Steve lived with his sister and her husband. Steve was a handsome man, well built, engaging. His sister got him a low stress, part time job maintaining an office,–some clerical work, some sweeping. “He’s doing great,” she said. “We talk a lot. He wants a new life.” She was delighted that he got on so well with her husband, a high achieving professional. One night Steve didn’t come home. They called, searched everywhere. Weeping, she said, “He went back to the street.”

Steve, homeless again, used up most of his money for drugs and went on the hunt. He panhandled, but didn’t have much luck. Maybe he looked too fit. So he made a fist, braced himself, and slammed his fist into his mouth. He did it again, and again, until his right front tooth spilled with a spurt of blood into his hand. He told the ER doctor he’d been jumped, got a prescription for Norco, filled it, returned to his encampment across from McDonald’s on K St., ground the Norco into powder, and inhaled it up his nose with a straw. At last he felt restored. Talkative and optimistic, he snorted the drug until it was gone.

Maybe you feel sorry for Steve, enslaved by his addiction. I do. And maybe you feel sorry for his sister, a good woman who loves her brother and dreads the day she may have to identify his body. But I hope you realize that Steve will never move from the streets into any shelter or program that demands he quit taking opioids. He’ll freeze in a ditch before he’ll accept rehab as a condition for succor. The pull of his addiction is the profoundest thing in his life.

I feel less sorry for a couple we’ll call Bob and Sue. A few winters ago they lived in a cheap apartment and both worked part-time at minimum wage jobs. One paycheck paid the rent, one paid for drugs. In May they collected a tent, folding canvas chairs, cooking utensils, sleeping bags, and moved to the Parkway. No more rent. Now both their paychecks could go 100% to dope, dope they snorted, shot and swallowed. They could drift in and out of an almost perpetual high that they called, ‘living the life.’ They wouldn’t have to leave until late September or even early October. All they needed now, Sue said, was a pit-bull.

When I learned about Bob and Sue, homeless by choice, homeless by strategy, I felt, well, used. That’s our Parkway, and they’re two of the reasons we can’t go there. With their needles and waste, they make a lavatory out of what should be an outdoor laboratory for the study and enjoyment of nature. School kids should be bussed to the Parkway to experience its marvels; they should be taught to stand still on the trails and listen for the screech owl or the acorn woodpecker. They should learn to find chicory and milk thistle and watch for mule deer. This lush, protected classroom should be theirs, and ours; it shouldn’t be a squalid hideout for drug users and violence prone parolees. (One statistic I see often, and from fairly reputable sources, says 45% of the homeless have committed violent crime. This means over half of them may be the victims of other half–hence the pit bull guard dogs).

Depending on what report you read, 20 to 35 percent of the homeless suffer from mental illness. My friend Jenny was such a one. I knew her from back in the day at Sac State. She was quiet, pretty, smart. She stayed on the fringe of our political hubbubs, finally got involved with one of the new-wave spiritual seekers, but still showed up for marches and protests. She once gave me a velvet-covered copy of the Rubyiat, from which she could recite aloud with marvelous intonation. But then it seemed that she started to crumble from within, month by month. She said voices told her she was pursued by government agents. I went with her to a psychiatrist. He said her “auditory hallucinations” and other symptoms meant schizophrenia. Her adopted family didn’t like this. Schizophrenia was too much of a stigma, so they took her to multiple counselors, healers and ultimately quacks to get a more palatable diagnosis. During this time she went untreated and began disappearing for months, always coming back in worse condition.

She’d come to my flat. I always let her in because there was torment in her eyes. But by then her incessant, frenzied monologues had become inevitable, and would eventually drive me from my own place. This happened to others too, and often. None of us knew how to help her. She’d disappear again and the cycle would repeat. I finally moved to East Sac and lost contact with the old crowd. Ten years later on a January night a friend and I saw a bag lady pushing a grocery cart from Safeway. I called her name. She turned. Her hair and clothes were filthy, her face mottled, but she was Jenny. She told ghastly tales of the homeless life: rapes, thievery, and through it all the internal voices that screamed at her, cursed, and never stopped. We took her to a motel so she could bathe and sleep in safety for a few days while we tried to find help for her. She wouldn’t shower but gratefully camped on top of one of the beds. The next night I went over with hot Chinese takeout, but she had gone again, back into the streets.

This meager personal knowledge the homeless leaves me with mixed emotions. I feel pity and concern for lost souls, but resent people who destroy our public places. I’ve seen a lot of websites, all quoting different statistics that sentimentalize, even romanticize, the homeless. Others, with different stats, rail against them.

So how does the City sort through this tangle of data to move the homeless to safety and save our parks and Parkway? Does the mayor lead a triage team through the bushes? If he does I hope he makes Bob and Sue clean an acre of trash before he bounces them. But what about the 77 year old Vietnam Vet they’re bound to find? This guy, addled by fortified wine and despair, needs hospital care and compassion. But his campsite needs to go.
A while ago the Bee reported that the City is contemplating two pet-friendly shelters that will house 600 people. That seems a tad skimpy for our estimated 2,000+ homeless, but it’s a beginning. Women and children should certainly be sheltered and those shelters protected by real police. Some politicians are sure to oppose this and say it’s too costly and is throwing money at the problem. But they’re repeating a rather tiresome cliché. The truth is, if you throw money at a problem and it hits the problem, and helps solve the problem, that money is well thrown.

I hope the City will provide protected shelter for the needy, while at the same time returning our parks and Parkway. It built an arena with luxury parking, but that project was about money and status. This project is about serving our downtrodden (whether we like them all or not) and conserving our green spaces.
The last I heard Steve went to Seattle where some homeless males travel in aggressive bands. I don’t know what’s going on with Bob and Sue today, but doubt they have abandoned drugs. Jenny is dead. Her life was too hard and though she looked old and battered, she died too young.

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