INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- On a bitterly cold December morning, a scene of Christmas unfolds beneath a bridge of rumbling railroad tracks and graffiti-covered walls near Downtown Indianapolis.
A man with one leg, a scruffy white beard and a red Santa hat emerges in a wheelchair, yelling "Hoo-rah." It's his way of saying "Ho-ho-ho." Behind him stands a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree with about 50 gold bulbs, each one with the name of an individual written in red pen.
They are all homeless, living under a bridge this Christmas.
"A lot of people thought -- they didn't know what to think of a homeless Christmas," said Maurice Young, 44, the unofficial leader of the homeless camp near East Maryland and South Davidson streets, one of the city's largest.
"Once the Christmas tree went up," he told The Indianapolis Star, "we got believers."
The tree and other small decorations offer a sense of normalcy during a holiday that many homeless people spend without close relatives. This camp of 15-plus tents is full of such stories.
On a recent morning, Frederick Crawford rips pages from a phonebook and tosses them onto a grill. It serves as a stove to heat pots of hot water for coffee, typically given each day from 8 to 10 a.m. Crawford, preparing this morning's serving, warns others to stand back before carefully igniting the papers with a lighter. His calm demeanor suggests he's done this before.
Crawford, 48, has bounced around during the last two decades between New York City, Chicago and Indianapolis, battling a cocaine addiction.
He now finds himself in the homeless camp, away from his three sisters this holiday, waking up in a tent. As he stands over the grill in a heavy coat, zip-up hoodie and black gloves -- a common look among camp members -- he glances at the Christmas tree a few feet away. The last "real Christmas" he had was in 1978, he says, when his parents, Frederick and Muriel, were both alive.
The younger Frederick Crawford, 13 and living in Harlem at the time, received an AFX racing set that Christmas, fit with small trucks and connectable tracks. He and his dad set them up in his bedroom that morning.
The following year, just 10 days before Christmas, his father died from heart disease. His mom died five years later after suffering respiratory arrest.
Now at the homeless camp and away from his family, Frederick Crawford knows this Christmas will be much different than that of 34 years ago. But the camp's Christmas tree, he said, helps offer "half a sliver" of normalcy.
"That lets me know that some people do care about us," he said. "So that has some meaning."
The tree, a Norway Spruce, was erected in early December and came from a Hancock County town called Wilkinson. The town is 40 miles from the camp. Tom Ordway, 53, whose church offers the camp hot meals, found the tree through his job at Duke Energy.
Ordway hauled the tree in his pickup truck to the camp after it was removed to make way for a power line.
"It seemed like a good fit," Ordway said. "It's not your standard, nicely-shaped tree from a Christmas farm. But it was fitting of the situation."
The tree's value is even recognized by nearby businesses, which consider the camp a blight to customers.
"Really bad for business for clients to see that," said Kristin Quinton, front desk manager at No. 7 Salon and Spa, who says the store has a "love-hate relationship" with the camp. "But at the same time, if you have nowhere else to go, you can't really blame them for going underneath the bridge.
"So if they need that sense of unity by putting up a Christmas tree and doing all that, I guess it doesn't hurt us anymore."
Other holiday decorations cover the camp, including about 25 red and white stockings that hang from a rusty beam below the railroad bridge. Donated cans of Campbell's New England Clam Chowder will be served on a table below those stockings Christmas Day.
Plans are also in store for camp members to exchange donated jackets, socks and other warm clothing through Secret Santa, the gift-giving game in which each person in a group is assigned, anonymously, to give someone else a present.
It's almost like any other Christmas. Almost.
"We know what Christmas looks like for us," said the camp's leader, Young, standing near a container of ornaments and a leftover box of cheese-and-sausage pizza slices. "The only difference is the four walls and a roof. We've got a bridge."
Venturing under the bridge quickly leads to what's arguably the camp's most festive symbol: Wes Cunningham, the man with one leg who sports a $2 Santa hat he bought from Dollar General.
"It's warm," he says, "and it makes a statement: Joy to the world."
Cunningham, 56, is the camp's self-proclaimed comedian, even cracking jokes at himself. Pretending he's Santa Claus, he proclaims Rudolph ran away the night prior, but that he couldn't catch the reindeer because he has only one leg.
Cunningham lost his left leg below the knee after a biking accident in which he said he swerved to avoid a pit bull that jumped on the
Monon Trail. His leg got caught in a branch, eventually causing blood poisoning that required amputation.
Now living at the homeless camp, Cunningham rides around in a wheelchair wearing brown overalls, mismatched gloves and a red sweater (a Santa sweater, of course). As a sign of his holiday spirit on a recent morning, he announces he's in a festive mood. Then comes the "Hoo-rah!" yell.
The other campers laugh, embracing his character.
"I'm the Hoo-rah Santa Claus," he says, gripping a freshly-made cup of coffee. "Wishing everybody a Merry Christmas."
But, in truth, all of it -- the tree, the Secret Santas and the pretend Santa with the Hoo-rah -- is an attempt to make the season bearable for those struggling to maintain any sense of holiday cheer.
And they are not alone. Around 20 homeless camps dot the city at any given time, each possessing unique traits -- and each is trying in its own way to create something akin to normalcy, especially this time of year.
"There's some sort of way they make it home," said Sgt. Robert Hipple, a member of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's homeless outreach unit, which visits the camps each day.
For some, it's an American flag waving in the wind. For others, it's the routine of morning coffee. And for others still, it is a slightly misshapen but festively adorned Christmas tree.
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Time magazine selected Pope Francis as its Person of the Year on Wednesday, saying the Catholic Church's new leader has changed the perception of the 2,000-year-old institution in an extraordinary way in a short time.
The chief of a southwestern Indiana volunteer fire department has resigned after being confronted about postings on his Facebook page saying he was a racist and had joined the Ku Klux Klan.
Fort Wayne City Council passed nearly 20 bills at their meeting Tuesday night gearing up for the new year.
As state lawmakers prepare for the upcoming session in Indianapolis, county governments are presenting their priorities for the 2014 Indiana General Assembly.
It took two weeks for New Haven's city council to decide it was best to not allow golf carts to putter around town. On Tuesday night, the city council unanimously voted against the ordinance.
Fort Wayne police are investigating an armed robbery at Cap N' Cork on Lima Road Tuesday night.
Shelters like Hope Alive are full, as temperatures in Fort Wayne hit single digits.
Police want to remind you to be extra cautious when meeting up to buy stuff off sites like Craigslist. This warning comes after a man in Fort Wayne was robbed at gunpoint Sunday.
A recent TripAdvisor survey said 53 percent of travelers will drive to their destinations instead of fly this holiday season. 25 percent of those people said it's due to the cost of airfare.
Mayor Tom Henry's administration wants to loosen Fort Wayne's residency rules to increase the talent pool for skilled workers.
Frostbite affects people in our area every year and with some of the coldest air of the season in place and plenty more to come, you need to know how to stay safe while outside in the bitter air.
Dave and Cindy Murphy of Indiana Organ Procurement Organization joined Gina Glaros on First News Sunday to talk about being an organ donor.
A Fort Wayne doctor who was accused of overprescribing his patients is now accused of firing one of his employees who was serving on the jury for former Indianapolis police officer David Bisard's trial back in October.
An office manager from an Indianapolis church has been accused of taking thousands of dollars from the church. She's now facing felony charges.
The trio will perform at the Embassy Theatre on March 19 with tickets for the general public going on sale this Friday at 10 am.