There’s a huge homeless problem in the city of Sacramento, California. I was born there, so I’d seen parts of it. Vaguely. Then I left for college, and then tutored and taught and volunteered in San Francisco and the world.
Now I’m back.
What surprised me the most, coming back, weren’t the new, chic shopping malls or the refurbished downtown. It was how homelessness had blossomed.
Why had this happened? And what to do? I’ll leave those to the social scholars. But I’m no scholar. I’m a writer. And when I’m forced against something I don’t understand, I want to learn about it in my way. Confront it. Live it.
So I walked out of my cozy East Sacramento house one afternoon with only a change of clothes, a book, and a bag to carry it all. No money. No identification. Only the resolve to spend two nights on the streets, to see what it was like, maybe learn something, and then be able to teach others.
Now, about me. I’m not your typical homeless person. I’m a twenty-nine year old white girl. And yet, by the time I walked back, pushing a mesh cart with my sleeping bag over my shoulder (both acquisitions from my foray into Sacramento homelessness), I doubt that anyone would have suspected that my parents lived in the rich part of town.
My first two days were fairly uneventful. Maybe it’s just my nature, or maybe it’s because I’m a young and lone woman, but I avoid confrontation. I slept along the American river in secluded spots, making sure that no one saw me.
The only thing I acquired from this time was my sleeping bag. I nearly froze the first night (yes, even in August!) with only a light jacket and cardigan. But, lucky for me, the American River bike trail is now lined on both sides with what function as trash-and-free-exchange piles. I quickly found a sleeping bag, and washed it, my clothes, and myself under a bush that leaned out over the river. The sleeping bag worked quite well. That second night, I was never uncomfortable.
So, day three, and I’d done what I set out to do. I’d spent two nights in the Sacramento wild. Had I met anyone? No. But, at least, I’d exchanged a few pleasantries and smiles, and learned that “the homeless” aren’t all the knife waving lunatics that we as kids are taught they might be.
I was walking back to East Sac, vaguely disappointed that I’d spent two nights out here and not really met anyone. When a passing man hailed me. I’d wanted to really meet people, so I started talking to him. He asked me where I was going, and I said, “The park.” (Sutter’s Landing.) I’d lost my key there, and wanted to pass by one more time to see if I found it in the long grass where I’d been reading. (I didn’t.)
But it turned out that he was going there too. He introduced himself as Jeff. He told me he’d show me around his “home.” He said, “It’s right by the river. With grape vines, all green and natural and shit.”
Now, was I nervous? Obviously. I think any girl would be, going off into the woods with a man she’d just met. But Jeff seemed nice, and sincere, and hadn’t I made myself homeless to do things like this, after all?
As it turned out, Jeff was great. Early on he asked me if I drank or smoked (no and no), or if I liked to “have fun,” but when I declined he really respected my wishes. He was fifty-five, had been living by the river for at least the last twenty years, and was really an admirable fellow.
Jeff’s home was on private, but unused property. As we walked there, he told me that the police had just come by, and were kicking him out. “I have four days to move.”
He led me through a fence, in a wide hole that someone, maybe him, had cut. He wheeled his bicycle over dirt and weeds, at last coming to the river where, as promised, was his house.
As makeshift shelters go, it was pretty amazing. It comprised three tents, next to an enormous array of stuff that he had collected over the years. “I don’t like things going to waste,” he told me. “Not if someone can use them.”
I said, “How long have you been here?”
“Four years,” Jeff said. “Before that, I was in the park. But there the rangers kick you out.”
It was a very nice spot. There was an upper level with his bike stuff, and the heap of items. Then, down the bank, a tent with a sleeping bag and a chair, and the river. All quite nice, except that Jeff told me how the river had risen high the last few years, flooded this part, and swept some of his stuff away.
From a holding-post by the shore, he took out a fishing pole, and even showed me how to reel it in. We had no luck. I asked, “Do you often catch things?”
“A month ago there were so many stripers, you’d dip your line in and whoosh, they’d yank it away from you. I’d get big ones, like fifteen, twenty pounds. They sell for a dollar a pound at the market.”
And that was how I learned where Jeff got money. Fishing, and recycling cans. (He’d made a run to pick up a bag of cans from a “buddy” on C Street.) He wasn’t a beggar. What he got, he earned.
He offered me coffee, which was quite good. (Especially since I’d only had the crackers I’d dumpster-diver for on day one, and the blackberries I’d picked in the wild.) I offered him my crackers, and we made a brunch of sorts. Jeff heated the instant coffee in a pan, with a fire he lit in what looked like a repurposed toolbox. It was good coffee. I was most blown away by the generosity of this homeless man I’d just met, offering me a piece of what little he had.
But his generosity didn’t end there. He showed me some women’s clothes he had, “From girls who just left them here.” Did I like any of them? If I did, I was welcome to have them. The only price: he wanted to see me wearing them. I was worried this might be an excuse to creep on me, but he let me change in the privacy of his sleeping tent, and I never felt insecure.
He gave me a whole change of clothes, shoes and socks even. All out of pure kindness. “The police are kicking me out,” he’d say when I protested. “I can’t carry all of this stuff to a new place.”
He even, to help me carry everything he’d given me, gave me a backpack, a duffel bag, and a cart to wheel it all in. And then he said goodbye, gave me a brief hug, and let me go. Not once in his presence had I felt uncomfortable.
Which brings me to a broader point. Maybe you think I’m crazy, doing this as a twenty-nine year old woman. But my age and my gender caused me a lot less trouble than you might think. I received unwanted attention only twice, and both times, I moved without being followed. I was cat-called only once in the camp near Loaves and Fishes. Mostly, I was just one of a multitude, of both men and women, trying to get by.
Which brings me to my take-away point: what I learned, and can hopefully teach you. Homeless people are just people. Now this might sound trite, or tautological, but I think it’s the most important lesson I gleaned from this. I’d gone into it viewing homelessness as having an “us” and a “them.” And I’d learned, there is no “them.” Only an “us.”
But, you say, aren’t they on the streets because they’re all crazy? Some of them, sure. Bad-tempered? Some of them. But I avoided the screamers. I stayed away from raised voices. And the people I met were just people down on their luck, or who didn’t like the boxes into which society pushed them.
So here’s the last thing I learned. The word “homeless” is wrong. These people have homes. Sure, maybe the “homeless” have to worry about police raids every evening. Or that some policy change, or new mayor, might change a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of policy that’s been working for them. Maybe they have to accept it when the river washes away their years of hard labor. Life is hard in their homes. But they, the homeless, most definitely have homes here.
Jane Sofia Struthers has traveled the world twice over. She’s worked at an AIDS center in South Africa, schools in Russia and China, and on farms and gardens all across Europe and South America. She’s slept under the stars in at least three continents, mostly because she’s too poor, or just doesn’t want, to get a hotel.