he said. “If I can save one life before I leave this earth, I did my job.”

The men have a chapel service at 7 p.m., then time to watch TV, then lights out around 10.

The men taking shelter are up at 6 a.m., and offered hard rolls and coffee. They leave by 7 a.m.

Hammary said he went to visit his brother until about 8 a.m., then to a gig doing maintenance at the housing authority.

Some homeless people hang around the Asbury Park train station, a place to get away from the cold. From the rescue mission, it’s a quarter-mile trudge through dirty slush.

At the station, bundled-up people sat on benches hard and straight like church pews, the varnish mottled, chipped, with spots of profanity. Banners hung from the ceiling: gratitude, inspiration, hope, love, respect, courage.

At first, it was hard to tell who was waiting to go shopping in New York and who was just hanging out. Then trains came, taking away the travelers.

A woman walked up to ask for money. She said Asbury Park is terrible. She shared the rumor of a man who overdosed on a bench in the station. Hammary knew about him too. Officials confirmed a man died Jan. 31 after being treated with the heroin antidote at the train station, but his exact cause of death won’t be known until toxicology tests return.

The woman asked for 75 cents for a bus ticket. Sorry man, can’t do it. She walked away.

A man slept on a bench among a flock of bags. He wore brown leather boots, tan pants and a tan knee-length coat. When he came to, he grumbled that he was starving, but wouldn’t volunteer any more information for less than the price of a hotdog. Sorry man, can’t do it.

Romell “Romeo” Wilson II ate in the rescue mission cafeteria Wednesday afternoon. He was laid off from his job with a temp agency. He lost his room at a boarding house because the landlord wouldn’t fix the bedbugs and he wouldn’t pay the full rent.

He was born in Long Branch, a lifelong flirt with striking hazel eyes and a charming laugh. He was a child prodigy who skipped three grades. But he fell away in high school, spent time in Florida, returning and taking a job at a restaurant in Bradley Beach.

“I enjoyed making a check, know what I’m sayin’?” he said. “Even at 14 years old, I enjoyed making a check, so that was my thing. I stuck to trying to work instead of going to school.”

But he struggled to find work. He doesn’t think that’s really related to the felony he said he has on his record — endangering the welfare of one of his children. Instead, he sees a lack of career opportunities in the area.

“Nickel and dime jobs cause you to live a nickel and dime life,” he said. “Living check to check, hoping there’s not too much time in between.”

Wilson writes novels and screenplays on a little laptop. One is tentatively titled “Sheebah, the sixth seal, rise of a kingpin.” It’s a fantasy action drama.

Wilson rolled a couple cigarettes, using Bugler loose tobacco since it’s cheap and he likes the flavor. Newports? No, thanks.

He wasn’t broke or hungry at the shelter, though he knows what it’s like to be there. He’s ready for harder times, should they come. He has learned how to fill his belly with water and smoke when he needs to stave off appetite. He knows how to be content in whatever situation he finds himself.

Hammary worked overtime at his gig at the housing authority. He returned to the shelter for dinner, dispatching wisdom to a younger man. Don’t let others make decisions for you, don’t borrow anything from anybody in prison.

Hammary’s lucky to be at the shelter. An outreach team found the man and woman from the train station huddled in an entryway to municipal court as the night air dipped toward freezing.

Hammary rolled a Bugler cigarette and smoked in the men’s room with several others, since residents of the shelter weren’t allowed to go out after 6 p.m.

Later, he would once again set up his small bed in his small corner and go to sleep.