The December 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Poor Will Perish Without Housing

We Accuse the US Government

The Works of Mercy: Thoughts on the Death of a Homeless Man

Greed Fuels Oakland Condo Conversion Law

Berkeley Food and Housing Project

Happy Holidays: Berkeley Targets the Homeless

Claire Burch Documents Life on the Streets

St. Joseph the Worker Needs Support

94 Years Old and Still Homeless

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

Stranded in the Season of Giving

Stories of Street Survival

A Criminal of Poverty

New Media Offensive for Iraq War

Poor Leonard's Almanack on Religion

AIDS & Poverty: A Deadly Link

Mysteries in Our Own Back Yard

December Poetry of the Streets


November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Stranded on the Cold Streets in the Season of Giving

Ramblings by Melissa Evans

A homeless woman's sign says, "Merry Christmas." But few are moved to share in the season of giving. Robert Terrell photo

The air itself seems to breed futility, as I sit here amidst the smell of urine, filth, and tears, listening to the "peace officers" ransack another campsite and shoot the 70-year-old veteran Marine's canine companion of 15 years, for the crime of belonging to a homeless master.

I wonder if the squalor and poverty of other cities resembles this. But who would believe that a "protector of law and order" would put a bullet in the head of someone's dog for no reason, other than hatred of the homeless?

An estimated 10,000 people are considered homeless in Sacramento, California, alone. Today is the third time this week I've witnessed someone getting "rolled up on" by the police just for "being in this neighborhood" -- not to mention, looking poor and downtrodden.

If I ever told my story, who would believe it? I hardly believe, myself, that I am here. Friends who have walked with me down this path are hard-pressed to explain it, but sometimes that's just how life is. I mean, how does someone go from being adopted into a home with all the privileges and benefits of "White America" in middle-class suburbia to being an undereducated, obese, "crazy" loser of almost 40 living on the streets?

My adopted family couldn't tell you, since I haven't spoken to most of them since I was disowned at age 16. (What they would tell you, if you asked, is that everything bad is my fault, and everything good must have been their influence; and I was a disappointment from birth-adoption.)

My parents are (mostly) happy that the substance abuse is no longer a problem (unless you count garlic cheese bread and ranch dip!) They never really understood anyway. Now, what they find so difficult to deal with is: "How does somebody let herself get like this? Why can't she pull herself up by her bootstraps?" (A physical impossibility, by the way, but nobody mentions that fact.)

Let me tell you, that is something I ask myself every day. I had so much potential! Never short on brains, I think that may have been more of a curse, because then you know how different you are from the rest of the "civilized" world.

My mind goes back to the officer who is a frequent killer of pets and abuser of power within the homeless community and I thank God I am not "normal" like him and so many others who shut their eyes to the injustice and poverty around them. Only those of us on the dark side get to witness "reality."

Some people can forgive the murder of an individual's pet because, as they explain, "If they can't afford to take care of their animals, then they should lose them." (I have actually had people make this statement to me.)

I believe that we still treat human beings of other races worse than we treat our pets; we are just much more politically correct about it, except when it's considered acceptable to hate a particular group of people, such as illegal immigrants or just about anybody who we think might look Iranian, to the tune of, "Let them go back to their own country," or "This is America, learn to speak English."

Bumper stickers touting "American pride" denounce the evils of immigrants. Even the Internet touts games of shooting the illegal trying to cross over into our country, whether she is a pregnant mom with her babies or an old man seeking medical help. Blow them all away and win a prize! Does this seem like irony to anyone else out there?

Neil walks the streets in filthy clothes with bed head, which I find an interesting condition, considering the fact that he's not seen an actual bed of his own since they closed the board-and-care homes for mentally disabled people. Pretty soon he, along with a host of other "bums," will end up back in jail for the crime of not being "quite all there." Translation: Arrest those who are not "there" enough to keep a roof over their heads, according to the law that makes it a crime if you're "camping out" or sleeping in your car, if you are lucky enough to still have a hoopty.

I can't count the number of times I've heard statements like, "Oh, those transients like to live like that; they can become rich begging from decent, hard-working, honest folk." Some even go so far as to recommend that we shoot the homeless instead of the dogs. Problem solved. It might even save society from having to cross the street to get away from the downcast eyes and outstretched hands.

Discarding the poor as trash

Callous humans disgust me, which in turn makes me a callous human. I chuckled at the daily rags' screaming headlines, "Meth Use On the Rise & Out of Control" or some such ridiculous thing. Another headline blared, "Cleaning Up Our Community," when they did a sweep along the edge of the river and disposed of the "garbage," meaning a community of human beings.

Many hours and days of hard labor went into making those makeshift tents from cardboard and hunting down enough blankets so as not to die of exposure during the winter months. Yet all the blankets and tents were tossed as trash while the problem itself goes unresolved.

Do drones think for themselves, or are they spoon-fed every media stereotype from the crib? Are the coked-up Hollywood types usually incarcerated for their substance abuse or even questioned? How many rich people are in jail today? Even the rampant methedrine use should be understandable to any thinking person, as sleep is a rare commodity in the environment endured by homeless people.

No sleep and no chicken soup for the sick and weary

Most days run into one another in a gray haze. Sleep deprivation, from trying to cozy up under bridges and in doorways, will drag at you, day after day. After a few days in overdrive, the immune system is weakened, and woe to any who end up sick on the streets with no place to drink fluids, eat chicken soup, and rest.

Just looking like you "don't have a life" will get you kicked out of any state or local park. I have been fortunate that my snippet of education and upbringing keep me from being harassed too much. Besides, whoever saw a well-dressed, fat, Caucasian lady living in abject poverty? I think I was the only derelict with a cell phone and manicured nails. If amphetamines didn't introduce me to Neil's invisible friends, I might have been tempted to indulge myself, just for the reprieve.

Most people living out here have good hearts, but will steal the gold out of your teeth given the chance. Survival will do that to a person; pretty soon the hustle is all you know and worrying about the other guy can get you killed. Oh, I don't mean murdered, but exposure to prolonged cold or heatstroke and starvation, will do it just as nicely. Even fully waking up out of the liquor-induced fog -- which many embrace as a tool of survival -- will send an individual into shock, not to mention delirium tremens.

The well-meaning folks in their Sunday best come around once in a while to hand out concentrated carbs. It keeps the junkies happy. All this sugar is killing me, but beggars can't be choosers; and God forbid you should ever bite the hand that feeds you. Too many have pissed off the Christian Samaritan in the Church of Patting Yourself on the Back, and they have paid and paid. Well, you get the picture.

I am not trying to paint it nice and palatable, but real. This is what any street person will share as their experience if you can get them to open up and discuss something as painful as their lives. After a while, you might think the insults, rude remarks, and thrown bottles would just roll off a person's back, but they don't. Each assault is like opening a deep, infected wound that never fully heals.

Psychiatric meds don't help

Don't get me wrong; there are those who really try to help. But since most of them don't fully comprehend the extent of damage done in a lifetime lived like this, they end up putting a sterile bandage on a dirty cut.

The rules of many programs are unrealistic in light of the challenges faced by folks. Sure, just tell Neil, "Stop hearing those voices and pull yourself together! Are you taking your meds?"

Everyone seems to think that a magic pill will be the cure-all for any mental illness we face. Ha! I have taken, at one point or another, just about every pill in the book. When I get up and look in the mirror, I am still looking back -- usually with horrible side effects, such as weight-gain, which I could ill afford.

Sometimes I think America would be happiest if we were all drooling in some jail cell somewhere with tardive dyskinesia, shuffling around in circles, reduced to the use of two brain cells, and even that would be two cells too many in the eyes of our keepers. (The American public doesn't put people in hospitals that often; statistics have proven that most of the mentally disabled are incarcerated -- cheaper that way!)

"Just get a job," they say. "Those losers don't want to work, and there is work available." When you are missing half your teeth, can't get to a bathroom in time, look like you just rolled out of the gutter, and smell worse, how the hell are you supposed to make a job interview? Let alone maintain the consistency required to keep a job.

If you even had 75 cents in your pocket, you would probably try to find a 40 ounce or a cigarette rather than use the meager change to catch the bus. Hello? Is anybody hearing me? I can't brush my teeth with any regularity, so even if some well-meaning manager found it in his heart to take a chance and actually hire me, how is it that I would be able to pull it together 5 days a week, 8 hours a day?

Then, when I can't do it, I hate myself even more than I did to begin with, so it's better not to try than try again and fail one more time. Not to mention the poor manager who now has to work overtime himself, scramble to find someone to take my place, and has every negative doubt verified about hiring those homeless "losers and bums" like me. He won't make that mistake again.

Many of us have skills. I, for instance, graduated from JR College with highest honors and can do all manner of work, from efficiently running an office, to drug counseling, group and individual therapy, and teaching. The problem isn't that I am unwilling to work, but that my "issues" keep me from any long-term consistency, which is required when working in the corporate world.

Other, more functional individuals don't react to office politics, gossip, backbiting, and favoritism the way "someone like me" does. My thoughts race, I can't concentrate, and pretty soon tears begin to flow in front of anyone lucky enough to be in the vicinity. (Take my word for it: Most "normal" folks will give you a wide distance if you show excess emotion, especially tears!)

Any exposure to that type of behavior, or some cue which reminds me of my children and lost life, can send me right over the edge; then, my "differences" are blatant, even to the novice in psychological study. Nevertheless, there isn't any place in real life that I know of, which doesn't have some type of negative behavior associated with it. We don't "play nice" with each other.

How do you learn not to be a victim when society continues to victimize you? It's a nice idea, but the reality is quite different. After a while, even the kindness shown by loving, caring people is viewed with distrust and cynicism. What do they want? Will I end up paying for it later? How can I make the most of this without losing my self? What are they trying to take from me? Might as well ask, which came first, the chicken or the egg, as to try and figure out where all this comes from.

Just as a self-fulfilling prophecy teaches the hiring managers in the world, the poor also have learned hard and bitter lessons about freely offered love and concern. Rarely does it come without a price. The "fire and brimstone" teachings that you must be a sinner to be so rejected by God, validate what many of us street people already believe.

How are we so concerned as a nation about what other countries are doing "wrong" and how we can "help" them, when we can't even see the mess in our own backyard? Does this war include answers to our own country's problems?

Are we really the "Land of the Free" when minimum wage won't get you into housing of any type because you don't make three times the rent in Sacramento? When having a disability, either mental or physical, makes you a disposable person? When following a routine and purchasing new technology to fill our homes, offices and cars, becomes more important than loving each other and humanity, I wonder what we really have to teach these supposedly ignorant Third World countries.

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