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Personal Encounters With The Homeless

How does it feel, how does it feel, to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone? —Bob Dylan

Not too good, Bob, especially in the rainy season, and if it's cold and rainy in your personal life too, well, there's just no getting out of the weather.

Three winters ago, the County of Mendocino put up a big tent next door to the Fort Bragg Police Department. The idea was to get the homeless out of the rain because the town's sole shelter, Hospitality House, was full up, and tends to stay full up, winter and summer, because it's the only one the length of Mendocino's very long coast. Even in the best of times the occasionally hospitable Hospitality House doesn't have enough beds for all the people who need them.

And Hospitality House screens its desperate patrons much more carefully than the most exclusive of the scented soap inns that Mendocino is famous for, the ones with the big ocean views. Those places will admit anyone so long as anyone pays cash or walks through the door with a valid credit card. Hospitality House and the rest of the County's shelters reject all but the most docile of the doomed.

So the big tent went up in December and blew down in the big winds of March with forty people asleep in it. No one was hurt, but that was the unfortunate end of a promising experiment, a cheap means of not only getting the homeless out of the rain but a means of gathering many of the most intractable into one place from which they could be directed to services, the euphemism for help, the thin rope thrown over the side to people who've jumped overboard. Or have been pushed.

But to get help you've got to want help, and there are quite a few people wandering around out there who don't want it, or want it only when the weather is bad, or are too drunk or drugged to want it, or too crazy to want it.

The local, state and federal policy is freedom of choice. If you're unable or unwilling to help yourself, you can stay outside, way outside in many cases, beyond all known social pales.

The County of Mendocino is large in area, small in people, tiny in tax base. It does what it can, which isn't much, but the County does help support, or at least sanctions, a few places like Hospitality House where twenty highly competitive beds are theoretically available in a neighborhood hostile to the people availing themselves of them.

"Do you want a bunch of bums standing around in your neighborhood?"

That kind of hostility, the unreasoning kind.

A bunch of guys who look like Mitt Romney are likely to be much more comprehensively dangerous, but that opinion probably isn't widely shared.

Inland, there's the crucial Buddy Eller Center and Ford Street, both in Ukiah where there's some 80 beds, and there's Plowshares, a modern day soup kitchen, also in Ukiah. A small group of saintly Willits women a few years ago, on their own initiative, formed the Willits Community Center, a multi-faceted help center. Then there's the Methodist and Catholic churches in Ukiah whose parishioners also support regular assistance to people in need. For a county full of big building churches complete with big, fully-equipped kitchens, Christians around here are long on talk, short on practice.

The County's shelters don't permit people to linger; the temporarily sheltered must avail themselves of what official help there is or leave after three days. Bums, drunks, the drug dependent, and the merely incompetent have to make an effort to get themselves together if they're going to stay on while they do it.

That's it for Mendocino County, about a hundred beds, although small communities like Boonville and Covelo manage regular schedules of modest amounts of donated foods, as do most of the outback villages.

No one knows for sure — the homeless don't do head counts — but there are believed to be some thousand unhoused persons in the county, some of them managing, by ingenious stratagems, to live in their vehicles. The latter include, for example, an employed man who lives in his truck because he can't afford rent, but maintains a $50-a-month health club membership whose showers and bathrooms he uses every day to keep himself presentable.

County landlords increasingly depend on credit checks to screen potential tenants in a very tight rental market. Even if struggling persons and families manage to scrape together the large sum needed to secure an apartment or small house — roughly $3,000 in the Ukiah Valley — a sum including first and last month's rent and, typically, an exorbitant "cleaning deposit," their credit report often relegates the working poor to lives spent shuffling from shelters to friend's livingrooms to who knows where. One unpaid trip to an emergency room with an ailing child, a single unpaid PG&E bill, or even tardy payments to the vultures of Credit Card World, and the landlord, going entirely by what he learns from a credit report, often dooms the unsheltered to life on the move.

The seriously mentally ill, when they "act out," in the silly, all-inclusive social work phrase describing everything from the screaming public meemies to machete attacks on random pedestrians, are mostly dealt with by the police. In Mendocino County this is a good thing because the average cop tends to be a more realistically compassionate person than the average helping professional, of whom there are almost as many on the public payroll as there are aggregate numbers of persons to be helped. And there are countless citizens who operate their own private charities, helping specific individuals they happen to know or encounter. When Tennesse Williams had Blanche Dubois say, "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers," he made a true statement about the high incidence of random, unorganized generosity in this country.

Lately, though, people seem to be running out of kind. There are too many unhinged, menacing people roaming the streets, staggering around drunk, shooting up drugs in plain view, panhandling.

I live in Boonville most of the time, San Francisco some of the time. Boonville is small enough to where a hurting person will not be left to hurt alone, and certainly wouldn't be left to die alone. There are people in Boonville who are precariously housed, but I don't know of anybody who's camping out. Which isn't to say there aren't any, it's only to say I don't know about them.

San Francisco, though, is another story. The city claims there are exactly 6,377 people living in the street. Or Golden Gate Park. There's a small army of Frisco libs who think that's just fine.

But I have tracked a few homeless people in San Francisco because I see them all the time in the areas of the city I spend most of my city time in. I think, in their individual ways, they're representative of the people, city and country, lumped under the heading, "chronically homeless." The homeless people I've been watching, each in his or her way, is absolutely intransigent. The only way to get them off the street is to force them into treatment, and the only way to provide enough mandatory treatment is to tax for it, preferably via restoration of the graduated income tax.

Cash for Weed
Cash for Weed

This guy told me he wasn't homeless, but when I asked him where he spent his nights he rightly told me, "That's none of your business," adding an emphatic "Dude!" But he's at Fisherman's Wharf every day with his simple but apparently effective hustle. I watched him from across the street one busy Saturday afternoon as numerous passersby either dropped dollar bills onto his cloth begging bowl without the photo or forked over a buck to take his picture. Cash for Weed is probably considered a minor nuisance by some people but he's a benign nuisance, takes up little space, never insistent, never hostile unless you pry, like I tried to do.

I was startled the first time I saw Grunge Man. There he sat so thoroughly engrimed, so utterly nuthouse pathetic that I thought for pure all-round despairing hopelessness Grunge Man would give a Calcutta leper a run for the mendicant sweepstakes, and here he is day after day after day, only moving from in front of 450 Jefferson to a nearby covered walk way when it rains.

I assumed Grunge Man was nuts, one more institutional case left out to die from San Francisco's unique combination of civic neglect and its killer homeless advocates who think all Americans have an equal right to live and die on the streets, just as the rich and the poor both have the right to sleep under bridges.

Grunge Man
Grunge Man

Dropping a buck on Grunge Man, I asked him if I could take his picture. "Thank you for asking," he said in a very clear, resonantly basso voice. "Yes, you can. Most people don't ask." His quick, with-it response was surprise number one. I'd assumed the guy was completely out of it. I mean, look at him, sitting there rocking like an autistic, not even looking up as three remedial readers fly over him on their little bicycles, laughing as each just missed Grunge Man's scabrous skull.

I thought my cash contribution and mannerly approach had bought me some access. Grunge Man would surely unburden himself, telling me all about why he was out here every day in the 400 block of Jefferson, directly in front of the offices of fish brokers Alioto and Lazio, depressing the shoals of tourists who step carefully around him like he was a giant dog turd.

Lamely, I asked, "Are you homeless?" He replied, "Thank you for the dollar. Interview over."

That was that. Grunge Man might be nuts, but I was naive to have thought he'd tell me anything, let alone why he sat on a heavily traveled public sidewalk every day absorbing the appalled stares and huge helpings of audible disgust from the passing parade.

One morning I caught the northbound 30 Stockton at Kearny and Market and here comes Grunge Man jogging up in his flip-flops, his toxic sleeping bag jauntily wrapped around his neck and shoulders like a yuppie scarf. He bounded athletically from the sidewalk to the fare box into which he dropped two quarters, the senior rate.

Grunge Man was on his way to work at Fisherman's Wharf where he'd spend another long day bumming out the tourists and scaring their wide eyed children with his boogeyman presence. And he'd make a little money from the minority of people who walked by thinking to themselves, "Have we come to this in our country?"

"Goddam!" a black male passenger exclaimed as Grunge Man dropped his two quarters into the fare box. "Get him clear offa here!"

The Asian driver snarled at Grunge Man, "You're not riding for fifty cents."

I piped up to say I'd pay the difference, adding, "I know the guy. He's a friend of mine."

The black man looked at me and laughed. "Then you need some new friends. I know a lot of homeless people but this guy is the nastiest....."

By that time Grunge Man had hopped back off the bus. It was the first time I'd seen him any place but in his dirt ball lotus position on Jefferson Street. I wondered where he commuted from. If I had the money, I thought, I'd hire a private detective to track him down, find out all about him. The guy fascinates me; he's crazy even if he isn't certifiable because he's doing a crazy thing, a very crazy thing and he's doing it right out there so the rest of us have to think about it. Maybe he's a performance artist. Maybe he's on some kind of weird revenge mission. Maybe he's the veteran I've heard him claim to be, so traumatized by battle he's intent upon becoming one with the earth before the earth covers him up for good. Because he can talk, and talk well in crisp, clearly enunciated, responsively full sentences, the authorities have obviously concluded that Grunge Man has every right to bring a little bit of Calcutta to the streets of San Francisco. He has the Constitutional right to assemble, but what the hell redress is he seeking?

I always stop to greet Grunge Man when I pass by, but Grunge Man must remember me as the busy body who's curious about him; he never answers me. I've heard him tell passersby that he's an ex-Marine, others he tells he's Army.


Here's Bushman, my favorite street act. He crouches behind his leafy shield to waylay oblivious passersby with a sudden growling and rustling of his foliage, thus greatly amusing the easily amused, me among them. Bushman has been in the same spot on Fisherman's Wharf for 37 years and, he says, makes anywhere between $100 and $200 a day. And he's always as amused as his audience! Bushman isn't homeless, he's creative. If all the homeless had an act, they might be more acceptable. But it's no act with most of them.

The Bedouin, from whose faint, martyr-ish voice I assume is female, a deduction also made from the thin, claw-like hand she shoots out from deep within her multiple layers of rags to snag cash with the speed of a starving crustacean, shuffles up and down California Street between Presidio and the Palace of the Legion of Fine Arts, a distance of about three miles, through the safest neighborhoods of the city. The Bedouin snarled at me a couple of years ago when I gave her a dollar and asked her if she'd talk to me. "No, get the hell away from me." Which I did, and quickly, too, fearing to be mistaken for some kind of weirdo tormenting street people.

The Bedouin
The Bedouin

The Bedouin sleeps in bus shelters and the side street doorways of buildings whose occupants won't shoo her away. There are lots of people like her on the streets, propelled by mysterious itineraries, moving inexorably from one indistinct address to another. They aren't crazy in any classifiable sense, don't really bother anyone but, because of the sad visual they present, and the even more pathetic reality of their odd lives, they represent an ongoing body blow to public morale. Every public space in the city has at least one human-type being who ought to be confined to a hospital setting for the sake of their own well-being. Why is there even an argument about it?

Drop fall drunks, called "stew bums" in my youth, never used to be allowed to commit public suicide. They can now. The city will pick them up, dry them out, then back they go to the Night Train. I remember this guy when he first appeared on Clement Street maybe five years ago. I call him Bob because he could be the twin brother of a Boonville man named Bob Goodell. Five years ago Bob looked to be in his mid-twenties, fresh-faced even when he was sprawled full-out on the sidewalk, comatose from drink. Five years later he's got that bloated black plum look habitual drunks get just before their livers finally short out and they leave for good.

Drunk Bob
Drunk Bob

Bob spends a lot of nights in the doorway at Goodwill. The same night I took this picture, a nicely maintained middle-aged woman, a terminally misdirected enabler, walked up and stuck a twenty dollar box of Sees Candy into Bob's sleeping bag. I wondered what Bob would make of the gift if he woke up.

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