Homelessness and its plague of frequent death
“And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with death.”
The people of Homeless World Sacramento die frequently, with homelessness itself seeming to be the plague that offs us. A lantern in a tent blows out and two are asphyxiated from the gas. Their dog dies, too. A man’s face (and the brain that had animated it) is destroyed from the blast of a gun. Over the course of a long string of besotted years livers are poisoned by alcohol to the point of not functioning. Death ensues. [Homeless persons don’t get liver transplants.] The homeless dead are carried off in the motorized carts of modern day and most are discarded in our day’s potter’s fields after being turned to ash.
Conventional citizens die, too, of course. But their deaths are much less frequent. They live longer, after all, and usually die quietly behind the veil of hospitals and nursing homes. These deaths are sterile, offstage, and followed by a dignified obituary. Things are wrapped up and sealed off in a ritual.
Homeless people die openly. Often tragically. And by causes unnatural. Interventions to save the vulnerable are less available and less successful out here than in the prim, swanky halls of conventional citizens'.
Many homeless people stake out paths to kill themselves and diligently stay apace on their descent to oblivion. Denizens in homeless climes are more histrionic and can be socially askew, and death frequently comes suddenly and is -- up until the last breaths anyway -- unemotional. There’s nothing to cry about until you’re gripped with fear.
“By the description of the guy, it would seem to be either Casper or Overhill that died on the light rail,” someone at the mission said. “People thought he was asleep. It held up train service, through-out the system, for over an hour.”
“Overhill had been falling out of his chair in chapel a lot in recent weeks,” I said.
“But Casper hasn’t been around. He’d disappeared into the streets,” someone responded. “I bet it’s him.”
It turned out to be Overhill, whom I knew as ‘211,’ since that’s what he told me to call him. Steel Reserve 211 was the name of the cheap high-alcohol lager he drank in large quantities. 211 (the man) could do magic tricks with his agile hands and dexterous fingers. He was truly amazing. When there was call or opportunity for his trickery, 211 would sober up in an instant and your dime or quarter would deftly disappear (into his pocket).
When I first became homeless, over four years ago, Sacramento’s most prominent homeless people were Gremlin and Chongo. It wasn’t their noticeable names that made them foremost: Gremlin was a small, wirey soul with fiery red hair. He was as absolute in his bravery as he was in his loyalty to friends.
Chongo was known for his balance, his intelligence and fearlessness.I first saw him waiting for a 15 bus downtown. He was weighted down with eight pieces of cases and bags, tied together in a crazy bundle that all was twice his volume and three times his weight. He was a famous rock climber who became a retired legend and long-time homeless Sacramentan. He wrote the science column for SHOC’s homeless newspaper, Homeward Street Journal.
When a friend of Gremlin’s was attacked by a guy with a knife, Gremlin leaped into the fray. Valiant Gremlin died; the friend didn’t.
Chongo, death defier that he ever was, lives on. A very long New York Times article about the man tells us of his exploits across ropes at high altitudes and climbing near-vertical and -impossibly-difficult slopes. Today, he lives at the edges in Homeless World, proving all the more how death cannot snatch him.
One winter, kindly Bernice found a patch in Capital Park where she could sleep, keeping her things nearby. A beast of a man, heavily tattooed, stabbed her for no particular reason other than he could. She died. The killer, with blood on him and his knife, was filmed by a hidden camera when he wandered past a light-rail stop.
Lovely Bernice, a small middle-aged black woman, was dead. I knew her only very slightly, but it was a hard thing to get my head around.
The quote that begins this essay is from the 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front.