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Who the homeless are

I’ve been homeless in Sacramento since I first fell into the circumstance over three years ago. Though my life is stalled and my future is a worry, I’m grateful for my experiences which have been a revelation. Put simply, I have learned that homeless people are not as advertised. They are neither the pathetic simpletons of Loaves & Fishes’ newsletters; nor alien invaders as local media sometimes have it; nor are we a parade of Jesuses, as is the risible romantic notion at Trinity Cathedral’s webspace. I have found myself -- out here on the streets and in a shelter and at the public library and trying to be inconspicuous at the train station -- in the midst of a bounty of friends, people who are colorful and chipper, amazing and endlessly interesting. Of course, the thousands of us in this county are each unique, fully distinguishable one from the other, but there are generalities about the lot of us that can be made.

Many of the adults on the streets and in the shelters are mentally ill or are addicted to alcohol or powerful substances like methamphetamine or crack cocaine or, in rare cases, heroin. It is peculiar that many regular citizens in the county –- and probably most everywhere in the nation and so-called civilized world -- have a heighten revulsion toward people who are near-inexorably trapped. Scientists are making remarkable progress at understanding brain function and dysfunction and the confusion at the core of mental illnesses. New books in this fervent arena of discovery are out there –- including at the public library where I find them. Some people for genetic reasons, or from surviving a horrible upbringing, are particularly vulnerable to an adulthood that is lost to confusion or anger or entails a fall into an abyss of benumbing addiction. We only think our lives are a function of our will when, truly, we are in significant part subject to forces beyond our control or direct awareness.

It is mostly a result of staying at the mighty mission, a place where I have slept for a thousand nights, where I have learned about guys’ troubled upbringing. Many of the regular preachers at the Union Gospel Mission have come from dysfunctional families and some have, themselves, overcome terrible addictions. When these preachers talk about their troubled past, many guys in the seats nod or laugh in recognition to similar horror in their own lives. It is all an oddly poignant thing: what was grim once can emerge as something absurd and funny, even in light of a reality where guys are continuing to endure disastrous ongoing aftereffects of a life made haywire. [The mission, of course, has has an eye to get guys into their program to square up their lives and afterlives.]

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I am a listener in a world abounding with talented talkers. I know a master auto mechanic whose stories are wild and hilarious. His teenaged kids are in the vicinity, but he doesn’t see them. He disappears onto the streets for drinking binges that last weeks at a time. An artist whose unique work was featured on Rachel Ray’s show has no makeshift studio; he now concentrates on his mastery of chess. One guy is the king of rock climbing, and has been written up in the New York Times [Google “sky is his roof" at the Times’ website.]; I see him in town carrying a world of stuff on his back. Another guy has the singing voice of an angel. Homelessness is talent waylaid.

While there are rascals and full-blown psychopaths and narcissists in Homeless World Sacramento, convicted pedophiles, thieves, rapists and cunning, charmy con men, it is mostly a place where everyone is remarkably gentle, and all try to scrape together an existence.

There are scrappy people who collect bottles and cans and will hold up a sign all day at an intersection. They take sub-minimum wage jobs from friends of friends, and they’ve taken work from Loaves & Fishes’ “Daily Bread,” where they risk getting wholly ripped off for their labor.

Some of the guys are walled off. There are sad sacks, always in touch with their gloom. Others are loners who near never speak and keep to themselves. Still others have anger on a hair trigger. You have to be cautious when interacting with them because a trivial misunderstanding can erupt and become a physical confrontation.

It’s a fragile world; one that is often dangerous. But mostly Homeless World Sacramento is a place of neglect and loss and wonders unrealized.


Margaret Duarte said…
Thanks so much, Tom, for doing what you do.

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