Home on the road

He's working like a horse.

A harness strapped over his shoulders, he leans forward, takes a deep breath and begins to slowly move forward in the 95 degree heat of the afternoon. Clouds have taken the day off.

"What's in the wagon? he's asked.

"Everything I own," he replies, looking back at a mountain of clothes, blankets and various accessories.

"Just how much does that thing weigh?" he's asked.

"I don't know, but it's like pulling a small car," he says.

Roy Gleiter has been pulling this cart for some three months. He began in Gulfport, Miss., and by Tuesday had reached Crawford, near Phenix City, where he was going to have to make some adjustments to the wheels before continuing.

He's not walking for his health, but to reach Washington, D.C. Ñ a mission intended to raise awareness about the government's failure to help the homeless, a group of which he's been a member since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

"What will you say in Washington?" he's asked.

"It's not what I'll say when I get there," he replies, "it's what I say along the way."

And that message is that the U.S. government needs to do something more to help those people, including families with children, who are living under bridges and on city streets. Help find them work and a safe place to live.

Travel companions

He's not alone on this trek. His companions are an elderly woman, Debra Cowden, and her guide dog, Poofer. Cowden, he explains, has severe mental problems. She often screams through the night.

"I call her mom," he says, "but she's not really my mother. She's a family friend and I've cared for her now some 25 years."

This is not his first time being homeless. Gleiter, 48, has been out of work before through the years, having been affected by plant closings and other job losses.

He's been homeless --"an economic refugee," he calls himself -- in different cities throughout the country, from Colorado to South Carolina, often living in a tent. He once established a camp for the homeless in Tennessee. Wherever, he has gone he has spoken to various groups about the needs of the homeless.

"I've also been pushed out of every place by police," he says. "They don't want you to stand, sit or sleep."

When Katrina hit, he was working in a tent selling used DVDs and living in a trailer that was blown away. It belonged to his boss, so there was no FEMA assistance for Gleiter.

"I lost my wallet in Mississippi," he says. "That hasn't helped. It's hard to get a job without identification and it's hard to get identification without a birth certificate, which I don't have."

He's an Army veteran, having been stationed at Fort Sill, Okla.

"I served during the Vietnam era," he says, "but never went to Vietnam."

He wears Army fatigues, though he has several pairs of pants on hangers in the cart. As he rests, he tokes on one Sonoma 100 cigarette after another.

"Not too many people have chosen homeless as a lifestyle," he says. "They have just fallen on hard times and the government does little to get them back to work. The homeless are not all drunks and addicts. Sure, I've come across a few homeless who have scared the holy hell out of me, but many are just folks looking for a chance."

First impressions

He understands why it can be hard to get one."An employer sees someone without a permanent address and figures he can't be trusted, that he won't show up on time, that he won't be clean. It's hard, I know," Gleiter says. "Still, the government could do something. The homeless sure could have been used to rebuild in Louisiana and Mississippi after the hurricane."He has been helped along the way by organizations such as the Red Cross. People have given him some money, though he never asks for it.

"I don't count on man to get by," he says. "I've put my fate in God's hands and I haven't missed a meal, yet."He does odd jobs such as cutting grass to pay for cans of food. He makes necklaces of hemp and leather and gives them away rather than sell them. "Those I give them to must promise to help five people and make them promise to do the same."As he walks along the highways many people will throw trash at him and spit on him, he says. Often he'll hear, "Hey, bum. Pull your own weight."

Right now, he's pulling a lot more.