Homeless in Paradise
Meet Karman and Jack, who live outdoors and struggle to care for each other, and their teenage friend Amanda, who tells their story here
When I was 8 years old, my mom and I almost lost our house. My mom suffered from Lyme disease, was too sick to work, and couldn’t pay the bills. The only reason we didn’t become homeless was because my great aunt called my mom and told her she wanted to help by buying us a house. We were dumbfounded but grateful; she had given us a safe place to call home.
When the Loaves and Fishes program started at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Paradise, which my family attended, I volunteered there. That’s how I got to know some people who weren’t as lucky as I was. Still, while seeing dirty clothes and sad faces, I heard jokes from people at the tables amid comments on the food, talk of past times and politics. The human spirit prevailed.
One evening, as I was clearing a table of dirty plates, a gray-haired man motioned me over with a goofy grin.
“I have a joke for you,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. “A piece of rope walked into a bar. The bartender said, ‘I don’t serve drinks to ropes!’ The rope, feeling very sad, went to his friend and told him to tie him in a knot and fray the edges. Later he went back to the bar. ‘I told you! I don’t serve ropes!’ the bartender said. The rope replied proudly, ‘No! I’m a frayed knot!’”
Our shared giggle helped me to see past the man’s ragged physical appearance to the person behind it.
Through serving, eating and listening at the Loaves and Fishes program through the years, I got to know a number of the homeless people in Paradise. Even after all of that, I still find myself looking away when I see people who look homeless walking down the street. What else can I do? I don’t know them; I don’t know what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
As Linda Gunn, the education coordinator and community outreach liaison for the Loaves and Fishes program, explained, “I think people have that reaction out of fear when [they] think, ‘That could be me.’”
Living in the shadows
It’s sunset at the Terry Ashe Recreation Center in Paradise. A cold gust of wind causes swings to creak, and cars rush by as people hurry to get home after a long day at work. A woman walks her dog along the sidewalk to the bush where a tattered sleeping bag is hidden, wondering where she will rest tonight.
Karman is a brown-haired woman in her early 40s with a warm, shy smile and a husky voice. Her companion, Jack, is a tall, slender man in his 50s with a lively laugh who wears a multicolored beanie hat over his balding head. Both are clean and pleasant people with shabby clothes and stories to tell.
Since I already knew Karman and Jack (not their real names) from the Loaves and Fishes program, Gunn suggested I interview them for my research paper on what it is like to be homeless in Paradise. They were my window into the life of the homeless people living in the crevices of this small town.
Jack says he has been in Paradise since 1993. “I love it here. I couldn’t wait to get out of the Bay Area. When my friends moved here, I followed and never left.” Karman came to Paradise in 1980, when she was 10 or 11, left for a while, and has been back for 13 years. She reports that she is a single mother who became homeless around the time her son turned 17.
“I never thought I’d be homeless!” she exclaimed. In all of my interviews, I heard this over and over. Karman tells me, “Not everyone realizes they can be a paycheck away from being homeless. People think it’s like camping, but it’s not—it’s living. I don’t even like camping!”
“When I get out of this, I’ll never be homeless again,” Jack promises.
Facts and figures
It’s hard to know how many homeless people there are; the numbers change all the time, and most of the homeless don’t want to be identified. Karman says she prefers to stay hidden to avoid attention. “I don’t want to scare anyone,” she said.
According to the 2011 Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care’s census, there were 71 homeless people in Paradise as of Jan. 27, 2011. Gunn told me, however, “if I drove you from [St. Nicholas Church] to Safeway and SaveMart and back, I could show you a hundred homeless!” There are homeless veterans, single moms, young adults aged out of the foster-care system, elderly folks, people living out of their cars, unemployed people and the working poor, as well as alcoholics, drug addicts, and mentally ill individuals.
The Continuum of Care census states that the majority of the homeless who listed their education level had at least a GED or high-school diploma. The census also determined that 41 percent of them had lived in Paradise for five years or more. Most—60 percent—became homeless for “employment/financial reasons.”
That was true for Karman and Jack. They both lost their jobs and then couldn’t get another one, so they lost their homes.
Where to sleep?
When I can’t sleep, I get up, wobble into the kitchen, and open the refrigerator door, grab something to eat and go back to bed.
When Karman can’t sleep, and not for lack of being tired, she walks around Paradise until five in the morning.
“If you lay down after dark somewhere, the police find you and wake you up,” she explained. “So you hide and stay out of sight … and they wonder why some homeless do crimes. … It doesn’t make sense to me. If you lay in the park during the day you’re picnicking, but if it’s night you’re camping. …That night Jack had the sleeping bag and I couldn’t find it or him, so I had to walk to stay awake.”
Jack has slept at churches, in parks, behind a laundromat, in the back of his truck, in an abandoned vehicle, in his sister’s garage, on benches and under trees. Usually it’s near a busy street like the Skyway, he says.
“Anywhere covered” is what Karman looks for, but preferably not the park gazebo where we talked. While we were there, the sprinklers wet the edges of the concrete and a cold gust of wind blew in. “Imagine if it were raining,” Karman said.
The struggle for food
At nature camp in the fourth grade, I learned that most humans can survive for many weeks without food if they have water. There are drinking fountains around the park that Karman and Jack use for water, but food is harder to get.
The free hot meals around town and the food pantry twice a month are the main sources of food for the homeless in Paradise. Some days, however, the hot meals have to be canceled for special events. Usually the providers still offer sack lunches with things like egg-salad sandwiches, but other days that isn’t possible.
Some people just go without eating on the days without a hot meal, Karman said. “People really rely on the food programs. …Today all I’ve eaten is Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and that’s because the food pantry was this week. Not that I don’t like Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” she added with a smile.
Some of the food from the pantry doesn’t help the homeless, however. When you don’t have a can opener, the canned food is useless. Carrying a heavy bag of groceries when you’re walking all day up and down the Paradise hills isn’t good either.
“When we do have food, we share whatever we can,” Karman said.
“I have only a few people I can actually call friends, but one of them … has given us a little food whenever he could in the past,” Jack added.
Karman once had a woman approach her in the park offering her food. “The woman had just come from a funeral, of all things,” she chuckled, “but she offered me some unwrapped sandwiches that were left over. I wouldn’t normally have taken them, but I was so hungry.”
At the very worst times, garbage is a last resort. Karman can barely eat it, even if it’s wrapped, knowing where it’s from. Jack definitely prefers his favorite, yogurt-covered pretzels, and when Karman has a spare dollar she’ll get a soda at McDonalds as a rare treat.
A homeless person without money for bus fare must walk to wherever the food is. Jack doesn’t usually think about what it’s like to be homeless. “I think about how much longer it will take walking somewhere and [about] the meal at the church that I’m trying to get to,” he said.
Karman agreed, adding, “Most of the time you’re walking up or down the horrible Paradise hills, and when you start hurting, you got to keep walking. … Sometimes my dog has to pull me along and keep me going.”
How to stay clean
Every morning my shower knob turns and fresh water streams from the waiting nozzle. I reach and test the water, then comes that “Ahhh” moment as warm water chases away the dirt and morning cold. On super-hot summer days, cool showers are especially wonderful.
Karman used to take a shower every day, three a day sometimes during the summer. Now she considers herself lucky to get one every three or four days. “Being dirty sucks! Especially being a female, you really need running water certain times of the month.”
Jack and Karman both point out that when you’re not able to take a shower, you can’t be yourself.
Getting hurt is also a major pain, so to speak. If it’s not washed out, a wound may become infected. “I don’t want to be scabby,” Karman said. “Then you look like one of those dirty homeless.”
My dog, my friend
Sitting under the gazebo in the Terry Ashe Recreation Center, we felt the cold breeze poke us into a slightly uncomfortable chill. The dog, who had barked threateningly at me only a couple hours before, rested her tired body against mine. A soft head nuzzled my stomach as I sat on the laid-out sleeping bag and talked with Karman.
“You see where those walls are?” Karman asked, pointing to a wall of concrete bricks surrounding the back part of the park where it meets the parking lot. Karman fixed her old blanket around her shoulders and continued, telling me how one day she was sitting on the wall with her two dogs resting about six feet behind her. Suddenly a large man was in front of her, reaching for her neck.
“You’d think if something like this ever happened you could react and defend yourself. … I could only sit there stunned.” What kept her safe was that both of her dogs ran out from behind the bushes and scared the man away. “I’m scared to this day to think of what he would have done if my dogs hadn’t been there,” Karman said.
“[My dog] is very protective of me. Sometimes it gets annoying. I’m glad she doesn’t have fleas.” Karman patted the sleeping canine next to her. “I hate not being able to take care of her like I should … [but] when I eat, she eats. If I eat bread, she eats bread.”
The dog keeps her sane, she says. “It’s like I have a kid with me. … Other homeless have no one to talk to, [and] some start talking to themselves. I just talk to her. I’m only in trouble if she answers me back!” she said, laughing. For Karman, the advantages of having a dog outweigh the problems.
The story isn’t over
I asked Karman and Jack what they would tell society about what it’s really like being homeless. Jack said it was “humbling” and that he had “learned a lot being out here.” But he also agreed with Karman that “it’s still depressing.”
“It’s not a lot of drunk and crazy people partying all the time,” Karman said. “I don’t even know how those who drink and do drugs get it. It’s not like someone’s walking around the park saying, ‘Free drugs!’”
“That shit’s expensive!” Jack interjected. Then he confessed: “I wish I hadn’t picked up the bottle at 14. It controls my life now. … When I’m lonely, bored and depressed I’ll drink more.”
Gunn says people turn to drugs and alcohol for comfort when they’ve “lost their identity and self-worth,” and homelessness can cause addiction just as much as addiction causes homelessness.
The pulling and gnawing inside when you’re feeling like you’re the only person in the world is hard to fight, especially when you’re homeless. Karman believes some people do drugs to numb it. When Jack starts talking to someone else who is homeless, he realizes how sad they are. “You got to have faith in something out here,” he said. “I don’t want to be homeless, and I don’t want to be homeless alone.”
I asked Karman what the hardest thing about being homeless was. “Living,” she replied. “This is just too damn tough. I ask God why he doesn’t just let me die. Another day is done and it’s just ‘wow.’ And I consider myself to be a relatively happy person.”
Jack sometimes gets angry and yells, “Take me!” even though he has never seriously considered suicide.
Jack and Karman have only each other, so Jack doesn’t know why they fight. “I want to keep my girl happy!” he insisted.
“Once you’re alone, you’re alone,” Karman said. “There’s no homeless dating service.”
For the homeless, every penny counts. “It’s almost a fight for the recycling,” Karman said. “It’s amazing how many people want the same can you do.”
Being homeless is not a picnic or a camping trip. It’s not a walk in the park, even if there is a lot of walking, and most of the time you feel like a frayed knot that is afraid and excluded.
Not all homeless people stand on the side of the road with signs, but a few do. Not all of them are mentally or physically ill, but some are. Some do drink and/or take drugs, but that doesn’t mean all do.
Warm beanie hats, meals of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and finding clothes at a clothes closet for your cold, tired body are just a part of the world that Karman and Jack have shown me. Now when I see them at Thursday dinners, or Tuesday and Saturday lunches, I know that they are two people with different stories. Karman and Jack are homeless, but they are more than the situation they’re in. Homelessness isn’t all of their story, and their story isn’t over.