Just south of downtown off Riverside Drive, across the Robert E. Lee Bridge, the James River turns harsh and frigid come November. Soggy, biting winds whip through ice-kissed river rocks, the leafless trees offering no buffer. If it's in the 40s by midafternoon, it's a good 10 degrees colder in the river's gully just beyond the concrete stairwell and the fenced bridge over the railroad tracks.
When the sun disappears, Joe and Stacey set up camp. The homeless couple lives just across the retention wall and the slick, river-mucked oak trees protruding among the rocks at 21st and Riverside. This time of year the island is usually deserted — the picnic tables are sprouting brush and random beer cans lie half-buried in the leaves. The couple sets up a flimsy tent just before dusk to avoid being seen. Joe layers the bottom with blankets to block the cold rising from the ground. They smoke cigarettes around a small sticks-and-brush campfire, which they use to heat up dinner and coffee.
They've lived here since October, and on Nov. 18, the "coldest day of the year so far" according to a TV weatherman, Joe and Stacey wake up to temperatures in the low 20s and the season's first snow flurries.
Luckily, they're in no rush to unbundle. Stacey, who is eight months pregnant, doesn't see the doctor again for another two days.
For Joseph Crull, 40, and Stacey Speairs, 32, the island consummates a spiritual journey, a love story. They've lived on the island for the better part of two months, through the Indian summer and the season's first snow flurries.
They met July 4 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Stacey was going through a rough patch, her boyfriend having kicked her out of the motel where they were staying. She was with a friend at a pool hall near the beach when Joe happened by.
He was working at Shoney's, getting his life back together, with a "few hundred dollars" in his pocket when he ran into his friend Jim, an acquaintance of Stacey's. Noticing her and the bags, Joe took an interest.
"I told him, ‘Is she OK?’" Joe recalls. "I said you make sure you let her know if she needs anything, just ask. I'll help her out with it." That night Stacey stayed with Jim, who suffers from cerebral palsy, and they both slept in the crawlspace under a hotel restaurant along the beach. The next day, July 5, Joe ran into Stacey again, this time at a park near the beach.
No big fireworks or "anything traumatic" happened, Joe says. They just simply clicked, seemed to understand each other. They've been inseparable ever since. For Joe, the clincher came when Stacey started talking about her accident a year earlier.
Working for a temporary employment agency in Myrtle Beach, she'd been driving a van dropping off and picking up the workers. In April 2007, an oncoming car T-boned her van at an intersection. It wasn't her fault.
"He hit me so hard that the inside step of the van is no longer there, that's how hard he hit me," she recalls. "I eventually ended up going to the hospital in an ambulance, and my employer didn't file workers comp and it was just crazy."
After the accident, she says, her relationship with the bosses soured, and she was eventually forced out. She hasn't worked since.
The clincher? Joe says he saw the entire accident. "I didn't know her yet. I was sitting on the corner watching everything, this accident. My friend from Bristol, he said, ‘Oh man, that’s Stacey. I hope she's all right.'" If there's such a thing as fate, the big man was nudging him, Joe says: "That was him saying, OK, you belong together."
They got the news in September. Speairs was six months pregnant and would deliver her seventh child in late December or early January. She wasn't sure how to tell Joe. It's tough enough to be homeless with no family support, much less living in a tent along the side of the road, along the riverbank, on an island where she tripped over a stump and gashed her head.
Those things are manageable, she says. But the stress keeps building: Turns out the baby isn't Joe's. "The father didn't want me to have this baby — he wanted me to go and have an abortion," Stacey says. "I'm not that kind of person. I've got six other children, and love my children with all my heart and soul. To me, angels or God gives you children for a reason, gives you an angel to raise on earth."
She was scared to tell Joe at first, but he didn't hesitate. "Me and Joe and started talking about it and he's like as far as anyone cares to know, I'm going to be this baby's father," Stacey recalls. "He said, ‘I’m gonna man up.'"
Ironically, the baby became the primary reason Joe and Stacey set up camp on the island. They left Myrtle Beach shortly after finding out Stacey was pregnant (she also needed to get away from the baby's abusive father). They also came to Richmond to see Joe's mother, who recently suffered from a stroke.
They first went to the Caritas homeless shelter, but were told in order to stay they would be separated — Stacey to a women's shelter, Joe to the men's. They couldn't bear the thought of being apart, so they left. Joe says he needed to be close to Stacey to make sure she could get to doctors' appointments. He couldn't do that while living in a separate shelter. (She's receiving prenatal care at VCU Medical Center.)
As illogical as it sounds, living in a tent on the river was simply the best option, Joe says, because it allowed them to stay together. There are limitations: He stopped looking for work because he didn't want to leave Stacey on the island by herself. And it can be dangerous. After a homeless man was severely beaten with a baseball bat on a nearby island in the James River a few weeks back, Joe festooned a stick with a taped-on pocket knife — a makeshift hatchet — just in case.
Then there's the cold. It doesn't seem to bother Joe, who likens himself to a modern-day Grizzly Adams, albeit a bit shorter. Stacey doesn't mind so much, either. "I'm the kind of person where I love the outdoors," she says. "I'm like a tomboy." It also helps to be pregnant, she says; the baby helps keep her warm. They sleep in a Coleman 40-degree sleeping bag.
Joe knew about island and its relative seclusion because he and his brother used to hang out here as kids. They grew up in a foster home on 29th Street, and along with about eight other children they'd come down to the river to play, fish and hang out.
The island in many ways is a spiritual sanctuary for a man who's suffered through child abuse, a crack-cocaine addiction, prison — for grand larceny — and even lightning. Joe says he was struck in 1997 while fishing in the James near Rockett's Landing, which forced him out of work for nearly a year.
Joe's eyes widen when he talks about the good years with "Grandma Lowery," his former foster mother. Life didn't start out easy. Joe was 2 when he says his father, a truck driver from Rock Island, Ill., "dumped" him, his brother, who is 20 months older, and his mother in Richmond. (Another sign Joe and Stacey were meant to be: Rock Island is a few towns over from Stacey's hometown of Kewanee, Ill.)
Joe's mother started drinking, and he and his brother wound up in foster care. The first stop was a home on Midlothian Turnpike.
"The first home was the pits, man. They kept me and my brother and a couple other people locked in the basement, and we weren't allowed upstairs or outside," Joe says. "I remember getting one of the worst beatings of my life because I ordered a Big Mac and couldn't eat it. … All the other kids got Big Macs, you know. I couldn't eat the whole thing, so I got a beatin' for it."
At 4, Joe made his first getaway attempt, which would become a recurring theme throughout his life. So fed up with the foster family, he grabbed a handful of sunflower seeds — intended for the pet parakeet — and headed out the door. He made it as far as Woolworth's, about a block away.
"I remember stepping on the mat, and the lady inside going, ‘There he is!’" Joe says. "The older kids caught me and brung me back and it was a beating. I'll never forget that."
Social workers took him out of the home, and before long he wound up at Grandma Lowery's, where over the next 10 years his life markedly improved. Trouble continued to follow him, but Joe somehow managed it better. In the third grade at Patrick Henry Elementary School, he once burned down a garage on the way home from school. The police came knocking on Grandma Lowery's door. "Oh, no, it couldn't have been my kids," Lowery told the officer. "She just talked the cop right out of it and got in his car and left," Joe says. "And I was out of trouble."
Stacey's parents split when she was about 4.
"My mom started dating a black guy — he basically taught me to tie my shoes and stuff like that," she says. "I guess that's what separated my family. In the town we lived in, it was more white people than white and black. We had a lot of problems with people burning crosses in our yard and stuff like that."
Stacey says her mother's boyfriend abused her physically, and she often ran away from home. When she was 8, the police got involved after the gym teacher noticed bruises on her back.
A few years later, she escaped it all to live with her father in Turlock, Calif. It was a dramatic turnaround — from cold, gray Kewanee to blue skies and the almond orchards of sunny Turlock, also known for its ethnic diversity.
"I loved it. Me and my dad would go to Marine World, Africa USA. We went to Santa Cruz beach boardwalk. We went to the Fresno Zoo," Stacey says. "My life just did a 360 from one parent to another." She met aunts and uncles she didn't know, and learned to cook from her grandmother. "She sat me down and told me about the birds and the bees," Stacey recalls in her Illinois accent. "I was like, ugh, kind of embarrassed."
But her time in California was cut short. After six months, her father sent Stacey, at age 12, back to Illinois, worried that she was becoming homesick.
Stacey's life took a turn for the worse. She and her younger sister, Stephanie, shared a room, and her mother would have friends over at night. One night one of the young men at the house found his way into their bedroom.
"They would be drunk walking around in our apartment and stuff," Stacey recalls. "The one that was 19 snuck in me and my sister's little room and ended up raping me."
Stacey, who was 13, decided she shouldn't tell her mother about it. The next day, her mom found a "used condom" in her room and forced the issue.
"She said, you're just keeping it for memories," Stacey recalls. "I said, ‘Mom, Why would I want memories like that?’" She ran away the next day.
Stacey keeps up with her six children as best she can, and looks forward to a fresh start with Joe. She suffers from bouts of depression and struggles to keep a positive outlook on life. At just about every turn along the way, she's found herself in abusive relationships, struggling to reconnect with family and friends, trying to convince potential employers that her pregnancy isn't a liability.
Joe hasn't spoken to his brother in 12 years, and says he's trying to patch up relationships with his family in Richmond and Hopewell. He's a religious man, and counts himself among the more conscientious workers. At the Shoney's Restaurant on 18th Avenue in Myrtle Beach, shift manager Diane Ryan says Joe, a dishwasher, was dependable and worked well with people. "He was a good worker," she says, and would do whatever was asked of him.
When the baby comes? They don't really have a plan. Refusing to stay at a shelter could come back to haunt Joe and Stacey if they're serious about starting a family. It's highly unlikely that social services will allow Stacey to leave the hospital with her baby without a permanent address.
"That shouldn't happen," says Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, which oversees the city's homeless shelters. "That's the real tragedy of homeless moms — housing is a big part of that picture of stability."
Marilyn Biggerstaff, executive director of the HomeAgain shelter for homeless families, says it's still possible for Stacey to keep her child if she enrolls in the HomeAgain shelter as soon as possible.
"At our family shelter, we emphasize taking women in their third trimester, so when the baby is born they can come back and receive resources toward permanent housing," Biggerstaff says, adding that there's nothing that can be done if the couple doesn't seek the help first.
Joe and Stacey are noncommittal. Stacey's grown tired of the dirty looks and what she perceives as disrespect at local shelters and local social services departments. One of the shelters, she says, wanted to run a criminal background check to make sure she wasn't a sex offender (a standard procedure). That didn't sit well with her.
"The guy just rubbed me wrong," Stacey says, "so I didn't go back."
Refusing the shelters and going it alone has left Joe and Stacey on an island — literally and figuratively. "I'm hoping that somewhere in our future there is something that just unlocks this whole down-here thing," says Joe, adding he has no intention of bringing a newborn to the island.
Stacey holds out hope it will all work out. "We're hoping that eventually we are able to get up on our feet and have our own home or something like that," she says.
For all the uncertainties and obstacles that lie ahead, Joe and Stacey consider themselves blessed. They're thankful for the man in South Carolina who gave them more than $100 for bus tickets to Richmond. They're thankful for hot lunches at local churches. Thankful that they found each other after so many painful, abusive relationships and broken promises.
"If it wasn't for God, none of this would have been possible," Joe says. "Let's just say the blessings pour out. It could be a lot worse."
The island has become their sanctuary. There are no worries, no family problems, no dirty looks from social workers, no emotional baggage from years of homelessness, crack addictions and broken relationships.
There's just the slow, purposeful trickle of the James through the river's rock bed, forming thousands of small waterfalls. The rapids dance in the sunlight and hum lullabies after dark as the city skyline comes to life. Stacey and Joe break sticks together, build fires, read Joe's Bible in the tent before they nod off to sleep. One recent afternoon, they watched a pair of bald eagles dip and swoon above the water.
Reality, and a new baby, is just around the corner — but not today. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, I guess," Joe says. S
At press time, we were unable to locate Joe and Stacey. They appeared to be no longer living on the island.