After a variety of setbacks, Theo Hellmann and his wife Julie Coen built a camp behind an auto parts store, taking shelter in a pair of tents under a pavilion roof.
They hauled in a sofa and coffee table, spread scraps of carpet over the dirt and warmed themselves by a kerosene heater – all with the property owner’s permission. Living in those woods off-and-on for three years, the couple survived on money from painting and cleanup jobs, enjoying an occasional motel room.
“We’re not homeless,” said Hellmann, 49. “We’re living outside.”
Then right around Christmas, thieves discovered their jerry-built Taj Mahal. Whoever raided their camp made off with the kerosene heater just as temperatures in Raleigh sunk below 10 degrees. Last Sunday, when the mercury hit single-digits, Hellmann and his wife huddled under blankets.
“Apparently the homeless stole from the homeless,” Coen said.
“Homeless people suck,” said Hellmann.
Wake County counted 884 homeless individuals in 2017, an 8 percent increase. But the total doubtless misses the squatters camping in patches of woods across Raleigh – hidden in plain sight.
Hellmann and Coen call themselves atypical because they work whenever they can, posting daily ads on Craigslist seeking employment. In a good week, they can collect $300 – enough for a warm shower and a bed here and there, enough to keep phones charged on power sticks at their camp. For their work, they can provide references.
Hellman describes a combination of lost jobs, broken cars and unaffordable rent leading to his outdoor lifestyle, though both have minor criminal records that would complicate a path out of homelessness. Coen describes the hump between their outdoor existence and a normal domestic life as being always a little too high to get over. Hellmann has a permit to panhandle, but Coen refuses to acquire one.
They live alone because the shelters, by their description, get crowded, dirty and full of the same faces. They know all the regulars and count many as friends, including Aaron Zugaide, a beloved handyman who lived in the woods near the state Farmers Market and was found dead two years ago in Walnut Creek, and Douglas Duncan, who lost both legs in 2016 after a fire behind the ABC store off U.S. 401. Duncan, a good friend now recuperating in Greensboro, is thought to have been set ablaze by other homeless people.
Losing a kerosene heater, to Hellmann and Coen, strikes a harsher blow than a normal family’s furnace breaking down. They have no means of replacing it. Warmth comes by taking a bus ride or spending a few hours in a library. Hellmann insists a space heater isn’t dangerous in his tent, which is well-ventilated, and that he’s studied how to run it safely.
Invisible to most of Raleigh, Hellmann and Coen live a life with all the ups, downs and striving that come with a mortgage and regular paycheck. A little help would make it warmer.
How to help
To help Theo Hellman and Julie Coen replace their stolen kerosene heater, call them at 919-637-1948.