‘I was homeless’
CN&R intern details her three months living at the shelter and wandering the streets of Chico
“Own your shit,” the cross-eyed delinquent who worked in the kitchen at the Jesus Center said. He was working off his community-service hours there and served me the afternoon snack many times, while eating there himself.
“Even if you’re a slut by nature, own it. You’re homeless,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’ve got to own it.”
I couldn’t help staring at the eye that stared off to the side as if to suggest that I needed to get going. I did need to get going. It was somewhere around 8 a.m., and I wanted to head off to the downtown City Plaza to wait for the sun to come up so that I could get a little warmer.
His words sank deep into my stomach, mixing with the blandness of eggs and potatoes the J.C. served almost every morning. I had to own it until it was over. A three-month stint, my homelessness was, including 15 days of couch surfing and moteling.
I took one last drag of a rolly cigarette I bummed off of someone, slung my backpack over my shoulder and headed for the plaza.
My name is Serena Cervantes. I came to Chico last year, from the mosaic of small towns in the San Joaquin Valley, to study at Butte College. I felt I had gleaned all that I could from my hometown of Dinuba, a small, agricultural and would-be “Little Mexico.” I realized it was time to push out, move up, and meet new people. I’m 22 years old, half Mexican with red hair and still discovering my identity.
When my living situation in Chico fell apart at the beginning of this year, I knew I had to do things on my own. I found myself stepping through the doors of the Torres Shelter, and I can still remember how fast my heart was beating, feeling as if everyone there could feel my panic. But they welcomed me, and I would become a fixture there while I tried to save enough money to get a place of my own.
When you’re homeless, you learn to reinvent your surroundings; the parks became our living rooms, the library became our den, the coffee shops, our kitchen; and the plaza was, well, like a high school quad area.
The plaza was where most of us went at some point during the day to relax, mingle, or take a nap. “The plaza kids,” as I called them, who weren’t usually in shelters and lived on the streets, often gave us some entertainment. If they weren’t skateboarding or low-riding on their bikes, or playfully dodging the water fountain, they were talking about the nature of tattoos or new bands coming to the Senator.
January seemed to be trying on summer like a new pair of shorts, with its 70-degree weather. I got my first lesson in homelessness one day from a 20-year-old kid who had hitchhiked from Denver. He would often hang around a homeless man named George; they invited me to go canning with them. The Denver Kid instructed me how.
As he put his hand carefully down a black trashcan in an alley, he explained that neighborhoods were OK for going canning but that you had to be careful that people wouldn’t call the cops on you for rummaging through their trash.
I held the lid for him, and he further explained that big garbage bins behind stores like FoodMaxx were like treasure chests for canners but most of the time they had locks on them. Park trashcans had the best selection.
George pushed a shopping cart full of his only belongings including a big green military bag and a plastic bag half full of cans. We walked to the field across the street from the Torres Shelter and scoured the area for plastic, aluminum and glass treasure. We stopped to eat some high-protein bars that George found behind the GNC store.
After we combed the field and the ditch nearby, we spotted a green canoe in the middle of the field and pondered how the hell it got out there. It was camouflaged by the grass.
We picked up quite a few glass bottles and filled the bag by the time it was almost 6 p.m. The Denver Kid and I said goodbye to George, who slept on the streets, and headed for dinner at the shelter.
In the cold of winter, especially after being kicked out of the shelter at 6 a.m., the buses were a luxury. Sometime in February and just past 6 a.m., a group of us were at the bus stop just up the street from the shelter. We were waiting for our own personal transit bus provided for shelter people only. The air felt moist and cold beyond words. I looked down at my dry hands that flaked skin and my angry knuckles that seethed blood when I flexed a five-and-a-fist.
The buses were warm—couldn’t wait to get on the buses. I learned to ride the buses in Chico when I started to date one of the guys from the shelter. He was a parolee who had been in and out of the system for some eight years or so. Recently he had been released from the prison in Susanville.
Parolees were common at the Torres Shelter, though allowed to make up only 10 percent of the residents there. The coordinator for the shelter said the environment would change into something more violent if too many parolees migrated or were otherwise dumped there. One of them had been in most of the prisons in California and described to me how inmates would make shanks from wet toilet paper dried out, like papier mâché. I thought to myself, or how about paper machete?
Once, on a cold Sunday morning when the city looked like a ghost town, the parolee and I walked to the Bidwell Presbyterian Church to get out of the rain. Mind you, when you’re homeless, you find creative ways to preserve the social interactions you had when you weren’t homeless, and in so doing, it makes those interactions all the more romanticized.
Our “dates” were comforting and lucid, because we knew each other’s situation, shared the common bond of homelessness.
At the church, we walked to the basement first, and went up the stairs and through hallways, exploring the old brick building.
In a hallway up the stairs there was a comfy green couch. We fell into it and were glad to be out of the wind and rain. The organ music playing sounded like it was dry heaving the notes and the sound felt heavy and burdened, the notes pedantic and angry. Behind us was a little wooden door that looked like a secret passageway but leads to the stage. We sat quietly on the couch, watching the Sunday school children rushing up and down the hallway.
He pointed to a stained-glass window illuminating before us.
“Do you know how they got that shape?” he asked.
I said no, and he explained the history of how Europe adopted the curvature of the dome-shaped stained-glass windows you see in churches.
“I think they got it from Muslim mosques,” he said.
The organ stopped along with the singing. We felt as if we were going to be found out, sneakily enjoying this comfortable couch and the warmth inside.
After the sermon a woman walked by and asked, “Would you guys like some coffee and fudge?” and we jumped up like we were members of the church and said that we would like that very much. The fudge melted on our tongues because the coffee heated up our mouths, and for a moment we were a part of the church.
The buses always seemed to take forever and we’d end up waiting for an hour. I looked out to the field where we had found the green canoe and out of a foggy mist a dark figure started to emerge. It was as if a rock had awoken and metamorphosed into the figure of a man. It was Mark.
Mark had stayed six months at the shelter but found no housing and had to camp out.
“What Chico needs is more transitional housing,” he’d said once in a very laid back, expert way.
He was a Butte College student—full-time and constantly hanging out at the Chico Center. Once as I was waiting for a class to start, Mark came and plopped down beside me in the lobby of the second floor. His silver hair looked clean and recently cut. He was wearing normal clothes and had a backpack with him. I could have mistaken him for an instructor if I hadn’t had met him at the shelter two months before.
While we were conversing, he non-chalantly pulled out a can of beans. Subsequently, he pulled out a can opener. Then a spoon. Then he ate.
Shifting heads looked toward him in the way that seagulls look out to the specks of humans situated on the beach, waiting for any signs of scraps. It was as if Mark were a piece of human bread only their curiosity could pick.
Because I was new to homelessness, school filled me with a great deal of anxiety. I learned in one of my psychology classes that there is a series of requirements that humans need met in order to stay motivated. They’re called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Through a pyramid diagram, psychologist Abraham Maslow mapped out these levels, be they psychological needs or basic needs such as food, water, shelter, clothing and homeostasis.
Halfway through the semester at Butte, I hadn’t even realized that my English 2 class met twice a week. I thought class was only on Tuesdays, but a classmate pointed out that the class met Tuesdays and Thursdays. I couldn’t believe I had missed that. How could I have read the schedule wrong? I thought.
I had to make an allowance for myself, emotionally, and assume that I had missed a clear fact because my basic needs were not fully being met. Living in a shelter was tumultuous, with voluntary and involuntary homeless people who I had yet to make sense of in my environment.
Second to the shelter, the Jesus Center is where I spent a lot of my time. It is a place for the lame, the institutionalized, the drunks, the addicts, the mentally disabled, and the elderly—most of them homeless—not to mention the cops, who’d occasionally come to break up petty fights.
Strangely enough, though, I started to feel at home at the Jesus Center. The people there listened when I had something to say, and I listened when they wanted their stories heard. It was a satisfying exchange of taking and giving to feel good on bad days. All around me were these warped friendships where cheating and lying were part of a game, yet honesty was the bond that held them together.
They serve three meals a day at the J.C., but I was tired of working my school schedule and other things around the meal times, so I tried to get food stamps.
I stormed out of the Employment and Social Services office one day, furious after a social worker told me that in order to qualify I had to work a minimum of 20 hours a week if I was a full-time student. I also had to make the wage equivalent of 20 hours a week and show proof of it all.
“I’d like to see you eat two months at the Jesus Center and not get sick,” I said, hoping she’d feel some sort of guilt. I told her I was an intern for the CN&R, but she said that she’d had interns before and that that sort of “job” didn’t necessarily count.
“I’ll dispute it then. I’ll go before a judge, give me the paperwork, where do I sign?” I said, agitated and dubious of my own reaction.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she said, “I think you’re confused.”
So I continued to eat at the J.C., socializing amidst the characters I would inevitably come in contact with. Although it was like trudging through all types of the human condition, the J.C. was never a boring place, no matter how hard it was to be a witness to human suffering.
One Sunday morning, we were in line for pancakes, which they often served on Sundays as a treat. To my dismay the syrup was not syrup, but tasted like a thick prune juice trying to pass itself off as maple syrup. I felt sick to my stomach eating it. My friend Caesar (whose name derived out of a cruel joke I made one day because she had multiple seizure episodes), said that one of the volunteers confirmed it was molasses.
“What’s molasses?” I asked, so ignorant about food ingredients.
“Molasses—you know, pure sugar?”
A 6-foot-5 African-American man whom I called Louis L’Amour bought me a can of Tilt later on in the day to keep warm. I would see him in the library or at the shelter always reading Louis L’Amour books. He worked construction.
“I’ve been all over the U.S.,” he said. His eyes glowed yellow, as he was always drinking. “L.A., New York, Portland, Chicago, Texas, Seattle … done construction my whole life,” he said, rolling himself a cigarette from a red bag of Midnight Special tobacco. I looked down at his huge hands. Colossal in size and calloused at the balls of his fingers. I wondered how he managed to roll the tinselly, maidenhair tobacco on a small piece of tissue paper.
I could never roll myself, no matter how many times homeless people tried to teach me. The Tilt got rid of the molasses taste in my stomach, and Louis L’Amour and I were unaffected by the cold.
Caesar was “not a girl, not yet a woman,” as Britney Spears would say. She was the type of girl who got excited about Skittles, a green scarf that she could use as a skirt or a shawl, and not to mention my iPod, to which she would dance in the plaza. She was 28 years old, with the youth of a 16-year-old, and yet very motherly. Caesar had five children whom she couldn’t see, and an ex-husband who’d beat her till she had brain damage, hence the seizures.
One man from Kentucky struck up a conversation with me about the history of KFC. Another man, Robert Miller, who wore a red Marine Corps ball cap with a feather sticking out from atop it, frequently complained about the government and his experience in the Korean War. He was 78, with the fierceness of a bulldog pup—always pointing at you when he talked, and shaking his head, growling about the war efforts and all the while his cheeks sagged down to the corners of his mouth.
He said he wasn’t homeless, but that he went to the J.C. to eat and socialize.
Who in their right mind would come here for socializing? I thought.
I didn’t want any of this circus at the shelter, the plaza, or the J.C.
I didn’t want to feel bad for the Iranian gay man who had the unspeakable sickness or the man who scribbled markers on his face, didn’t wash his hands after using the porta-potty, talked like a toddler and held a baby doll in his arms like a proud, delusional parent. I didn’t want to feel bad for the parents at the shelter because they couldn’t give their own children a roof over their heads. I didn’t want to feel bad for the African-American man who talked to an invisible partner at the Drop-In Center when I would walk over after working out at my spiffy gym across the street.
There were times when I was sick of feeling like the only sane and healthy person. I had no physical disabilities, or mental illnesses, or addiction problems or ex-husbands and kids to worry about.
Then I thought about what my Butte English 2 instructor, Mr. Adame, always said, that literature is a comment on society—that people write so that something will change in a given community.
“Literature,” Adame said, “serves to raise the consciousness of an issue in society.”
Oftentimes a homeless person’s mental process seemed to be cluttered with anxiety, lack of self-confidence, and a sense of hopelessness. Without conquering Maslow’s first step in his hierarchy of needs—the physiological—a homeless person cannot properly concentrate on achieving goals and thus being a productive citizen.
A society is reflected strongly by how well it takes care of its less-fortunate members. Without an evolution in consciousness on the part of a community, the homeless cannot reach a level of self-sufficiency.
With the financial support of a friend and by saving my money, I got into an apartment. After moving, I felt a different kind of anxiety, the anxiety you feel when you’re in the real world again, no longer assimilated into the culture of homelessness. I couldn’t sleep for several weeks because I was alone; I didn’t have the dorm of women sleeping at my side, snoring and making the place sound like a pig pen. I missed it. The camaraderie was gone, but my consciousness was painfully raised.
Later, a friend took me to watch the movie The Soloist, and in an effort to get a firmer grasp on homelessness, we traveled to L.A. to see skid row, and walk through the doors of the Midnight Mission to see a different outlook on the problem.
My faculties are left with the residuals of homelessness and the complexity of what seems like an unsolvable social issue.
Writing is a start, though, to the raising of consciousness, to comments that need to shout in the face of society, to reach the highest level of Maslow’s human motivation theory: self-actualization.
My self-actualization is coming. I’m climbing the levels all over again, as a student, as a journalism intern, as a wanderer who’s taken to a new city, and as an advocate for the homeless.