'I didn't choose to be homeless'
By Kyle Stucker
ROCHESTER — Earl Lee Shaffer tears open the packet and with three swift thwapts of his finger he carefully pours a stream of off-white powder into a measured pile.
Thwapt, thwapt, thwapt. He sends more powder tumbling into a separate pile. And again. Thwapt, thwapt until there’s only a fine dust that coats the inside of the pouch, which Earl tucks away to dispose of later. The pouch doesn't contain drugs. It's actually Cream of Wheat, and Earl's sharing some of the little food he has with the chipmunks who have become his roommates.
Earl, 37, is homeless. He scrapes by on one meal a day — if he’s lucky — while living in a tent mere feet from a riverbed in Rochester, a spot he chose because legally there isn’t anything barring him from camping in a floodplain.
As he travels through the city with his overstuffed backpack of laundry, it’s easy for the heavily tattooed Earl to notice the judgmental looks and hushed murmurs.
“Everyone knows me as this guy who kidnapped this girl (in 2016) — even though people don’t read up to realize that I was found not guilty on it,” Earl, an Arizona native, says with his low Western drawl. “Everyone in this town, even children, are pointing at me laughing. The other day I was sitting down on the sidewalk eating a cheeseburger and a kid said, ‘That’s the guy who kidnapped that girl.’”
That Cream of Wheat that Earl was measuring out at his tent? Earl empties a packet every morning at different corners of his campsite to feed a family of chipmunks he cares for. It’s become a mutually beneficial arrangement and one of the few loving relationships Earl has.
“First thing in the morning, they like to jump underneath my tent, so that’s my alarm clock now,” he says. “The mother cries about everything that comes down here, which helps me know when someone she doesn’t know or another animal comes close to the tent. They help me because at nighttime I’m usually on guard. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
Earl’s record indicates a variety of charges in Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Those charges, according to his court records, include three years in jail for bloodying his stepdaughter’s nose in Arizona. Earl claims it was wrongful imprisonment, an accident allegedly caused when he tripped over a toy and fell onto the girl.
Earl also served time in New Hampshire last year in the aforementioned kidnapping case, which was reported by Seacoast Media Group. Court records show a jury acquitted him of the kidnapping because the incident, which involved a woman he knew, amounted to a mutual drive-and-talk conversation in the woman's car. However, he served time because the chat itself violated a restraining order and because a jury found the unprivileged contact he made with the woman during the incident constituted misdemeanor simple assault.
“I didn’t choose to be homeless. I was thrown into this situation,” says a man whose six months of tenting has withered 30 pounds off his frame. “(The court cases) have ruined my image to where it’s extremely tough to get work.”
He feels his tattoos may play a part in how he’s perceived, even though most of the time he conceals the devils, skulls and other designs that cover the majority of his body. He can’t hide the teal teardrop below the corner of his left eye, which is there to symbolize the pain he’ll always carry for his brother, who as a teenager, Earl says, took the life of another person.
Earl earns money by performing a variety of side jobs, like tattooing. His body is a living billboard for his skill with a tattooing needle, and he uses the artform as a way to cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Earl says he was abandoned at a young age and suffered physical and mental abuse from a variety of individuals in his life, both within the foster care system and outside of it. He says the extent of his loss also includes the fact that one of his sons took his own life, and Earl himself almost died during an overdose that landed him in a coma in 2002. That overdose, Earl says, made him stop his drug use.
“In prison, I had so much aggression and hate that was built in me, and I don't want to hurt anybody,” says Earl, who occasionally drinks beer and smokes loose-leaf tobacco. “I always felt guilty even when I hurt somebody’s feelings. So, I took all that aggression and I put it into basically pain management. I put it on my skin."
Earl tents because he feels others need the shelters more than he does, in addition to the fact he has difficulty trusting people due to what he's encountered in various systems. While he finds it meditative to tent alone in the wilderness, his plan isn’t to stay along the river this winter, partially because the Oct. 30 windstorm caused the river to flood his campsite.
At the time this article was written, Earl says he was working with a lawyer seeking a resolution after he failed to show for a probation hearing in early November. Earl anticipated he would serve a few days in jail, after which he planned to head West for the winter to stay warm. Doing so, he says, would also allow him time to earn the money needed to address misdemeanors and fines in Ohio and Pennsylvania on his way back to New Hampshire in the spring.
Earl hopes to eventually secure a job on a oil rig. Not because he finds the job appealing, nor because doing so would follow in the footsteps of his late father. Rather, it’s because he feels the isolation will give him time for “soul-searching" before he works on his main goal — the reason why he hasn’t given up.
“I moved here specifically to find a family and get married some day, and that’s what I’m sticking to and that’s why I’m coming back (to New Hampshire),” Earl says. “I don’t want to leave here."