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Something About Mary

Mary Uebelgunne fights homelessness from the bottom up.

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Something About Mary By damien jacksonThe story goes that George Smuin began proselytizing on a soapbox in London's Hyde Park in 1846 at the age of two. The illegitimate son of a Scottish domestic by way of her much-rumored affair with an English landlord, Smuin spent most of his childhood under the influence of the Mormon missionaries who frequented the poor communities of Victorian England. An adventure-seeking young man, Smuin was driven by his religious persuasion to America in 1864 to participate in the Mormon settlement of the region surrounding the Great Salt Lake. He led a sizable company of followers and converts on a seven-month trek via the Oregon Trail to the Western territory commonly characterized as the "Mormon promised land." Once there, Smuin assumed an active role in building the structure and influence of both the church and the city of Ogden. Ultimately, his leadership, organizational efforts and lifelong proselytizing were recognized by the church hierarchy in 1891, as he was appointed bishop of Ogden's Lynne ward.

More than a century later, Smuin's great-granddaughter, Mary Uebelgunne, is consumed by a mission of her own. Immersed in the family faith and her ancestor's legacy from birth, the 57-year-old Clayton resident has also traveled a great distance to champion her beliefs in a place far away from home. But unlike her pioneering forefather, this Utah native does not vociferously encourage people to find a home for worship within the Mormon church. Instead, she raises her voice to empower those with no home at all.

"It's time we dispel the myth that homeless people are a worthless people," says Uebelgunne, relaxing in a chair in her small trailer just off Old U.S. Highway 70. The trailer's walls are adorned with woven hats, crocheted handbags and other mementos from her much-traveled past.

"Success should be measured by how you get along in life or make do with what you have," she contends, noting that being poor and homeless is a "character-building process, far more educational than any classroom setting. We need some new measuring cups of knowledge," ones that account for the wisdom and experience gained from "surviving a life of hard knocks."

Since coming to Raleigh in 1990, at the end of a three-year homeless stint spent living out of shelters in Western North Carolina and the Washington D.C. area, Uebelgunne has drawn upon her own life of hard knocks to mobilize and inform others in profound ways. She created Home Street Home, a grassroots advocacy organization giving voice to the area's homeless while addressing many of the problems they endure. She challenged what she believed were the restrictive policies of area shelters by laying out a petition made from bed sheets on the Fayetteville Street Mall, calling for the homeless to have "a voice in running our shelters, in spending our money and in organizing our lives. ... "

She constructed a "Homeless Wall of Shame" from cardboard boxes in Moore Square to highlight the names of recently deceased homeless people whose bodies were left unclaimed at the city morgue. She instituted an annual Homestock Fest held near the Capitol, celebrating the value of homeless people while acting as a forum for discussion of relevant issues. She even wrote and staged a number of outdoor plays examining homelessness, using an all-homeless cast.

"All of Mary's actions were good at raising people's consciousness through her unique way of dramatizing the problems homeless people face," says Bill Rowe, a former legal adviser to Home Street Home. Around the time of the petition, Uebelgunne and her group would often meet in Rowe's office at Raleigh Legal Services.

"Mary was a catalyst for a different type of discussion on homelessness," he continues. "These were homeless people speaking about their condition and needs, as opposed to others speaking for them."

Former Home Street Home adviser Barbara Earls agrees, lauding Uebelgunne's innovative approach to activism. "She has a clear vision of what is right," says Earls. "She is totally unaccepting of certain conditions homeless people have to endure."

But while her vision of, and proficiency at, organizing the homeless are near-legendary in the Triangle, Uebelgunne has earned a comparable reputation for her eccentricities, including what Earls describes as her "idiosyncratic" style of dress. Commonly clad in what Uebelgunne labels as "hobo gear"--which normally consists of a tattered and oversized male suit-jacket covering a worn-out shirt-pants combo, topped by a headrag or a large puffy hat tilted to the side--she exemplifies her belief that one of life's simple pleasures comes from "walking and looking like a bum."

Then there is what Rowe labels her "intense, wide-open approach." Uebelgunne talks readily of having been institutionalized in a number of psychiatric hospitals and receiving such medications as lithium, a drug commonly prescribed for manic-depression. She has been known to invoke her past institutionalization while making lengthy and sometimes disjointed speeches at public forums on homelessness. "She wears it openly on her sleeve," says Rowe, adding, "She has a lot of ideas, and she'll want to tell you all of them."

"People think I'm crazy," Uebelgunne offers matter-of-factly, shrugging her shoulders in a dismissive fashion. "They often wonder, 'How can a person who has been homeless and in a mental institution organize?'"

Mary Uebelgunne was born in 1942, in a remodeled log cabin on a 10-acre farm near Ogden, Utah. The second of eight children from a poor-yet-proud Mormon couple, she was taught early by her parents that they were "rich in spirit and in the Gospel," and that was all that mattered. As a child, she attended testimonial meetings at the local church that further ingrained her Mormon doctrine. "We always had a big ego about belonging to the 'right' church, or the 'only' church," remembers Uebelgunne. "It was wonderful," she continues, explaining that she was part of a self-sustaining, self-contained community where "nobody starved. I could eat at the table of any family. It was like utopia for a child."

By age 13, cracks appeared in her utopian model as she began to realize there was more to life than she had been told. Raised in a faith that equated whiteness with purity and often shunned or disparaged anyone non-white--her own mother occasionally joked about how "dirty" black people were--the music-loving eighth-grader was shocked to discover that '50s singing sensation Johnny Mathis, per a poster hung in a local record store, was Negro. "Us girls went crazy--we couldn't get enough of Johnny Mathis," says Uebelgunne, who was "awestruck by how handsome he was." Soon, she began collecting pictures from Hollywood magazines of such "beautiful black people" as Mathis, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne.

Mathis posters on the wall were certainly inconsistent with the marriage preparatory training she had begun two years earlier. And for a young Mormon girl, marriage meant everything. A successful one, initiated only by a closed temple ceremony, had to be with a white Mormon male. This sanctioned union was the sole way a female could ensure her status in the church and, according to church doctrine, gain access to the uppermost tier of the Mormon afterlife, the "Celestial Kingdom." Keeping a "clean seed" for marriage, a more-than-implicit reference to both virginity and racial superiority, was an integral part of the process. Or as a representative from church headquarters in Salt Lake City stated upon traveling to Ogden to counsel young Uebelgunne and her peers, all appropriately clad in spotless white attire from head to toe, one should never "share her chewing gum with a boy" or "mend her white panties with black thread."

Uebelgunne's refusal to believe Mathis could possibly be a "dirty seed" gradually induced an awareness of other inequities in her faith. Though most Mormon women were married as teenagers, by age 19 Uebelgunne was still "pure" and unmarried. So she sought out a local bishop, requesting to be sent on a mission, the church's way of propagating the faith abroad. The bishop reminded her that missions were mostly for college-age Mormon males and that she should "wait around for six months or so for Mr. Right to come along." Or, according to Uebelgunne's interpretation, wait for a mate, stay home and "make lots of babies."

Not one to take "no" for an answer, and given that Mr. Right was a no-show for two years running, Uebelgunne's requests persisted until she was finally granted her wish and sent to Liverpool, England, in 1963. Two years later, she returned to the States and found herself working in Detroit for the IRS. There she met and quickly fell in love with Sigfried Uebelgunne, a German Volkswagen mechanic. Sigfried, a Catholic, would ask for her hand in marriage on just their second date. And although Uebelgunne ached to jump at the opportunity, her years of church indoctrination had made her well aware of the process: Sigfried would first have to be baptized into the Mormon faith. Then the two would have to remain "pure" for a year, throughout which he would prove his Mormon faith.

So in early 1966, the two gathered their belongings and drove to Ogden to provide Sigfried the opportunity to win over his fiancee's family and church--an uneasy task from the start.

"As soon as I get into our house, my mother shakes her finger at me and demands to know if I was still a virgin," recalls Uebelgunne, and her mother's disdain for her out-of-faith engagement never waned. The young couple quickly became prime targets for finger-pointing locals.

On Dec. 5, 1966, fed up with trying to fit into the church's parochial concept of marriage, 24-year-old Mary and 26-year-old Sigfried crossed into Wyoming and eloped. By that time, says Uebelgunne, they realized that being "young and in love" was all that mattered. Moreover, they wanted to have babies. "And this sex business," Uebelgunne recalls, "was great stuff."

The church responded to the marriage and to Uebelgunne's subsequent pregnancy by instructing the young couple to move to a more cosmopolitan and less orthodox community 20 miles away from the church hub. To avoid being kicked out of the church, they complied. But instead of feeling disgraced, Uebelgunne says those were probably "the happiest times" of their lives as she stayed home and raised two children--Trea and Don--while Sigfried operated a successful Volkswagen repair shop in town.

By 1979, what began as a strained relationship with her church had grown into an irreconcilable rift. Inspired by a local activist who challenged the church policy denying the priesthood to blacks and women, Uebelgunne joined a group of disaffected Mormons and began agitating for church and social reforms.

"As a female, I could not attain a position of leadership in the church," she explains. "All I could do was produce babies." That prompted her to "sympathize with the plight of other groups." That year, she took part in the successful push for black Mormon priesthood and was often captured in photographs and news stories at the head of women's and gay rights demonstrations, her two kids trailing along.

"A lot of it was pretty embarrassing, since I was barely a teenager," remembers daughter Trea Peterson. The 32-year-old loan officer still lives in Ogden with her husband and two children, but is no longer a member of the church. Her mother, she says, was "always organizing with some group" or "voicing her opinion on the news." And, she adds, "Uebelgunne was not an easy name to hide."

That same year, upon her successful petition for excommunication, Uebelgunne's lifelong affiliation with the church her great- grandfather helped build came to an end. In August, a week after leading a demonstration against the secret training and matrimonial rituals of Mormon girls, she went before a bishops' court in Salt Lake City to sever all ties. "I was interrogated by a jury of 12 high priests for over two hours," she says. They made her feel "horrible" as they presented a lengthy list of alleged anti-Mormon activities she had engaged in since childhood. But in the end, Uebelgunne got what she wanted. "I was out."

Uebelgunne soon discovered, though, that she was out of more than just the church.

"My family disowned me," she says. "I was like the walking dead." Her parents acted as if she no longer existed. Her seven siblings followed suit; to this day, only one keeps in touch with her.

"I felt like a Judas," she says. "I had betrayed my family and my ancestors."

To make matters worse, Uebelgunne's relationship with her husband and children had also begun to suffer. Upset that his wife insisted on taking their kids to demonstrations, Sigfried developed a disdain for his wife's constant organizing. The kids eventually refused to accompany their mother on anymore demonstrations. But Uebelgunne pushed onward with her activism against the church. She hooked up with a Baptist minister who assisted her in establishing an "underground" newsletter and helpline for troubled Mormons. The two offered counseling to suicidal or depressed Mormons and ex-Mormons from as far away as Texas. "Their phone bills must have been atrocious," she says.

On Aug. 28, 1981, Uebelgunne's activism reached new heights--literally. Protesting the church's opposition to the ERA, she scaled the 30-foot statue of Brigham Young that occupies the main intersection of downtown Salt Lake City, just across the street from church headquarters. Planting herself firmly on Young's large copper head, Uebelgunne dropped prepared statements to media representatives and other curious onlookers, promoting the ERA and stating she "refused to come down until physically removed."

A half-hour later, she was removed--and it was physical.

As reported by the Salt Lake City Tribune, when approached by two police officers who climbed the monument to bring her down, Uebelgunne removed her sandal and "struck an officer in the head with her shoe."

"I was wearing those plastic sandals with the real hard rubber soles," admits Uebelgunne. "But I warned those cops not to try and bring me down." Eventually the 39-year-old activist pled guilty to disturbing the peace, spending 10 days in jail.

In 1986, her personal life hit rock bottom. A depressed Sigfried, his business beset by legal and financial problems, twice attempted to take his own life. Even before the attempted suicides, the Uebelgunnes' marriage had dried up. Upon his release from the hospital, divorce papers were finalized. Forced to sell the house to pay off her husband's business debts, Uebelgunne found herself broke, dejected and alone. Her kids, now of age, had already established lives of their own.

"I honestly didn't know what to do for the woman," says her daughter Trea Peterson, who had married and was then pregnant.

Uebelgunne, 44 years old and alone, quickly decided what to do. At the invitation of an ex-Mormon woman with whom she had communicated via her helpline, she withdrew her final $800 from the bank, loaded her pickup truck with personal belongings and headed for North Carolina, ready to start a new life.

Unfortunately, her new life started out like the old one, as things continued to fall apart. First, her truck broke down in almost every state she entered, turning a three-day trip into a two-month pilgrimage. Next, after reaching her destination in Western North Carolina, the parents of her contact--fearing her to be "an agent of the church who was trying to bring their daughter back into the faith"--would not allow Uebelgunne to see her. With no place to go, Uebelgunne became the live-in companion to an elderly woman who suffered from depression. Six months later the mentally-erratic senior literally threw her out in the cold.

"I was walking in a blizzard through the mountains with my suitcase," Uebelgunne recalls. By the time the local sheriff picked her up, she was, by her own admission, "incoherent." Not knowing what to do with her, says Uebelgunne, the authorities "dropped me off" at the psychiatric ward of Banner Elk Hospital in Boone, where she remained for a month.

"I was happy there," she says. "It was a beautiful hospital where I made a lot of friends. The medication wasn't that bad, and they allowed me to call my kids. I didn't want to leave."

Upon being released, Uebelgunne moved to Rockville, Md., with a friend. But this, too, fell through, and she soon found herself living at shelters on the outskirts of Washington D.C., a condition that would continue for two years. Working at fast-food joints to get by, Uebelgunne admits to being depressed and suicidal over her homelessness. Once again, she entered a mental facility, and in late 1989, "scared of herself," she returned to Banner Elk Hospital in North Carolina seeking treatment. Unable to get readmitted to the psych ward, she ended up in a nearby shelter.

But not for long. After an alleged incident of police brutality in which Uebelgunne claims cops raided the shelter and beat up a number of its residents, she complained to the city's elected officials. Upset with the lack of a response, she threatened local authorities that she would "go tell the governor," and headed for Raleigh.

Although she didn't expect to talk to Gov. Jim Martin directly, she got pretty close. Five months after arriving in Raleigh--still motivated by her experience in Boone and by her growing frustration over the powerless condition of residents at a number of area shelters she inhabited--Uebelgunne and homeless friend Brenda Starr initiated their Home Street Home concept by laying out what became known as "the bed sheet petition" on Fayetteville Street Mall. Taking a page from the legacy of her convert-seeking great- grandfather, she spent the month exhorting downtown office workers, shoppers and other passersby to sign the cotton document. After collecting close to 1000 signatures and attracting attention from the press, Uebelgunne and Starr presented the petition to Martin's secretary on March 30, 1990. Two months later, Martin responded by declaring July "Homeless Month" in North Carolina.

Over the next two years, Uebelgunne continued to draw public attention to Home Street Home's innovative advocacy efforts. She did so even though her own homeless stint ended in 1991, after securing a local apartment with a shelter mate upon their successful applications for Social Security. During this period, Uebelgunne constructed the Homeless Wall of Shame, staged holiday plays on homelessness, organized rallies aimed at empowering shelter residents, and initiated the annual Homestock Fest, which ran for eight years straight.

"They were up all night long cooking food," remembers Rowe, of the first Homestock in 1991, which was a "large gathering of homeless folks from around the state."

But Rowe quickly qualifies his statement, identifying the true source of energy behind that event and all other Home Street Home activities. "Mary was Home Street Home."

Boo Tyson, former director of The Ark shelter, recalls her initial encounter with Uebelgunne in early 1992. "It was my first day on the job and she was speaking at a Low Income Housing Coalition conference I attended, telling everyone about a bad experience she had at my shelter." Tyson felt "totally uncomfortable" and remembers asking herself if she "really wanted to work here."

But in time Tyson would come to depend on Uebelgunne to "say what I couldn't say in my position, but needed to be said. Others would often ask me if I sometimes wished she would shut up, but I never felt that way. Her input made me a better director by forcing me to constantly think about how to best provide for those we served."

While admitting the vocal and persistent Uebelgunne could be "a real pain," Tyson adds, "That is exactly what a good advocate should be."

Still, Uebelgunne's intensity can sometimes undermine her advocacy.

"Sometimes, in her assuredness about her vision and positions, she can discount or get aggravated at the efforts of some potential allies," says Barbara Earls. "This can cause rifts."

Rowe agrees that sometimes Uebelgunne's intensity can rub people the wrong way. Once she has an idea locked in her head, "she just won't give it up."

But while earning a reputation as an uncompromising radical, Uebelgunne's consistent willingness to help others has sometimes left her vulnerable. Her Raleigh apartment was often overrun by homeless guests who would eat all her food and hang out for indefinite periods of time, leading to her eviction in 1993. She is also known to try and help anyone she finds on the streets.

"She would scare me at times," says friend Pauline Banks. Owner of Banks' Fine Food in Raleigh for 13 years, Banks first met Uebelgunne while feeding the homeless every Sunday morning at her restaurant. "I told her to be careful since she didn't know who these people were. But she always believed she'd be all right."

"Sometimes she'd call me upset because she had tried to help somebody who took advantage of her generosity," continues Banks. "But that wouldn't stop her from trying to help them again."

By late 1993, Home Street Home was no longer as active as it had once been. Some suggest this was due to Uebelgunne's relocation from Raleigh that year to subsidized housing in Fuquay-Varina.

"It was probably more difficult for her to run the organization from 20 miles away," offers Rowe.

But writer Rich Krawiec offers a different perspective. "Mary and her organization were never part of any of the mainstream channels of homeless activism," says Krawiec, who taught writing skills and provided GED training for many of Uebelgunne's homeless associates at the time. Because they were "so grassroots, they were always on the fringes" and unable to attract the funding necessary to survive. And since Raleigh, he continues, is commonly regarded as a mere "way station" for transients, the attitude of the agencies was, "We'll help you out, just don't be too vocal." Needless to say, Uebelgunne's self-run advocacy group "didn't fit."

"I was sabotaged by the local service agencies," contends Uebelgunne. "I went with my hat in hand pleading for both their encouragement and economic support for my program, but they all refused me largely because I had been critical of their approach in the past. Additionally, by organizing ourselves from the bottom up, we became a threat as we strove to manage our own services, something they were being paid to do."

Tyson admits many of her peers regarded Uebelgunne as "a thorn in the side of the service-provider world." However, she maintains it is "somewhat naive to think residents can run the shelter. You can't take the administration out of the picture."

On the other hand, she continues, "some shelters are, unfortunately, run without any input from their residents. Listening to Mary helped me recognize the valuable lesson that residents would respect shelter guidelines more if allowed an active role in shaping these policies."

In late 1993, Uebelgunne soon turned to politics to further her cause. She would run for a commissioner spot in Fuquay-Varina twice in a four-year period. Her campaign platforms promoted safer shelters and more control in running them for the town's homeless population. She also established a Homestock Fest in Fuquay-Varina. But once again, in early 1999, she was evicted from her place for taking in people off the streets.

On a cold Saturday in late November--much too cold for anyone to be without a roof overhead and something hot to drink--Uebelgunne received a phone call from six-year acquaintance Henry Moody. Moody, a 52-year-old homeless military vet, was at a fast-food joint at the intersection of Highways 54 and 55 in Durham trying to keep warm without getting arrested for loitering. The howling winds and frigid air outside the shop had convinced him that his customary practice of spending nights under a bridge or behind a dumpster was best avoided tonight, if possible.

"She came and picked me up off the street," says Moody, who suffers a variety of disabilities stemming from alcoholism and six years on the streets. He now occupies the back room of Uebelgunne's trailer. "Not many people would do that," he continues. "She should be recognized for that."

But what Uebelgunne is currently trying to get others to recognize is the difficult plight of homeless vets like Moody--particularly difficult given that homeless males are commonly subjected to harsher kick-out rules by the area's shelters. Most will allow adult males a maximum of two overnight stays, while females can stay for months at a time. Consequently, homeless males are more likely than their female counterparts to be found sleeping on the streets.

Uebelgunne--who gets by on a monthly Social Security check and by selling items she crochets--is engaged in a letter-writing campaign geared at getting vets off the streets by proposing the creation of a "Homeless Vet Refugee Camp" where vets can get a room and two meals each day in exchange for performing an assigned duty. Her three-page proposal, which she sent to a number of elected officials and potential funding sources, outlines such requirements as on-site drug treatment facilities, job training and an administrative center staffed by residents. She even calls for a homeless "loveline" where residents, via an on-staff mediator, can attempt to reconcile with loved ones and remedy their homeless condition.

As a means of gathering start-up costs for such a project, Uebelgunne suggests, "We could have a telethon run by the vets themselves." In addition, each camp could "manufacture a particular product and market it" as one way of generating income. Ideally, she sees the camps being housed at deactivated military bases or at obsolete motels.

Sound a bit unrealistic? Maybe so--but don't tell that to Uebelgunne. Even as she struggles with depression, she remains optimistic about the plight of the vets and of homeless people generally.

"Things will get better," she says. "People such as myself will make it all come together. Those who don't believe that are only feeding into misery."

Though she believes herself to be totally sane, Uebelgunne does admit to being haunted by her own misery.

"I have a whole lot of restless nights," she says slowly, as her eyes settle on the blue carpet beneath her. Often depressed in the mornings after suffering what she characterizes as nightly "flashbacks from her homeless past"--a reference to the numerous friends who've died as a result of their homeless condition--Uebelgunne has learned to cope by crocheting handbags or shopping for knickknacks at the local dollar store. She also "avoids looking at herself in the mirror" during these morning spells, in fear of not liking the person staring back at her. Instead, she just throws on some clothes without worrying about grooming her intentionally close-cropped hair, forcing herself and the outside world to "accept me as I am." And for now, she says, taking medication for her depressed condition is not one of these morning rituals.

But even given the ongoing struggle with her personal demons, anyone who knows or has experienced Uebelgunne, for better or for worse, will tell you there is something unique about her. No one speaks of her casually, but rather in almost visceral tones of familiarity to try to convey the indelible impression left by an interaction with her.

"I was always aware of Mary's presence," says Tyson with a chuckle. "She certainly kept me on my toes."

And if what Uebelgunne says is true concerning the threat she poses to the social-services establishment by organizing the homeless from the bottom up, then keeping service providers on their toes is, perhaps, the most Uebelgunne can hope for.

Or maybe there is more. Given all of the obstacles she's faced throughout her extraordinary life--her rejection of her Mormon faith, her battle with depression and her loss of family and home--Uebelgunne's ultimate contribution to society may very well be her consistent challenge to our prevailing concepts of who and what are truly "valuable."

"Problems are caused by the overprivileged in our society, not the poor," she says, noting that people "got along better" during the Great Depression when "we were all poor and had to pull together to survive."

In an Oct. 27, 1999 letter to the Clayton News-Star, Uebelgunne responded to a column by D.G. Martin suggesting that there are no easy answers to the homeless problem. Uebelgunne wrote that society's determination of value is the underlying problem, a destructive process that has to be flipped on its head: "We live in a culture of indulgences and money-mad supremacy that is sucking the life out of us. ... Poverty serves humankind more justice than wealth and even knowledge, Mr. Martin. Poverty is human nature's perfect equalizer. The bare facts, baby, nothing but the bare necessities."

And surviving with the bare necessities is something Uebelgunne has grown accustomed to. For the third time, she recently received an eviction notice from her landlord for violating the trailer camp's visitors policy: Residents are not allowed to have unauthorized house guests for more than 10 days. Although she is currently appealing the decision, Uebelgunne fully realizes she may find herself without a home once again.

"Oh, it will all work out," she says calmly. "It always has."

Ultimately, Uebelgunne believes her life has worked out better because she's never been scared to raise her voice and challenge the established beliefs of others--something she feels was passed down to her by her great-grandfather George Smuin. Over time, her earlier belief that she betrayed Smuin's sizable legacy has given way to a new understanding.

"I possess all of his best attributes--a strong devotion to, and an unbending faith and belief in a cause," she says, with a confident cock of her head. "I think he'd be proud." EndBlock

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