Friday, September 15, 2006

Life on the Mean Streets

As part of my training to be a volunteer with the city, I had to accompany the Park Ranger on his patrols throughout the city for two two-hour blocks both on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons this week from 4pm to 6pm when the most problems happen.

On the first night, I wasn’t sure what to expect as we first got in the truck, but I was excited all the same. Our first stop was in one of the parks more frequented by transients in this city, on the north side about three miles from my house. We got out and approached a group of five extremely dirty individuals lounging on the grass and surrounded by the usual debris you’d associate with a group of homeless people. Not being in this situation before, I was apprehensive about getting near them, and I think I would have been more comfortable walking up to a pack of dogs than these people; at least with a pack of dogs, you can tell what they might be thinking. I couldn’t tell what they would do upon seeing us, and I figured they didn’t have a whole lot to lose; at least if they went to prison for attacking us they’d get something to eat and a place to sleep.

After making contact with the group, I should express my initial confusion, as I wasn’t sure if I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t start yelling, throwing cats or running wildly in circles on the grass in front of us… or if I was disappointed that they didn’t do any of that.

I expected them to, I think.

I expected more insanity, more Turrets Syndrome and more of the crazy outspokenness I believed ran rampant in the homeless community. I mean, they’re bums, outcasts of civilization, without care for themselves or their surroundings; what should I expect? How should I consider them? My equal? My better? My contemporaries? I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I have a job and a house, and I’ve worked hard for these things… more importantly, I have the drive to get these things and to live in relative comfort. If I lost my job (which I have several times in my life), I concentrated on nothing but getting another one and returning to my former status. I didn’t start drinking or ignoring the problem so that it might go away. Bad luck happens to all of us, and sometimes bad things happen to us because we either allow it to or don’t do anything about it once it happened. These people have decided to skip out on being a respectful and responsible part of the community by escaping from reality with drugs, alcohol, crime, prostitution…and mental impairment.

I expected babbling, crazy eyes, conflict, hostility and resent that we—the law—were yet again trying to disrupt their quiet way of life. I expected everything you see on TV about the homeless, only real life and in my face.

Instead…instead, I discovered that they were well mannered, polite, sober (for the most part) and cooperative to the point of respectful. The Park Ranger I was with knew them all by name and he knew their background rather intimately.

And they all knew him.

There was Roberta, who didn’t speak any English and was probably illegal as she produced either a passport or consulate paperwork, and her daughter (I didn’t get her name) were warned to clean up the pots and pans, as cooking in the park is against the law. Roberta was around 50, but looked 100, and had long gray hair that flew about her head in wisps, lines deeply etched on her face and those kind of eyes that didn’t really look at anything, but instead, pierced quite through to some other place. She didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs and wasn’t a prostitute; she just had a rough a few years back in the day and decided that living on the streets was a better route to take. And with her she took her daughter is now probably 30 and knows of no other way of life.

Also in the group was a guy named Vodka Jim, for obvious reasons. I couldn’t place his problem, initially, but he did have the wild eyes, the crazy kind from Peter Lorre’s “M.” He was paper thin, with sunken pock-marked cheeks from bad acne as a kid, dirty blonde hair and several skull tattoos on his arms. He fiddled with his hands a lot and he was visibly shaking. He had a bicycle, and his parents kicked him out several years ago, but they come around from time to time to check on him and make sure he doesn’t need anything. I’m sure there’s quite a bit more to it than that, but that’s all I learned. He was completely drunk, eyes crimson red, neck muscles relaxed and his speech wasn’t slurred but he spoke like he was juggling marbles in his mouth.

The Park Ranger gave a few warnings about the various things—the trash, the pans and the drinking—and we left them there full of promises to shape up or get out of the park. The Ranger is compassionate, more so than I think I might have been, but he’s been working with these people for three years. He knows them all, their stories, their families, their problems. Maybe he sympathizes with their plight or feels that with the right combination of tough love, citations and assistance something will click and they’ll get out of it… and I’ll bet he sees them more as human beings than as misfits of society.

Later on, there were two women pushing a shopping cart down the street, on their way to the homeless shelter about a mile away. We stopped them and took away their cart instead of giving them (another) ticket for possession of a shopping cart. They were nice women, coherent, rational, agreeable, lucid and if you gave them a comb, some makeup and fresh shirts to wear, you could put them anywhere in town and nobody would know the difference. Instead, they’re out on the street because that’s where the turn of events put them and they’re content. From time to time, they get jobs, money under the table that they can use for whatever they need. They both drank a lot, but were sober when we met them—or at least they acted well—and their last job was as stock clerks at Target (not the one we go to), but were “laid off”… those are air quotes, folks, as I got the impression they were fired for drinking.

The following day, I was first riding with the Code Enforcement Officer whose baby this volunteer program was, and we stopped at a series of abandon houses on some forsaken side street because the police had detained an old woman and her five… yes, five shopping carts full of God knows what, for trespassing on private property (the abandon houses). She was the quintessential Cat Lady, as she carried bags and cans of cat food, pooper scoopers, plastic bags and brooms, and I was told that about 30 cats live at these two houses that she takes care of. Behind the short wall, a burned out house was completely boarded up and splattered with graffiti. The top windows and attic vents were scarred from fire, and the inside—I was told—was completely gutted by fire. Several of the houses on that street are in the same condition, owned by a company that is callously waiting for the housing bubble to burst so they can come in, demolish them and construct some retail establishments. Meanwhile, drugs, vagrancy, drinking, and worse (I won’t share with you what) happen on the property, which is littered with broken bottles, trash, cans of food and other garbage. Everything had a sheen of disease to it, and I didn’t even want to lean a bare hand on the block wall for fear of putting it into who knows what kind of filth.

The woman’s name was Patricia and she must have been around 55 years old, completely gray, shaped like a pear, wearing an old dirty black skirt and a surprisingly clean white blouse. She was hunched over and had to twist her head to the side to look up at anyone taller than her (which is everyone taller than Emmanuel Lewis) and she hobbled on thick stumpy legs and black sandals. There were three police officers and five code enforcement officers (including me) on the scene, and we had to clean out the shopping carts (yes, we all wore gloves) and bag up all of her belongings. It was unpleasant to root through a homeless shopping cart—my first time—two were from Sears a couple miles away, one from Albertsons and two without a plaque, and I was very intent on not letting the stuff get to close to me as I helped bag it up, all the while, cautiously observing if anything was moving on the piles of clothes, old newspapers, empty boxes and other debris. The whole time I was wonder what happens to these carts, and I pictured them being returned to the shopping centers and merely slid back into circulation for the next unsuspecting shopper to use; I vowed to being anti-bacterial wipes on my next visit to the store.

The officers called what we were doing “pruning,” because if you didn’t take away their shopping carts and cull down their collection of possessions from time to time, the obsessive compulsiveness that these people suffer from compels them to gather as many things as possible, and her train of carts would be not only endless but quite a blight on the cityscape. I did notice that the code enforcement officers were trying to confuse her as to what bags were hers and what she should leave behind, and a couple of them put several of the bags behind a small wall so she couldn’t see them. Regardless of this, Patricia had a deep desire to possess things, anything, and one officer told me about the time they took away her shopping carts and one of them was full of nothing but dead cats.

She was as insane as they can possibly get, in my opinion. It was clear to her that her problems were society’s, as she felt it owed her. She was upset that the police were stopping her when there was so much “real” crime going on, and she accused some of the police as being thieves, taking her money and things when she wasn’t looking. She repeatedly claimed that she needed all of her stuff, but she didn’t know which shopping cart was actual hers…or what bags belonged to her. She was upset about the cats, and didn’t want to leave them alone (though I didn’t see any), and was horrified to hear that they would call Animal Control on her behalf. At one point, a disheveled man in shorts and a fedora walked down the alley and began to criticize the police for hassling Patricia. “She’s a friend of mine, and you should leave her alone. Are you okay, Patricia?” She didn’t answer. His name was Barry, and he was near homeless (but had a cell phone oddly), living in converted garages and condemned buildings. Funny enough, this year he is running for City Council; I’m not sure what platform he’s running on, but the comedy factor would almost be well worth my vote. After the police told him that he’d be arrested for obstruction, he got on his cell phone, spoke to someone for a while, and then announced our little civic group we had gathered that, “They’re on the way for you.” We were puzzled, of course, but I was told that he always calls his lawyer (poor guy) and he has the phone numbers of various council members. Barry in ’06!

We came upon Peter at a freeway off ramp. He was holding the standard “please help me” sign and was wearing an old t-shirt and desert camouflage pants. Though he was only 25 years old, his thick dirty blonde beard made him look much older; blood red eyes didn’t hurt either, and when he came over to talk with the Park Ranger, he was clearly drunk. He was abused as a child, and later on watched his father murder a boy roughly his age. Now, his grandfather takes care of him when he can. At one point, he was doing well, had a job, a car, and it looked as though he was pulling himself back up, but then, one day, let go, got a DUI in the car, lost his job and found solace on the streets again…and in a bottle.

Then there was a call of a naked guy in a park, showering with a hose. By the time we got there, the police had been called and they had him in custody after a brief chase, so we didn’t even bother to go near the scene for fear of getting in the way. I’m sure it wasn’t the funny naked guy you’d see streaking a Dodger game or the naked guy expressing his freedoms at a peace rally. This was homeless naked guy…

I think learned a little bit about people in my two days patrolling the streets of this city. I saw some things I had only disregarded as filth from my car as I drove by, but now that I’ve seen them up close, it is hard to fluff them off as less than human and animal like, though sometimes their actions beg to differ. I don’t feel sorry for them, like I thought I would, because now I understand that most all of them choose this lifestyle. They’ve chosen to drink and do drugs and not get help. Yes, I felt bad that people had let themselves get like this, but it isn’t as though nobody’s trying to help them. Patricia refuses care at the shelter and Vodka Jim, according to him, doesn’t have a problem.

You can only callously stand back and observe someone self-destructing, and there’s nothing you can do about it, especially when the person doesn’t want to do anything about it themselves. There’s no helping those that won’t help themselves, and that’s where I draw the line on my conscious. I don’t feel for them; I can’t. There is no amount of money you can give to an alcoholic to keep him from drinking or to a druggy to keep him clean. Plus, every dollar they get from some sympathetic person on the freeway off ramp, and every free needle or condom or blanket or pile of clothes they get from a shelter is only one step further into the entrenchment of their lives, further encouraging their beliefs. Either they’re so far diluted in their way of life that they don’t know or understand any different or their sickness (one of many, I’m sure) won’t allow them to see the rational side of society, the handouts and the help up from the streets.

Give them nothing, and they’ll come looking for help. Keep hounding them, like society’s children who constantly misbehave and don’t conform to the norms, and they might just wake up one day, realize that their lives are on the brink of destruction and ask for help or they will die. For now, shelters, churches, programs and random people who thrust a dollar out of the rolled-down window at a stoplight are just sustaining them.

One thing I didn’t get from my tours around the underbelly of society, and that is the answer to “how?” I don’t understand how someone can let themselves live like that. At what point do you hit bottom, look up at all you are missing and all that is happening to you, and seek out help? There was one man we came across, an older man, 65 or 70, who has a full-time job, but makes minimum wage and can’t afford a place to live near his job so he lives in his truck. He doesn’t drink or do drugs and he minds his own business. He has enough money to buy himself food and gas for his truck, but otherwise has nothing but work. We didn’t actually meet him, just drove by where he was currently parked, and I had more respect for that one man than I did for the entire collection of 25 homeless people currently leaching off of society in my city. He has nothing, but he’s trying to make it work and has been for years. If you don’t have any family or friends or anyone who can help you get you started back into the civilized world again, there are countless charities that cater to this exact thing. So, why? Why won’t they accept help?

When we went back to the first park at the end of the shift yesterday, we came upon Vodka Jim again, who was stone cold sober and sporting a brand new portable CD player his father gave him… yet he’s homeless because he chooses to be.

I just don’t get it. Maybe they’ve given up on themselves and I can’t possibly fathom why.

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