May 21, 2019

What’s being homeless really, really like?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – Well, I’ve met an expert. A real expert. He’s been homeless twenty years. Zeke. That’s what I’m calling him here. I’ll tell you in just a minute about Zeke and how he sees what’s a huge and sad problem.

I see quite a few homeless folks here a in this nice, little city.  Close up. I know a dozen of them, men and women. That I talk with.

Zeke was homeless but not typically so. He surprised me by how he looked at it. In fact, astonished me.

Some are retirees. I know a man and a woman, not related, who have problems upstairs.  It’s obvious. Two fellows who are barely old enough to vote. But don’t—they don’t have an address. I don’t think there is a typical homeless person.

Los Angeles has thousands – I read about them in the LA Times time after time. They’re a huge problem. Hundreds live in a downtown neighborhood. Sleeping on the sidewalks. Begging. Using drugs. Urinating and defecating in any corner. Doing petty crime.

It’s just the same in any city, big and small like here, and some even smaller. We have homeless all over the country. Homelessness is a national problem. Yes, here in the richest country in the world.

Maybe some are homeless because they’re lazy, shiftless. Maybe too dumb to work for a living, even if the work is unpleasant but it might be a stepladder up. Here’s one example–a young fellow I see often, about 22.  Seems fit and able. I think he’s plain lazy.

Or maybe because they’ve done prison time and that has black-balled them. I know a man in his late fifties that happened to. Maybe homeless because of sheer bad luck – lost their job because of a layoff, or went bankrupt because of huge medical bills.

For sure some are homeless because they’re addicted to alcohol or drugs. Maybe both. I’ve heard some sell their monthly food stamps from Uncle Sam at half price so they can buy booze or meth.

I know two homeless women. No idea why. Maybe for reasons specific to being women.

I’m convinced that 95 percent don’t want to be homeless.

But I know one man in his mid-40s who truly does want to be homeless, ever since he dropped out of high school, hear tell. No idea why he wants that life. Smart. I often see him reading a  book, always serious non-fiction. He buys one for 50 cents at a thrift store, then buys another. He calls himself Pete. No last name. I think Pete is not his real name. 

Fascinating. He has an old, old bike, just a basic single speed that you wouldn’t give him $20 for.He’s a little guy but I’ve seen him pedaling that bike up very steep grades. With all, and I mean all, his earthly possessions  on that bike, in pouches and even a plastic bucket, everything very tidy. He gets by nicely, thanks to his cleverness and the generosity of others. He opted to be homeless. Yes, his type is rare.

None of them seem to go hungry. Some get by on a small Social Security check. Those on food stamps find it hard to get by on them. But by the way, they’re not stamps any more. They’re an electronic card that Uncle Sam reloads every month.  

We have two Protestant churches that give out bags of food from the Food Bank every week. And St. Timothy’s Catholic Church is known for handing out a bagged meal to anyone who stops by the office and asks.

We have a community center that every Monday evening feeds a hundred and fifty. You don’t have to be homeless. But most are.

The big, big problem is finding a place to sleep. I know a man who sleeps in a hidden “camp” in the woods. Another man in his car. Also a woman in her car. It never freezes here, but the temp drops into the 40’s at night, and there’s always a cold wind from the Pacific a mile  away. Mustn’t be pleasant.

They do have places during the day to be under a roof but only briefly– our one McDonald’s and one Burger King, both open late into the evening. Often I see homeless there, especially in the evening and when it’s raining. They buy a coffee or soft drink and nurse it for hours, it seems. I’ve never heard of one being asked to leave.

 Our Albertsons Super Market has a lounge, with tables and chairs. It’s intended for people who buy “take-out” and want to eat it right away right there.  It has a TV set always on. Always the same channel. Some homeless sit there for hours, never buying a thing. Some recharge their cell phones there. Albertsons never says a word, I’m told.

There are three that frequent our public library. I go to the library the five days a week it’s open. I see them.  It’s air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, has clean bathrooms. Some read a book or newspapers. Really read. One fellow takes a book, any book, and just pretends reading. One uses a computer. The homeless are welcome. Libraries are wonderful places.

The big fear here for the homeless is the police. “Loitering” is a misdemeanor. A homeless man or woman, deemed to be loitering, can be arrested and tossed into jail for three days.

Now finally about Zeke.

I met him at our McDonald’s. But I didn’t spot him as being homeless. Didn’t seem the type.

I stop in every evening, around 7 usually. Always with some magazine in hand. Buy a coffee. Sit and read. It’s a nice part of my day.

I spotted Zeke in a corner alcove twenty feet away. Alone at his table. A big guy. Heavy black beard with some gray. Tattoos. Dressed totally in black, even his hands in black gloves.  With a hood pulled up over his head. But why, here inside where it’s nice and warm? He was totally engrossed. No, not in reading like me. He was drawing something on a thick pad.

I’d glance at him now and then. He had a dozen pens laid out on the table.  He’d draw a line. Focus on his drawing. Drop his pen. Choose another. Focus.  Draw another line or two. Focus. Draw again. He was totally wrapped up in what he was doing..

He hadn’t ordered a burger or anything. Just a coffee, like me. He’d take a sip now and then.  Get right back to work. 

I went back to my magazine. Then had to get up to go to the john and walked by him. Noticed his work. Abstract. Very abstract. Lots of black. Little bits of color.

Returning, I paused by his table. He had drawn what looked like a feather and painted it a smooth, intense violet.  But that was surrounded by other odd shapes, most in solid black. He had separated them with an odd shape of white here and there.

Finally he looked up and I said to him, “Gosh, you’re not an amateur. You’re a real artist.”

 “You think so?”

“For sure. I can tell you are.”

“Thanks, buddy. Nice to hear that.”

I had noticed something else. A big duffel bag on a chair next to him. And a stringed instrument in a waterproof bag. The key end was sticking out. A guitar, it seemed.

Certainly he wasn’t a Morro Bay man just in for a coffee. And not a tourist either.

Sizing me up, he said, “Want to take a seat?”

 I nodded. He shifted things to let me sit facing him. I asked about the painting he was working on.

“I’m trying to get the rhythm of it right!”

Quickly he pointed to this shape in this color and that shape in another color and the white shapes in between.

Well, there was a time long ago, for three or four years, when I sketched and painted, also. Just an amateur. But I had a passion for It. And I knew the challenge of it. I got to know a couple who were real artists. They painted for a living.

But this was the first time I ever heard of a painter interested in the “rhythm” of his painting.

I asked if he was cold. I was looking at his gloves. And the hood that covered everything except his face.  “No. no.  It lets me focus better.” He pointed to the light over his head as a problem.

He leafed through his art book. He wanted to show me his work. .One painting after another, all abstract and in the same way.. All with a lot of black.

Well, it turned out he was homeless. But he shook his head when I used that word. “Not really. I’m not homeless. I’ve got my tent.”  He wasn’t joking. He meant it.

We sat and talked for more than an hour. But quickly it turned to his being homeless. He had some interesting insights.

I got around to telling him about myself as a writer and how I blog now. Told him I’d like to write up his story. My readers might  get a deeper take on homelessness. And some readers would send it to somebody else.  And some of these would send it to somebody else. There’s no telling how many would get to see it. Hey, the publicity might help him in some way.

I often do the same thing  when reading something that might be interesting to somebody I know. I forward it. It takes just a minute.

“So, are you interested, Zeke? What do you think?”  I  half expected to hear him say that’s nice, but no thanks. 

“Sure. Not a problem!”

“Wonderful!” I told him  I’d give him a fake name. That’s how he became Zeke here.

“No. No.  Use my full name!”

I said no.  I told him that in a situation like this, I  had found out once or twice that identifying my subject could result in unforeseen, unintended consequences for him or her. Bad ones.

“Okay.,” he said. “Now I understand. Thank you.  Shoot!”

I drew him out. I was tempted to take notes but did not. That could put a big damper on our chat.

But before I tell you about all that, here are important facts about him that surfaced

He’s 48 years old. A native Californian, born in a tiny town a hundred miles or so east of here. Good father and mother. He got a lot of education, right through community college

He quickly became aware of his talents.  Art. “I’ve never not been an artist,”  he told me. Then music. He pointed to his instrument.  He said the brand name. Meant nothing to me. “Very, very fine guitar.” Then added, “And I’ve never not been a musician.”

I was impressed by how he phrased those statements.

He said some years back he used his musical talent to land a good job as a sound technician. Didn’t mention exactly what that involved. Then he said, on the strength of his meticulous drawings, landed a job as an architectural draftsman. “I was making a hundred grand a year, plus bonuses!”

“Wow!”

“But then the recession hit. Nobody was building. Architectural work was drying up. There was no work for me. Suddenly I was out on the street. On my ass.

“I was scared to death. Then little by little, I began to cope. And one day, know what?  I realized landing on the street was the most liberating thing! Yeah! I was liberated. I could focus on living. Not fixating on money.”

It sounded preposterous. Crazy. A kind of rationalization maybe.

As I listened, some things he said I found troublesome. He was married. Twice. And he had two sons. And he lost contact with his two sons. “I think of them every single day!”

Anyway, It turns out he does earn a bit of money.

 He plays his guitar down on the Embarcadero. That’s our waterfront.  It draws lots of tourists. He mentioned one of the many restaurants down there.

“When I feel it’s busy down there, I go to that restaurant. They know me. Leave me alone. There’s a good spot on the sidewalk in front of it. Take out my guitar, start playing. And I sing. I put my guitar case on the sidewalk, close to me, you know, open. I put in a dollar or two.  That tells people I like to get paid for the entertainment I’m giving them.”

He said he also sells a painting now and then. His prices are low. I mentioned I liked the one he was working on very much. He tore it out of his pad, signed it, and gave it to me. “It’s yours, John.” I was reaching in my pocket for my wallet. “No, no!” He waved off any offering from me.

“And oh, I go fishing, too.”

“Fishing?”

“Yeah.”  He works as assistant to a long-time commercial fisherman. They go out on his 30-foot boat for two or three days, a few miles offshore, wherever the eels are.  Just eels.  Said he never gets seasick.

They haul them in by the hundreds. The thousands. The  eels get shipped off to South Korea on ice. Always South Korea. The people there love them.

“It’s hard labor. Very hard. Can be dangerous. But I work for a great guy. He really knows the business. He pays me in cash the minute he sells his haul. And he comes looking for me when he’s going out again.” 

 He said he’s gotten good at being homeless. Had to. Talked a lot about this.

“I’ve learned a lot.” he told me.” For one thing, I never sleep at night here in town. I stay up! Cops are hard on people sleeping at night in public places. They can book you and put you in jail.”

“Jail?”

“Yeah! It’s okay to sleep during the day on the beach or a public park. No problem. But at night! Three days in jail!

“Hey, it happens to just about everybody sooner or later. Jail is not that hard. You’re not behind bars. You’re in a great big room. Maybe a hundred other men there. A real bed to sleep in. Three squares a day. TV. Play cards.

“Then you go to court. The judge lets you go. And you get a bus ticket back.

“Most people on the street can expect to spend two or three weeks a year in jail. It’s a fact. Well, till they smarten up. You know, you have to be smart to survive living like this.”

He also has a bike. He pointed it out to me at McDonald’s. We could see it from where we were sitting. Much better bike than Pete’s. He explained how he loads all his stuff on it. He pedals “home” to a hidden spot in the woods. Has a tent there and some camping stuff.

He had to smarten up about that, too.

“You have to keep the tent under a tree, you know. When it rains, it’s easier on you. The tree shelters you quite a bit. Out in the open, you’d get drenched far worse. Yeah, in the tent.”

It turned out he was describing a whole culture. A way of living, not only of getting by but surviving.  Not only with society and the law, but with other homeless people.

There are bad ones. “One time I went back to my camp and found out a whole pad of my paintings had been stolen. It was in a bag I kept there. I think I know the guy!   Why did he do that? How could he ever hope to sell them?

“Yeah, we all know one another here. The regulars. We’re a tribe. Yeah, a tribe unto ourselves. We help one another if we can. I’ve given a few bucks to somebody really hard up. More than once.”

And he kept on talking. It was getting late. Finally I said, “Got to go, Zeke. Glad to have met you. You’ve told me a  heck of a lot. Very interesting.

“Look, I’m going to go home and write this up. I’m sure I’ll make an error or two.. Suppose we get together again? Then I can double-check some of these things. I hate to make mistakes.”

“Sure. But hey, it’s really okay to use my name.”

I shook my head. vigorously.  Smiled. “No!”  I shook hands with him. “Have a good night. It looks like a cold one”
He nodded. I went back to my magazine and my coffee. which was c
old now. And left. He was fixated on his pad again. A nasty night. I turned up the collar of my jacket.

 I was sure he’d stay till McDonald’s closed. I’d hate to be in his shoes.

I saw him again two evenings later. He was in the same corner. Working on another painting. Another abstract. He’d draw a little. Focus on it. Draw a bit more.

He invited me to sit down. A good session.  I double-checked a few things. “You’ve taught me a whole lot, Zeke.  Thank you.”

“My pleasure, John. People just don’t know what it’s all about. What it’s really like. The good. The bad. You’ve got to live it. Ain’t easy. It’s not for the weak.

 Home and in bed, I thought about him. And about homelessness. He called himself liberated. Really? Some liberation!  I wondered what a psychiatrist might say. But I saw no reason why I should not take him at his word.

Anyway, there are incredible consequences to being homeless. Some homeless don’t even know who the President of the United States is. And don’t care. Even the name of the mayor here. Or when the next election is. Anyway, they can’t vote–again, no address. The only thing they’re sure of is the day of the month Uncle Sam will reload their food card.

About health care, some are covered through Medicaid, which is called Medi-Cal here. But some are not.

What happens when they get sick or feeble? What will happen when they die? Some must wonder, especially older ones. It must weigh on them.

Yes, it’s a national problem. What to do about it? Many proposals get made. There’s even the new wild idea that Washington should pay everybody an annual income.  Everybody. Any adult.

Sounds far-fetched. But many other proposals were once considered far-fetched. Every citizen having the right to vote. Every citizen being covered by Social Security. Food Stamps. Obamacare.

I saw that Zeke has something I’ve never seen in anyone else on the streets. It’s his two passions. Art. And music. Maybe they explain, in part or totally, this strange way he chooses to live. So unthinkable for us normal folks.  To us, so tragic and abhorrent.

But hey, we might be in that fix some day. Or a loved one.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

To subscribe or unsubscribe Click Here