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The Ones Who Live As They Can

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By: Ian Smith       

There has been a lot of commotion in my life lately. All of it due to the fact I was, as of Tuesday, a resident of the homeless encampment located on Caltrans property at Fifth and King St. Life was gravy……

“I’d wake up in the morning and extricate myself from my makeshift “Conestoga style wagon”, shoot up a big ol’ syringe of methamphetamine, terrorize a few locals by offering them a slug of liquor out of a wet paper bag after which a few of the neighbors and myself would get together and play “used-needle darts”, gambling for cigarettes while shirt-less barefoot children run through the broken glass and needle strewn line of fire. Then we’d see what we had left for breakfast in our bucket o’ dead rats located right next to our openly aired toilets. mmm Good!”

……This is the way they would like you to think of us apparently. The only problem is it is the farthest thing from the truth and it is not your fault for thinking any differently. This is the image the media you rely upon to give you the truth in the stories they report portrayed of us. Well, to put it in the manner of Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules in the movie “Pulp Fiction”, ‘Are you finished? Well allow me to retort!’. You do not have to be a genius to perceive the narrow minded view the writer of “Big SoMa Homeless Camp Cleaned Out” Kevin Fagen has toward the homeless. (as seen on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle) It’s much like many of the people online who posted comments with brilliant gems like “ Lock em up forever”. Wow. Intelligent. That lock ‘em up attitude reminiscent of anything? I am floored people in this day and age can even begin to nurture a philosophy as bent as that. So let’s use me as an example. Let us put my head on the proverbial chopping block. I don’t have a criminal record and would have no involvement with law enforcement if I did not live on the streets. I know many who are of the same “ilk”. What are you going to lock us up for? Not being able to afford outlandish San Francisco rent prices? Being told we are “over-qualified” for the majority of the jobs we apply for and very seldom get? Not having the ability to clean up or maintain an orderly appearance to be able to find work in the first place? Oh I know! Not having computers or electricity to power them with in order to be able to apply for jobs online, which is the only way you can apply anymore. That’s an arrestable offense right? Please. If I had received one offer, one promise of a job no matter what it was out of the literally hundreds for which I had applied, I would not be here today.

I moved to this camp in late February and, though I was a stranger, these human beings identified me as a good person, took me in and allowed me to feel at home. Comfortable. An aspiring writer, I had “hit the road” after my divorce deciding I was not going to get any younger and if I was ever going to write a book like I had promised myself I would, it would have to be now. I had met many a traveler and local homeless person and I could not wrap my mind around how they could live the way they did and maintain such a positive attitude. This intrigued me immensely. My wife basically cleaned me out and I did not want to be a burden on my father (the last of my family) or my friends, who have families of their own. So my decision was essentially made for me. Make sense of it or make no sense out of life at all. Do or die, I suppose. Melodramatic… Nah.  I don’t really know if I was cursed or blessed to not have any children of my own, though, as the money ran out, I began to think blessed. A year and a half later, a country traveled, and almost every type of homeless person there is found and documented, I found myself welcomed into a strange little community under a bridge in San Francisco with a much different understanding for the homeless situation in America. It intrigued me so much, this spot, the characters, the events; I had to stay for a bit. I eventually came to love the majority of these people as family. Truly.

I have lived a lot of places in my life. Apartment buildings, neighborhoods, even out in the woods with no human contact. There is always trouble that arises. I dare anyone out there to honestly tell me they don’t live next to a drug addict, alcoholic, or person with an acute personality disorder or mental illness. I double dare anyone to prove to me every thing that goes on in their neighborhood or building is on the up and up. Poverty creates necessity. People do what people have to do to survive. I have seen it with my own eyes and though I don’t agree with everyone’s methods I can now turn a blind eye better than I used to. I am a law abiding citizen. I have a clean record, clean drivers license. I don’t use drugs. I am not an alcoholic (though in truth I thought I might have been at one point). I don’t lie, rob or steal and don’t condone such actions in anyone else I know. People mean the world to me. which is why I am willing to put my thoughts into writing for them.

In my time at the encampment at no time did children or minors ever stay or live there. I would not be a part of an encampment that would allow that to happen. I myself would be on the phone with the HOT Team to get them off the street. It is no place for a child. There was never a “rubber melting pit”. We had come up with an agreement with the California Highway Patrol to never have open fires in the encampment. I’d also like to point out recycling centers and salvage yards no longer take any kind of burned metal. As we generally have people give us our salvage this has not been a problem for quite some time. Only grills, and self- contained cooking fires are allowed. There were never fifty people in our camp. Our numbers topped at twenty four one day and one day only. Yes we have some meth users, unfortunate people with an addiction. A disease, last I checked, and an insidious one at that. No one has a problem pointing these people out because of the negative context their addiction is surrounded by; i.e.- using the misbegotten quotes of an outsider (Tasha Ward), a person who had been exiled from the main camp for stealing (allowed to stay just outside the camp for her safety),  whose biggest decision of the day is figuring out which personality or disguise she wants to portray. And there are many. No one tells the story of the needle-phobe who systematically dug up and raked the whole living area around everyone’s tents, uncovering and disposing of what seemed to be a decade’s worth of old buried needles, after which he put them in proper sharps containers for disposal. The same man returns regularly with sharps containers which he distributes and collects so the area stays safe for our pets as well as ourselves. No one tells the stories of the help given to disabled neighbors or the protection given to vehicles while parking next to the camp was still permitted. Why? There are two sides to every story. Why not push for people to understand the whole situation? It seems the stories are easier if you only cover one side of the issue.

My point is this; we are still human beings. Most of us have been raised right. Some of us are damaged goods. Some are not. What you had with our community was a self-governing, family-style, functional, safe-as-it-can-be answer to all your homeless concerns. To portray us all as diseased, dirty, dysfunctional drug addicted heathen is not only factually incorrect, but it is socially irresponsible. There are beautiful people everywhere. Our camp included. I find this nice to know, for I know how quickly life can change.

So let’s look at a couple of the facts. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ “State Of Homelessness in America 2012“ report Washington released, The national rate of homelessness is approximately 21 people per 10,000 people in our general population. For veterans approximately 31 per 10,000 veterans. The majority counted in this poll were found in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs but nearly 4 out of 10 people were un-sheltered, living in various places considered unfit or unintended for human habitation. The government had seen a decrease in the nation’s homeless population between 2009 and 2011 by approximately 7000 people, or 1%. That’s a number of 636,017 as opposed to 643,067. Seven thousand in two years out of over a half million. However, the un-sheltered population actually increased by two percent from 239,759 in 2009 to 243,701 in 2011. Why? I can only speak from my point of view on this one. You offer shelters. I do not want my belongings stolen. I do not want bed bugs, lice or otherwise. I am intelligent enough to surround myself with good true people so the idea of living side by side with crack-heads and heroin junkies is not even in the same coffee house as my cup of tea. I have heard the horror stories and found most of them to be true. I am a survivor. I’ll choose the woods, street or park any day given those options. Many of the communities you see are exactly that. People who can tolerate each other, protect each other, have each other’s interests at heart and have each others’ back. I almost dare anyone to prove to themselves they have that feeling, that they can walk away from their belongings and not know which neighbor will do it, but know that a neighbor will protect their property. I barely knew any of my neighbors when I had a home. Lots of my friends didn’t know their neighbors unless there was a noise complaint or a yard discrepancy.

The odds of experiencing homelessness are on the rise. For the General Population your odds are 1 out of 194. If you happen to be living with a friend, roommate, or family your odds are 1 out of 12. Released prisoners have a modicum of a better time with 1 out of 13 odds. The worst to have it are the young adults freshly “aged out” of foster care with 1 out of 11 odds. There’s a little to think about. Condemn away. It is only a matter of time if you do not know someone who is on the front line of this issue.

Make no mistake, it is different living on the street. It is hard. Lonely. Terrifying at times. Cold. The kind of cold you don’t feel on the outside, but emanates from deep within you. It can be beautiful at times too. The kindness of a fellow human being can be one of the most beautiful things human nature can conceive. It has literally brought tears to my eyes as pride swells my breast with the understanding that goodness, compassion and decency still exist in this selfish, self-centered world.

My name is Ian Smith. I am a hard working human being, though I am without a home. I am an American. And if no one else will do it, I will speak up for the disenfranchised, the down trodden, the mentally ill, the responsible homeless, the positive thinkers and the generally despondent. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t get the people who have giant sprawls of garbage or multiple carts of junk. I can’t comment on the people who can sleep in the middle of the sidewalk in the middle of the day. The people who air their business as loudly and obnoxiously as they possibly can. The people who use the street as a toilet. That stuff drives me crazy too.  I personally try to keep every thing around me as clean as possible in order to lead by example. I have tried, however, to understand. (Though not so much the toilet people). I’ve talked to these folks. Came at them with an open mind. I have seen the world through their eyes and I will tell you, let this sink in; they are not very different from you. Hell, you could be next. It could be as nasty as a bad divorce, as simple as a misplaced rent check, or, God forbid, as horrible as a debilitating injury. You could be the person asking moment to moment, “What’s going to happen now? What next?” I hope not for your sake, but if so, you better pray for a community like the one you just dispersed with relish, for that might be the only safe place you feel comfortable, may be the only semblance of the security you seek. 

It may be a place you call “home”.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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