Homeless count shows a different way of life

Locals share stories of living on the streets

FAMILIAR FACE<br>Robert Berry has been homeless for 20 years. Now living in Chico, he spends his days in the City Plaza.

Robert Berry has been homeless for 20 years. Now living in Chico, he spends his days in the City Plaza.

Photo By Serena Cervantes

Every day, Robert Berry wears the same clothes: a black cowboy hat, a sweatshirt, jeans, black Adidas shoes. And every day he sits on the same bench in the City Plaza in Chico, looking out at the water fountain as though he is waiting for someone or something.

In reality, Berry is waiting. Like many other homeless people, he is waiting to be approved for a Social Security program. Having served 11 years in the U.S. Army, he expects the V.A. Non-Service Connected Disability pension to help him.

Berry, at 57 years old, is what he calls a “real tramp.” He has no income, other than what he makes collecting cans, and no car. There was a time when his life was normal—he was married, had a daughter, a place to live. Then one day about 20 years ago, he gave up on that life.

“There’s an old saying,” Berry said. “If life kicks you down, get up and dust yourself off and start over again. Well, one day life just kicked me into the dirt, and I got up and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ “

Berry was tired of a structured life, so he made a choice to be homeless. He would run up and down the West Coast on freight trains for a couple years before he hurt his ankle and couldn’t manage to catch the trains anymore.

“The train comes, and you’ve got to judge how fast it’s moving. And then you’ve got to run with it, grab the bar, and swing up. There’s a little step at the end of each car. If you miss that step …” Berry paused. “Well, I happened to miss that step.”

After 20 years of unstructured tramping, Berry said he’s ready to get his life together. After trying different homeless programs, shelters, etc., he just hopes that he won’t miss the step that will help him get on his feet.

This particular late-January day was a bad day for canning, Berry said. But things were looking up after he received a $5 grocery-store gift card in exchange for completing a homeless survey as part of the National Homeless Day Count.

“I just made five bucks, and I didn’t even have to do anything,” Berry said. “Just give them some information. Doesn’t bother me any.”

The effort to count as many homeless people as possible was coordinated by the Butte County Homeless Continuum of Care Council. The BCHCC is a collaborative body made up of people from city and county government, community agencies, businesses, schools, faith-based organizations, and even some homeless people themselves. The census survey that they created will secure continued Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for the county by demonstrating a need for resources in the Continuum of Care application.

Gloria Rodgers, the director of the Esplanade House, which serves up to 58 families, coordinated the homeless count in Chico, which expects results sometime in March.

“Most of our families are in crisis,” Rodgers said. “Some of the homelessness is caused by drug or alcohol addiction, but more and more recently it’s been financial difficulties, or housing difficulties.”

Survey stations were set up at the public library, the Department of Employment and Social Services, and the Jesus Center. In addition, some 50 to 60 volunteers helped roam the city in search of the homeless.

The survey focused on where people slept the night before, whether it was a shelter, transitional housing, on the streets, or clean-and-sober living environments. Rodgers said the Continuum of Care is trying to get a better handle on how to do a homeless count, how to make it more reliable, and how to gather more information.

“For people who are couch surfing, they are at risk of being homeless even though they’re not considered homeless by HUD,” Rodgers said. “We’re trying to capture that in our survey. It always depends on which agency is defining homelessness.”

Some people unfortunately slip through the cracks. Marc, who preferred we not use his last name, is 56 years old and has been homeless off and on since 1981, mainly because of mental issues. He attends Butte Community College full-time and can’t afford housing because his only income is through financial aid. He sleeps where he can, takes showers when he can, and eats at the Jesus Center and uses food stamps. He stayed at the Torres Community Shelter for six months and was discharged late last month.

“Once you kind of hit the skids like that, it’s pretty near impossible to get out of that tailspin because you can’t get a job,” Marc said. “Nobody’s going to hire you without an address—that’s the main stigma, not having an address, no phone, not really being able to keep up to sanitation standards …”

There is an end for some people, like 66-year-old Caryn Chiatovich, who stayed at the Sabbath House above the Jesus Center for six months because she had an eviction on her record. Now she lives in a clean-and-sober house on Second Street in Chico. She receives Social Security and part of her ex-husband’s pension.

Others learn from their mistakes, and homeless housing helps them get their lives back. Still others wait patiently for some type of Social Security.

While Berry works to try to get his life in order, he focuses on appearing normal to the outside world, as he has for the past 20 years on the streets.

“There are all different kinds of bums and tramps,” he said, as he looked out to something way beyond the water fountains. “I try not to look homeless if I can get away with it.”