The homeless blogger

Kevin Barbieux sleeps in abandoned buildings or shelters -- and writes a daily journal that has made him an Internet celebrity.

Published October 14, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

If you want to know what cereal a total stranger eats for breakfast or how he feels about invading Iraq, there are hundreds of thousands of Internet journals, popularly known as blogs, waiting for you. But to find out where the best soup kitchen is in Nashville, Tenn., or how it feels to pick up trash until dawn for $30, or what it's like to sleep in a '71 Ford Granada, you'll have to go to Kevin Barbieux's Internet diary for answers.

Most "bloggers" bleat from a computer in their home or office. But for Barbieux, that's not possible. He doesn't own a computer. He rarely has a steady job. And for years, he hasn't had a place to call home.

Instead, Barbieux catches a few furtive hours of sleep at one of Nashville's shelters, in a public park, or underneath an abandoned building. During the day he hangs out at public libraries, spending hours updating his journal.

The idea, he says, is to use the intensely personal medium of blogging to demolish the near-universal negative stereotype of homelessness. In place of the image of the dirty, stinking wino, Barbieux hopes to insert the story of himself: clean, articulate, spiritual, busy, taking in a favorite cigar -- the Excalibur No. 1 Maduro by Hoyo De Monterey -- but staying away from junk and booze.

"My intention is to legitimize homeless people, to show them as worthy of being treated like human beings, with compassion, acceptance, and assistance," Barbieux writes.

Quoting everyone from Tom Waits to Carl Jung, Barbieux writes about the joys of going, on a donated ticket, to hear the symphony. He describes his fears of walking into the event unshowered while so many others are in formalwear. He posts passionately on man's ability to have an intimate relationship with the Divine. And he rages against "homeless shelters [that] promise to help homeless people, but only on the condition that the homeless person worships their god."

Barbieux's entries grab the gut in a way typical blogs can't. Early in September Barbieux detailed how "Bull," a fellow transient, jealously guards his resting place: a 5-foot ledge jutting out from a parking lot beneath an empty building.

"'Hey, we can't have a bunch of homeless people coming up here!' Bull stated, and he was right. Once news got out about a good sleeping place, EVERYONE would know about it, the wrong guys would show up, there would be a ruckus. [Then] the police would find out about it, [and] chase everyone away."

Two days later, Barbieux updated his journal. Bull, he tells us, has been beaten to death.

It's not the only time violence rears its head in Barbieux's world. A journal entry in August described a clash outside a shelter between an elderly Mexican man and a young African-American woman:

"He kept walking away, muttering Spanish obscenities as the crowd tried to provoke an altercation. Suddenly the woman bolted toward the old man -- he didn't see her coming -- and she landed a hard fist on the right side of his head. The crowd howled. The man stumbled. She turned to receive the crowd's cheer, relishing her victory. She wasn't aware that the old man had pulled a knife from his pants pocket, stumbling toward her. Only his drunkenness prevented him from attacking with a force of vengeance. As the old man neared, a couple volunteers from the shelter ran out to stop the fight. The old man reached out for the woman, trapping the two volunteers between them. The old man held his knife up, as if for God to inspect, then brought it down in anger. Simultaneously the four fell down to the ground. The police were called. A fire truck arrived soon after the police. The shelter opened, and the homeless began to filter in. Four officers held the old man to the ground as his clinched fist would not relinquish the knife. Several hands grasped against the wrist and forearm of the old man, keeping the knife away from everything. Then an officer mashed the old man's hand against the asphalt with a baton until the old man cried out in pain, releasing the knife."

Barbieux is "reflective, quiet, not aggressive in any way," according to Charles Strobel, who runs a Nashville homeless services center, the Campus for Human Development. Jack Davis, a friend and fellow homeless man, called Barbieux "reserved" and "a bookworm type."

"If you walked by him on the street, you'd never have any idea Kevin was homeless," said the director of one Nashville shelter.

Known increasingly as "professor" in his community, Barbieux was the editor of a short-lived homeless newspaper. Now, he's encouraging other homeless people to express themselves through blogs. (Only one has taken him up on the offer, so far.) And he's helping put together a debate for local political candidates on homeless issues. The activity has gotten so intense of late, Barbieux writes, that he barely has time to sleep.

For some readers of Barbieux's journal, this energy is exasperating.

"You've got the brains and ambition to set up this little operation but claim to be homeless. The fact is, we're all homeless. The difference is some of us find the will to get off our ass and find temporary shelter," comments one visitor to Barbieux's site.

Barbieux, in turn, has little sympathy for the "beggars and panhandlers," who so dominate the public's perception of the homeless. These people, he says, are only looking for drug money when they ask for spare change.

Barbieux, 41, has held an array of what he calls "junk jobs" -- as a cook, a construction worker, a telemarketer and a convenience store clerk. Most recently, he helped catalog a 16-millimeter film collection as a volunteer with the Downtown Presbyterian Church, which provides "arguably the best feed going for the homeless in Nashville," Barbieux writes.

For Barbieux, it's important that his readers understand that "the difference between being homeless and non-homeless is not black and white." Barbieux has been living in varying shades of gray since February 1982. Riddled with anxieties and learning disabilities, Barbieux struggled at school, and was a social outcast in his native San Diego. One day, it all became too much. He packed up his Opal Cadet, and headed East.

Barbieux ran out of money in Nashville. Broke and unable to find work, he began sleeping in the Cadet. But the cold weather eventually became intolerable, and so he sought refuge in the city's homeless shelters.

Eventually, Barbieux met a woman, Sarah, married her, and started a family. But "the kind of relationship we had, it was more like being taken care of in a shelter, than actually being married," he writes in an e-mail. By 1995, they split. The couple's son, now 11, and daughter, now 7, went with Sarah. Barbieux hasn't seen them in over a year.

"I don't want my kids torn up between my ex and I," he explains in an e-mail. "I'd rather she have them, than to have us fighting over them. The saddest part is that because we rarely see each other, when we do, we really don't have much to talk about, since we don't have anything in common."

For Barbieux, the separation is searing.

"My every day starts and ends with prayers for [the children's'] health and well being, and for the time when I can be in their lives again," he recently posted.

And it's only one of several sources of pain.

Charles Strobel, from the Campus for Human Development, explained, "Kevin has a real sensitivity that, at times, can torture him."

Barbieux goes further than that, blaming his homelessness on mental illness.

"To function as non-homeless, a person must be able to establish and maintain a certain level of community -- the anxieties prevent me from doing this," Barbieux writes. "I took [the anti-depressant] Paxil for a few months and it helped. [But] I was dropped from the state insurance plan because they could not locate me (homeless people can be hard to find), so I no longer have the means to obtain the medicine."

For years, Barbieux added in an e-mail, he's been "struggling to overcome my disabilities, my inabilities, to rid myself of anything that might give people the perception that I really am stupid."

Receiving a flood of compliments on his articulate, passionate journal hasn't freed him from these feelings. Started in late August, the journal has already had over 35,000 visitors, and is quickly turning Barbieux into an Internet celebrity. Glenn Reynolds, one of the elders of the blogging movement, lauds Barbieux as the "ultimate example" of blogging's do-it-yourself spirit.

"All this attention is really stressful. And when I feel stressed, it brings on a kind of depression," he said.

But Barbieux hasn't given in to despair quite yet. In fact, he said, he's trying to figure out a way to leverage the stature he's gained from his blog, and turn it into a book deal.

He writes, "If it means I'll have to go on the Oprah show, I'll have to be sedated."

By Noah Shachtman

Noah Shachtman writes about technology, politics, and pop culture for The New York Times, New York Post, and Wired News.

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