Thursday, April 14, 2011

Homeless in Sacramento, Two Views

A recent article in the Sacramento Bee and another from 2008 in the Sacramento News & Review offer very contrasting pictures.

1) An excerpt from the Sacramento Bee article.

“Garbage and recycling trucks maneuvered haltingly up 38th Street in east Sacramento on a recent morning, while a stream of passers-by, heading toward nearby medical offices, ducked into the Peet's Coffee & Tea on J Street to order soy lattes and iced mochas.

“Few paid heed to the man asleep on the peeling side stoop of a discount bridal outlet, a linty brown blanket pulled over his body and a blue wrap around his head.

“The 8:30 a.m. sun was already overhead when Striker Lee – he bowls strikes and goes by Lee instead of Leroy, his father's name – began to stir. He stretched the creaks from a night spent on foam and cardboard, and straightened his white socks.

"I'm not homeless," insisted Lee, 66, who says he did ambush patrol during the Vietnam War. "My home is the universe and this is the area I sleep."

“Every morning, an estimated 1,200 people in Sacramento emerge from downtown doorways and parking lots, neighborhood alleys and parks. They zip out of tents pitched along the American River Parkway and pile their belongings into bagged, boxed and bungeed contraptions.

“While city leaders debate the idea of a permanent tent city for the homeless, Sacramento's street people seek out their own respites wherever they can. They have to sleep somewhere, and for the people who live and work in the areas where the homeless concentrate, it means adapting and sometimes it means conflict.

“Dreher Street, north of downtown

“The sun peeked above the American River and dozens of people, bundled in the hats, hoods and gloves that kept them warm overnight, began making their way down the bike trail and through an enclave of 31 homes in an industrial area off 16th Street north of downtown.

“Some came through on bikes; others pushed clanking carts overloaded with tarps or pulled overstuffed rolling luggage.

"When I moved here, if three cars came down the street, the neighbors would go out to see where they were going," said Joe Taylor, 71, a retired aircraft mechanic who has lived in the same modest house since 1963. "I could walk over to the river and you would see cottontail, quail, pheasants and sometimes a coyote."

“That changed when Loaves & Fishes opened in the area in 1980s and became a destination where the homeless could get a warm meal and services, he said.

“There were always hobos, Taylor conceded, but their numbers were small and they generally stuck to themselves – the primary evidence of their camps was the smell of frying fish or whatever else was scavenged for dinner.

“Now the homeless use his neighborhood as a thoroughfare. Their dogs run on his lawn. Church groups set up makeshift feeding stations on his street. People spill out of cars, changing their clothes on the sidewalk.”

2) An excerpt from the Sacramento News & Review Article.

“The old man wants nothing to do with the story. Not a thing. Can’t really blame him, considering what happened out here the other day. He’s talking about moving on, trying his luck in Las Vegas or Reno, getting the hell out of Tent Town.

“It’s a desolate place, a ragtag collection of tents, tarps and lean-tos pitched on a half-acre of burned and scalded scrub brush just north of Midtown, between 20th and 28th streets. Once, this patch of wasteland served as the Sacramento dump. When the Union Pacific roars by Tent Town, there’s no question which side of the tracks you’re on.

“The old man’s been out here three months. He’s a skilled craftsman, but there’s no work. There are other folks, men and women, who’ve been out here longer for the same reason. Then there are the ones who’ve been homeless for years, dragged down by drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and disease, or just plain dumb luck.

“It makes for a volatile mix, and navigating through this no man’s land of poverty, depredation and occasional violence can be a daunting prospect. The old man knows the way, as do many of the people who inhabit this gritty tableau. Given the present economic downturn, the lessons they have learned are invaluable for those of us who may be joining their ranks sooner than we think. So, without further ado, here’s a list of survival tips from the denizens of Tent Town. May you never be in need of them.

“1. Keep your distance

If you’re new in town, remember that even thought it looks like KOA at the dump, the residents here value their privacy, just like any place else. Don’t stroll up to a tattered dome tent, perched alone in a barren field like some unexploded bomb and say, “Wassup?” No. 1, you’re standing in their living room. No. 2, they might take it personally. Announce yourself from a safe distance, determined by how fast you can run with whatever you’re carrying. “Hello!” will do just fine.

“2. Trust no one

If a giant man climbs out of tent and begins screaming and gesticulating wildly, quietly walk away. Visiting hours are over. Besides, the rumor is he’s the guy that set the field ablaze in the first place. Maybe he just doesn’t like company. The old man’s not like that at all. His far more civilized digs are situated on high ground, in the trees and brush on the unburned side of the camp. Wave hello, and he waves hello back. It’s safe to come in.

Except the old man is the first one who’ll tell you it really isn’t safe, because you can’t trust anyone in Tent Town, at least until you get to know them, and maybe not even then.

“3. Keep your chin up

“There are worse situations to be in,” the old man says. “Out here, you’ve got to be responsible to yourself and others.” Being responsible to yourself means making the best of the situation. Heather, 29, a slim, attractive college graduate who has been on the streets for six months, looks at homelessness as a learning experience. “There’s a part of me that’s proud I can live out here on my own,” she says.

“4. Stay organized

The old man’s camp is immaculate. The four-man dome tent is drawn tight and staked to the ground at the corners with lengths of angle iron, to provide extra support in the wind and rain. Across from the tent, he’s hung a tarp from the trees for shade. A small Weber barbecue occupies the kitchen area off to the side. It’s all laid out linearly, like the floor plan of a house. There’s no trash strewn about. Staying organized establishes a routine that keeps him focused on the goal: getting the hell out of Tent Town. “It’s something I work at,” he says. “It’s something to spend your idling time on. You’ve got to keep busy out here. Otherwise, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”…

“14. Stay away from the river

It’s a half-mile from Tent Town to the American River, where the hard-core, chronically homeless hole up in the dense foliage leading up to its banks. The level of depravity increases the nearer you get to the water, which is why the American River Parkway is heavily patrolled by park rangers from Discovery Park to Cal Expo. “We heard screams coming from there last night,” says Kim. She’d be pretty if all of her front teeth hadn’t been knocked out. “They hauled another body out of there the other day, some mummified dude,” Ace adds. Kim shivers.”