Ex-welder starts woodworking business at tent encampment

July 31, 2021 GMT

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — For his past two winters living in the woods of Allentown and Bethlehem, 61-year-old Eduardo Fernandez made it through the night by running a propane tank for two to three hours, just to get his tent warm enough so he could fall asleep. Then he’d kick it off to conserve gas.

Now he has a tent filled with bark and driftwood from the Monocacy Creek, and the tips of his fingers are stained from the downed black walnut trees he’s been sawing, sanding and shaving.

He never expected to live this long. He thought cancer would take his life a year ago.

But alive he is, walking and talking in a tent encampment in Bethlehem, dealing with the fits and starts of getting a wood furniture-making business up and running so he can make his third winter more bearable than the last.

“I’d like to do a winter where I can put the heat on when I want, buy the food I want, take my coat off in my tent,” he said on a recent humid July day, the thoughts of winter never far away. “I want to see how comfortable it can be if you have a little money.”


The original idea was to sell enough furniture to get out of the woods and find housing. Two other residents of the tent encampment were in on it. In the spring, John MacDonald, head of the local nonprofit Dough 2 Door, collected $800 from an online fundraiser to help the three get supplies, like a generator and a sander. Denise Martinez, founder of nonprofit Caring Hearts, donated a chainsaw and a tent to cover a work station.

There have been stumbling blocks: theft, broken equipment and a former partner’s incarceration. Fernandez now has two new partners: one is 46-year-old Mike Miller, who came to the encampment two weeks ago and is willing to see where furniture sales can get him.

“I can adapt to wherever I’m at,” he said. “It would be nice to have a shower.”

For himself, Fernandez is no longer sure he wants to leave the woods.

The Cuban-born lifelong Bethlehem resident had been all over the world for welding jobs, taken care of his dying parents, gone bankrupt and walked into the Allentown Rescue Mission in 2012 with nothing but the clothes on his back.

He got disability income and worked for a trucking company for some time before getting a cancer diagnosis in July 2019. (The Morning Call could not independently confirm the diagnosis.)

After the full life he’d lived, he didn’t want to end it on chemotherapy. So in August 2019, he pitched a tent in Allentown’s longtime encampment in the woods off Martin Luther King Boulevard, known as Tent City.

“I came to the woods to party my ass off and drop dead,” he said. “The second part hasn’t worked out so well.”


He had hoped to leave the place, and this life, having created community in what’s usually a transient setup. He’d cook carts full of donated name yams, a staple of the Cuban cooking he remembers from his youth, while others in the camp pooled their food stamps to buy chicken and charcoal. He tried to help create a Tent City Council, whose aim was to disseminate donations fairly and address grievances. Instead, everyone dispersed when the city evicted the camp last fall. Fernandez went to his home town.

Miller, his new woodworking partner from Allentown, has been homeless and occasionally staying at friend’s houses for about two years. He landed in the Bethlehem encampment a few weeks ago after a friend he was staying with sold their house.

Over his lifetime he’s had jobs doing concrete work, pipe installation and some home rebuilding projects with his father. You live in Pennsylvania long enough, he said, carpentry comes somewhat naturally.

“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” he said.

“He’s being modest,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez earned an apprenticeship in carpentry while working as a welder for Duggan & Marcon in the 1980s. He’s held welding jobs at Bethlehem Steel, Mack Trucks, and been contracted out to nuclear plants all over the world, he said — “everywhere but Russia and Antarctica.”

Before becoming homeless, Miller was staying with his parents, but then his father died and mother went to a nursing home. Years later, he welled up talking about his father. Fernandez, who took care of his father and mother before they died in 2009 and ’11, respectively, gets solemn thinking about making the decision to end his father’s lifegiving care.

“I’ve always been able to get my head around it; I’ve never been able to get my heart around it,” he said.

The business has had trouble getting off the ground, as pieces have been stolen and equipment broken. Fernandez managed to make a tic-tac-toe board out of a tree stump for Martinez, which she hopes to raffle off at a Caring Hearts event and invite the artist himself.

“I want to make a big deal about it because Eduardo made it and he deserves recognition,” she said.

MacDonald supplied a large piece of oak for Fernandez to fashion into a coffee table, for which he was going to pay $500-$600. Fernandez finished the top, but said someone stole it.

He has two barn doors, two 6-foot benches and one chopping block on back order, through his informal channels. The next hurdle is fixing the chainsaw and taking a friend up on their offer to make him a website.

All the while, Fernandez is feeling his ailment. He huffs up the hilly encampment, and some days are spent in bed. But other days, like a recent hot one, he gesticulates while recalling the most minute details of the techniques of his former trades, from explosive molding to achieving the perfect glossy glaze on a piece of dead wood.

If the business takes off, he’s not yet sold on whether he’ll stay in the camp or try to go. If death makes that decision for him, he said, he’ll hand the business to one of his partners.

If he decides to find housing, anything will suffice — even the shed in the backyard of a stone ranch on Easton Avenue where he lived with his parents before they died.

“I’d live in that now — it’d be a hell of an upgrade,” he said with a laugh.