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What Now?

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by Ian Smith

There is no simple answer. In fact even until now, there have been a suspicious lack of any viable answers forthcoming. I am a homeless man, a resident of the encampment at Fifth and King streets and as everyone who has an interest in this story probably knows, we have been displaced. The city as well as CalTrain thought it proper to allot $200,000 dollars toward the financing of a wrought iron fence which would in theory once and for all keep homeless people from camping or residing under the I-280 on-ramp overpass. Two. Hundred. Thousand. Dollars. I am not going to start in on the utter ridiculousness of that sum.

I am going to try to impart to you the situation from our point of view despite it coming as “too little, too late”. Our encampment worked as a model for many homeless encampments out there. We are self-governing, relatively clean, independent, and non-invasive. No more than any apartment complex at least. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you have riffraff living right next door to you and would probably be hard pressed to honestly say otherwise. Litterers, felons, drug addicts, you find them everywhere in all parts of society so let’s drop that impotent “war cry” some love to shake in people’s faces.

The truth is our encampment consisted of law abiding citizens whose ethics are not very different from yours or any others law-abiding citizens. We crave the same things. Peace, security, safety, privacy and respect. We didn’t and still don’t have many options toward work or housing the majority of us collecting thrown away scrap, recycling, and goods in order to afford provisions.

Located next to the train yard we sort of attained the unwanted but necessary function of helping travelers and other forms of homeless persons as they often blindly arrived in San Francisco with nary an inkling of what to do and where to go. I remind you, there are more and more people who on one day had a house, a job, a car, what I’ve heard repeatedly referred to as “a life”. To many, these things are the fundamental building blocks no “life” should be without.

On the other hand I can personally attest to another unknown. More than a couple of times, whether by providence or universal intervention, myself or another of a dozen responsible individuals have intervened in the wanderings of teenage youths out for purpose of procuring substances such as crystal meth. I’ll never forget the day two teenage girls wandered into camp, a large man following about twenty feet behind with nothing but severe negative intention plastered across his demeanor like a horrendous malformed extraneous tumor.

Concerned, my best friend and I approached them and within no time learned they indeed were in search of drugs. I approached the man in tow and after chasing him from sight returned sat the girls down and explained in no uncertain terms EXACTLY how fortunate they were regaling them with stories and facts regarding everything from overdose stories to human slavery facts. My friend and I generally feel the same on most issues so I was not surprised as he helped usher the girls back  toward the train-yard. I expected nothing less. He is a father to a wonderful ten-year old girl and I am proud to say I am “uncle” to her and a few other wonderful children, though regrettably I have none of my own. (Due to my situation I find myself thankful in a sad way. I often dreamed of parenthood.)

Though they complained, they offered little resistance as we purchased tickets, walked them to their train, and waited to make sure they boarded, staying put until its departure with the promise (no threat) if we ever saw them again the Police would be immediately contacted. Anyone who wants to call us sellouts or Narcs, go ahead. I pose you this question. What if it were your daughter or son? Your kid sister or brother? What if they had journeyed to another dark corner of our city. Could be they returned the next day or week and it was all for naught. (One girl saw us at the station one day and thankfully after introductions to her family in town for a ball game whispered that she has not been back for illegitimate reasons, her confused family obviously wondering how she could have come to meet us in the first place.) Not all of the stories end this pleasant.

I can think of a dozen or more situations and completely different scenarios where, surprise surprise, not only did we do the right thing, we accomplished the social, moral, even spiritually proper ends those who look down their noses at us would choose never to believe. Why would they? It is so much easier to take the easy way out and despise without ever trying to understand. It’s much like a small child looking at a strange food, scrunching up their faces and immediately stating to their parents ” I don’t like that!” having never touched it, never mind moving it past their lips.

I felt at one time that I could never, ever possibly be homeless. I’m reasonably educated, have a good work ethic instilled by my hard-working family, morally sound, creative and (until the economic collapse the conservative wealthy downplayed and now claim has passed) I’ve been reasonably successful. I thought I would at least be able to afford a studio apartment wherever I lived. Unforeseen circumstances, a lack of reserve wealth, lack of family and ( this one kills me) over-experience, the fact I have held a variety of jobs that regardless of the experience and professional hurdles achieved I suppose amounts to diddly-squat. I can also personally attest to the fact there are no jobs, having applied to close to five or six hundred in three states in person, on the internet, and through any other means at my disposal eventually only receiving one response from an exterminator located outside of Savannah, GA. One response. Two weeks after I had made my way back to Oregon. Frustration does not even begin to describe the bleakness/anger that sows itself. May I ask what the heck ever happened to a response from potential employers, some form of courtesy  even if in the form of a mass-produced cover letter/email sporting an impersonal electronically printed name.

This particularly holds true to a person performing the “Great Runaround”, an affectionate yet bitter moniker I’ve overheard in conversation on the street and during my volunteerism at the Coalition on Homelessness referring to the amount of time, energy, and yes, resources required and expended daily just to survive. I know people who live this way and they often have to forgo at least one thing or another depending on what they can sacrifice.

Obtaining a bed for the night in some shelters, for example, can take all day. Some shelters you will wait and wait just to be turned away well after dinner services available across the city have closed their doors. An empty stomach created in lieu of a roof for a night is a damn uncomfortable feeling you do not want to experience. Take the worst day of your life, whatever it may be, what ever may have happened, add that drained exhausted feeling of that empty stomach. Add a good dose of avoiding police interaction, miscreant interaction, trying to stay dry, consistently sleeping (or not if the police find you) on hard unyielding often dirty areas, constant movement of what little belongings you own, the theft of those objects on a regular basis by not only the true scum-of the-earth (people who steal from the homeless) but by city-run departments like DPW as well.

Let’s not forget about mental health issues either. Package all of this together and dump the majority of society looking down on you, ostracizing you, making you feel like you are sub-human. Understand that I impart nothing but truth when I tell you it would take me a week to educate you on all the issues regarding homelessness. Do you still wonder why you see some obviously homeless individuals screaming at the heavens? I used to. Now I feel for them.

Here is the rub. I’ll make it short. You look and see people living under a bridge. We saw a safe and secure community. We were out of sight, out of mind. Strange neighbors for sure until you got to know us, which is not that hard to do. Like everyone else, we have our issues, fears, doubts, and dreams. I’ve done as much digging as I can to find the city has no solution, or want of one, apparently, regarding our community.

They want us out and despite the growling of those who swear they will rip that fence down and always provide a place for people to feel safe even at the risk of the last thing they truly own, their freedom, the city will win. They don’t seem to care the shelters are full. They don’t care that we may have to sleep in front of your house on the sidewalk. They don’t seem to give a rat’s ass for our safety or belongings. They don’t care that you are the people who most interact with us, wondering what the solution will be if you’re inclined to think of us  at all. Our hands are tied.

As they have always done they will probably parade us out in front of the masses via news stations and radio announcers embellishing their actions, making a large show of the “help” they are ‘giving’ us, housing a select few, for a couple of months in hotels that have more vermin and bugs than the underside of that over-pass until the storm has died, counting on us fading from memory as so many of us often do. Ends to them. For many, this is the start of a whole new hell.

I leave it to you, our readers, those who care enough to educate themselves, who have proven they care for others. 36,000 strong. It’s too late it seems for us. (Maybe not, you never know anything for sure.) We will survive, my adopted family and I, and smiles will never fade from our faces. We will neither bow and scrape nor ask you to do so. Fight for those who have been systematically stripped of their smiles, hopes, and security. In this country, in these times, it could very well be you that’s hungry, outside, with nowhere to go. The ‘wolves’ at your door.

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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