A few weeks before I got in my car to drive across the country to California I watched an episode of South Park titled Night of the Living Homeless. It was a pretty hysterical episode. The premise was that certain towns had developed a reputation for being friendly, a haven, for homeless people thus attracting them in overwhelming numbers. This becomes the case for South Park, which is then overrun with change-seeking homeless people who meander about as zombies insatiably begging for change.
“Change, change, Spare some change?” Inevitably the adults can’t figure out what to do about the homeless problem so it’s left to the boys to resolve the issue. And do they ever! They lure the homeless people to California like Pied Pipers singing an even-friendlier version of Dr. Dre and Tupac’s “California Love.”
Cartman bleats out, “Cali-for-nee-uh it loves da homeless!” It’s a hilarious tune that outlines precisely why there are so many homeless in California. But, I was kind of hoping the homeless would be more like those in New York City who either scream incoherently but leave you alone or at least perform some sort of artistic act to gain your “spare change.” No such luck. On my first day here in California a man approached me asking if I could help him with a cup of coffee or some spare change. He told me he was a homeless veteran. I chuckled at the irony but gave him a dollar anyway since he was standing outside the Starbucks. I figured he’d go inside and get that cup of coffee he had asked for, but I probably don’t have to say, he didn’t. In fact, he stood outside the door feeding everyone who went in or out or passed by, as was the case with myself, if they too could help a homeless vet. I have seen that guy in my neighborhood for almost a year. He says the same thing every time, like one of the homeless zombies on South Park, “Can you spare some change.” I began to notice he never really looked at the person he was asking merely gesturing with his voice in the general direction of any human form. It was disconcerting to realize he couldn’t settle himself on any one person he attempted to engage. Yet there was persistence, even a bit of aggression in his request. I still haven’t been able to discern if it’s that he wants to repeat his request as many times as possible to as many people he can on any given block so he can maximize his potential to receive donations or if he is slightly off (he must be!), one day to snap at whomever tells him no at that unfortunate moment.
He is not the only homeless person in midtown Sacramento who uses the same line and seems a tad off, even volatile. But the truth is, the large majority of homeless here are invisible people who sleep a whole lot wherever they can curl up or sprawl out which is more often the case. I see them every day on my morning walks to work and my afternoon walks home. Sometimes I see the same person in the same spot, having never gotten up or moved the entire day. It’s these people I wonder about the most; how they seem to meld into the side of a building or sit perfectly still in the middle of a sidewalk as professional people attempt to avoid them on their way into work. I see so many of the professionals cast furtive glances toward the man crouched down low, rocking gently back and forth on his heels, mumbling wordlessly (he does this often and on that particular block). I see the worry in their glances. Will he disrupt their morning, or afternoon, with an aggressive outburst? I worry about that too but I also engage him in my own way. I take his photograph as I do with the others, many of whom I have photographed numerous times sleeping or crouching in the same spot day after day. But I never disturb them, of course. I simply take their photograph and then leave them as they are. This is my way of acknowledging they exist and that I too could find myself in their position quite easily in a state as bankrupt as California.
I wonder about their life stories, especially the people I see every day. I wonder if they were born here in California or came from far away. What were their plans? Did they have any? Where was their family now? Were they always poor and homeless or had they ever achieved some level of success and stability? Who loved them? Was there anyone out there in the world that was missing them? Did they themselves miss anyone? Did they miss themselves? I think this especially about the lone woman who sprawls out on the steps of the Methodist Church on J Street clutching a plastic garbage bag with god knows what in it. I wonder how she got to this place in her life and if she will ever find a way to financial and emotional stability.
Then I think about the 17 year old girl who followed me on my walk home one rainy afternoon, jabbering the entire 20 blocks. Letting it slip here and there that she was trying to get up some cash to get a train ticket to Texas where her grandparents live – she really missed them and was ready to see them again. Then she proceeded to relate to me the countless drugs she is addicted to, and how she really just wanted to visit her grandparents but then get back on the road. She told me she liked traveling and meeting people and that you can pretty much get anything you want for free just by asking for it. She told me she never paid for drugs, but somehow was addicted to many of them. She thought that was curious. She asked me if I didn’t think the same. I agreed it was. I reminded her that her life was not a very good one, and though she was “free” (she kept telling me she was truly free in a way that I wasn’t.), she was also hustling me for money and a place to stay (most likely), and that was a 24/7 job. I reminded her that though I may have been trapped in an office for 9 hours at least it was warm and dry. She wandered around Sacramento looking for a mark and supposed she had found one in me. I found her amusing and sad – filled with talk show problems. Her mother was a Meth addict. Her father was a child molester who was in prison. Her twin brother had attempted suicide – three times. She had married at 15 and was already divorced. Her grandparents threw her out for doing drugs she couldn’t help doing and refused to help her get clean. Every story was a contradiction and more dramatic than the next but not very inventive. I had it in mind to treat her to happy hour sushi at the restaurant a few doors down from my place. By the time we reached my block she abruptly turned and said in a genuinely sweet voice, as if she really wanted me to have it, “Have a nice life lady.”
I went on my way then started to worry that I had missed an opportunity to help someone truly in need. Not that I’d ever let a stranger stay with me but I could certainly give her some money for the train and treat her to a meal. I went back down the block where we departed figuring she was hanging out in the lobby of a building down the street from my apartment – since I saw her go in there from my window, but she was long gone. I got in my car and drove around my neighborhood looking for her, lamenting my cynicism, but she was gone.
I know most of her stories were slightly far-fetched, but I am certain she came from a broken home with troubled parents. And though she had clearly chosen to be homeless, even seeming to enjoy the adventure of “life on the road” as she called it, I also sensed she wanted to return to Texas to be with what is left of her family. And unlike the agitated old men and forlorn middle-aged women I see sprawled out day after day, she had life in her and was smart enough to craft some stories that entertained just enough to net her free food, shelter and company, but was also self-reflective enough to realize she had real problems that needed attention.
I wonder what happened to her, where she went and whom she met after me. I hope it was someone kind enough to help her out. Someone who either gave her money for a ticket back to Texas or a home in California.
Photo: Maria Colòn0