Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Houseless but not homeless

Hailey squatter builds A-frame dwelling from scrap lumber


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Richard Lee Grace, also known as “Birddog,” stands next to the A-frame dwelling he built near the Big Wood River near Hailey. Photo by Willy Cook

A Hailey man claims to be pioneering a new lifestyle—homelessness done properly.

"I practice a hybrid lifestyle between modern civilization and the way it used to be," said Richard Lee Grace, who claims he's involved in a government project to demonstrate effective techniques for homeless living.

Actually, he's squatting, but the property owner apparently chooses to ignore it. Grace said he's been living as a homeless man near the Big Wood River on and off for the past 18 years.

Public officials tend to look the other way, tolerate his presence or even welcome the fact that he keeps the area tidy.

"There's been as many as 30 people living out here and it was nothing but a problem, and I spent five years cleaning up after them," he said.

More commonly known as "Birddog," Grace explained that he studies wildlife, including raptors, and people started referring to him as "the bird person," or even "birdman." Somehow the nicknames evolved into Birddog.

He tolerates the name, but prefers to be called Richard Lee.

Though his lifestyle is unusual, Grace wouldn't stand out in a crowd as a homeless man. He keeps his hair short, has sort of a construction worker look and sports no beard or moustache. Stubble on his face suggests that he shaves at least once a week.

Grace said he's not sure how old he is, but Blaine County Court records state that he was born in 1957.

He was reticent at first to talk when a reporter and photographer showed up at his dwelling last week. He explained that the "family might not approve." But then he decided that as the "chosen one" he had the authority for full disclosure.

Grace is not referring to family in the normal sense of the word. Instead, he said, the family is made up of his fellow descendents from the lost island of Atlantis.

But for the time being, Grace's only companions are a gang of 10 scrawny black and gray cats who follow him wherever he goes.

Grace said he didn't go looking to acquire cats. Rather, they acquired him. Someone dropped off a stray several years ago, he said, and since then the cats have multiplied.

"Somebody asked me once 'if we could help you what could we do?'" Grace said. "Cat food—I need cat food to feed my cats."

Lacking the cat food, Grace shares his own food, most of it acquired with food stamps.

Grace lives in a solidly-built A-frame shelter made mostly from scrap lumber. Pinewood poles, still showing their bark, serve as the frame. The poles are covered with sheets of plywood and the entire dwelling is kept waterproof by plastic tarps.

The shelter even has an upper level that Grace uses for storage but is in the process of converting into a library.

A system of extension cords, attached to a box on a nearby power pole, channels electricity to the dwelling. Grace has a few lights, two small television sets and a computer.

"I'm one of the rich homeless," Grace said.

In the past, he has heated his home with a propane heater, but recently installed a wood-burning stove.

Wooden pallets covered with rugs serve as a floor. Books and VHS and DVD movies are crammed into makeshift shelves and anywhere else where space is available in the cramped quarters.

Grace sleeps on a couch. His cats like to hang out there too.

'Ratchilla'

His closest neighbor is a rodent Grace calls "Ratchilla," which he described as about a foot in length and looking like a cross between a rat and a chinchilla. He said he thought the animal at first was a laboratory experiment gone awry, but now he believes the rodent is either an unidentified species or a species of animal that is believed to have been extinct for thousands of years.

"It comes in sometimes and steals food from me," said Grace, who has a mystical awe for the creature.

Observing and studying wildlife is one of Grace's favorite pastimes. He said he also writes screenplays and reads and studies a lot.

Grace works odd jobs now and then. He salvages useful items from dumpsters and occasionally receives donations.

Right now he's busy preparing for winter and getting ready for the arrival of the spaceship. Grace said it will come from the planet of "Rilgrace," which was once the home of the people of Atlantis.

"We are the children of Atlantis," Grace said in describing himself and the family. "We are the people who survived an island sinking and came to this continent 13,000 years ago."

Grace has a landing site nearby that he keeps clean of debris.

"I'm here to establish contact with the family for our return to space," he said.

"Some of this may sound psychotic, but I'm ready to defend my statements," he said. "I've been in and out of mental institutions, but I have this connection to this planet that I can't explain."

Grace is well known in the Hailey area. He is generally well liked, but some people find him a bit frightening. Occasionally he has to be warned by police about not yelling at people intruding near his dwelling.

Some folks, including local officials, help him out now and then and keep an eye on his well-being.

Grace prefers the life he's living.

"I'm good at it," he said. "I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life. I'm ecstatic. No dope, no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons. That's the family's rule."




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