Young mother and baby find temporary shelter from the storm
Angel Brown looks as if she is heading to a party, clad in a velvet dress and cape. Instead, she is sitting in the Salvation Army’s intake office, hoping to get a bed for the night. The 18-year-old politely answers social worker Kathy Jensen’s questions about her situation as she rocks her 3-month-old son, Joe.
This is Angel’s first time in Sacramento County’s overflow shelter—a facility open from November through March each year at Cal Expo that acts as a supplement to the year-round shelters run by various organizations in the city. Angel says she’s been homeless since leaving her father’s house in November, shortly after Joe was born. She says her father won’t take her back as long as she is with her boyfriend.
“My man came back and I wanted to live with him, so my dad basically said I couldn’t live there any more,” she says, adding that she and her boyfriend, 21-year-old Arthur McKellar, have been “couch hopping” and staying in cheap hotels since then, baby in tow.
Angel gets some money from the government each month, but says that after food, diapers and room expenses, there’s never enough money to save for a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment.
“I really need to start my GED [high school certificate]. I really want to start so I can finish and I’ve got the money [for the classes] but I’ve missed a couple appointments,” she admits to Jensen.
Throughout the 30-minute evaluation, Joe alternatingly dozes peacefully, gurgles and coos, as he would do most of the night. Jensen and others in the room are clearly taken with him and compliment Angel on her beautiful child.
Angel beams, saying, “I did all the stuff the book said … I read to him in my tummy and everything. He’s a great baby.”
Later, Jensen would say that she doesn’t want Angel and Joe sleeping at the shelter: “It’s not a healthy place for her and her baby. People are sick, especially this time of year. It’s just not a good situation.”
Jensen hopes to soon get the couple motel vouchers until more permanent housing can be found. But it is anyone’s guess, even when vouchers are secured, how long it will be before the couple has stable housing.
A wrong turn
Sometimes the most insignificant of actions can set in motion reactions that reverberate for a lifetime.
In Angel’s case, her life changed on Valentine’s Day 2000, when Arthur asked Angel and her best friend for a cigarette outside a Sacramento-area Kmart. The new acquaintances talked, then went over to Angel’s girlfriend’s house. That evening, Angel left with Arthur and would return to her father’s house only intermittently. By her 18th birthday, March 17, 2000, Angel was pregnant.
“Before she met me, she was completely oblivious to this world,” Arthur says, referring to life on the streets. “She still is, for the most part.” Addressing Angel, he continues, “You only knew the happy-go-lucky parts of Sacramento.”
Except for a few brief periods, Arthur has been homeless since August 1998.
“My last serious relationship before [I met Angel] tore me up,” he explains. “She drained my bank account, stole all the valuable stuff from the house, and got me evicted by playing the stereo too loud, too many times.”
Arthur draws an odd demarcation between being homeless and not having a home. “You know what a ‘squatter’ is? That’s what I am,” he says, describing the various and sundry places he’s laid his head since he lost his home, including an old pump house along the Sacramento River known to local homeless kids as the “bat cave.”
But on this night, with the driving rain and 26 mph winds, Arthur—perhaps more than Angel—starts to have serious thoughts about this lifestyle. While Angel displays a childlike faith that things will “work out,” Arthur is struggling with the realities of being a father and providing for his new family. He’s considered moving them back to the Los Angeles area to live with his mother and stepfather, but has reservations about being able to find a job there.
“My father’s very rich—but he wants nothing to do with me. My mom wants us, she wants the baby to be safe, but she’s only got a mobile home and it would be a very tight fit,” he says. “Besides, where they live, it’s miles from any businesses and I don’t have a car, so I think it would be very hard to find work.”
And what about Angel’s dad?
“Her dad? He can’t stand me. I mean, think about it—I took his little girl, you know? No, we can’t stay there,” he says, shaking his head.
For now, Arthur is putting in applications at area restaurants and hoping he and Angel can find more stable, albeit temporary, housing until something breaks.
In many ways, Arthur looks like a suburban teen with a rebellious streak. He wears a baseball cap with the rap/metal band KoRn’s name on it, superimposed over a marijuana leaf. Like Angel, he sports a black, spiked dog collar and a pentagram necklace, although he will admonish anyone who assumes the pentagram is a sign of devil worship.
“See how the star is pointed up?” he says. “It’s a Wiccan symbol. It means ‘white light.’ If it were pointed down, then it would be ‘black light.’ People just want to assume it’s satanic.”
Arthur holds Joe on his lap, looking at him with a mixture of wonder and pride. When he’s not tickling Joe’s nose and tenderly stroking Joe’s eyelids, Arthur sucks on his baby’s pacifier and watches cartoons playing on the big screen TV in the waiting room.
Later, in the dining hall, Angel eagerly and liberally shakes salt over the entirety of her food. Although men typically must wait to eat until after the women and children are finished, Salvation Army Operations Manager John Palazzo makes an exception and allows Arthur to join his new family.
The dynamic between the couple is, at times, more like big brother to little sister than of boyfriend to girlfriend. At one point, Arthur notices Angel pouring streams of sugar into her grape punch, her face scrunched up in delight at the impending sugar high. He gently reaches over and takes the sugar away from a now-disappointed Angel, counseling, “That juice is already sweetened, you don’t need to add more sugar.”
It is a cold, wet night as Angel—along with 200 other homeless men, women and children—huddle together outside the Salvation Army office, waiting, it seems forever, to board the first of eight buses that will shuttle them out to Cal Expo.
A crowd outside gathers under a makeshift tarp, which provides little protection from the driving rain. It’s slow getting out of the building. Periodic shouts of “Hole!” signal to those in the front of the line that others—generally women and children—need to be let through.
As the wind whips the rain across those huddled in the staging area, children are constantly getting separated from their parents, dwarfed as they are in the shadows of the adults in the dark of night. Slatted crates serving as makeshift walkways lead from the building to the outdoor patio, set about a foot apart from each other, the gap between them filled with muddy rainwater, ankle deep.
Children hold a special place in the hearts of many here, women and men alike. And many of the women, even if they’re not burdened with children of their own, look out for the children of others—especially the babies.
“Would someone hold this umbrella, please,” says one woman with a mixture of both care and exasperation. “This is a 1-month-old child—he shouldn’t be out here in this rain.” She sighs, trying to juggle both her own baggage and the umbrella as she scans the crowd for the child’s mother. “These children … they’re really the victims here.”
Every seat on the first bus is full. Angel and her son are seated in the middle of the bus; Arthur will follow later, with the men. Exhaustion can be seen in most of the women’s faces.
Seated in front of Angel is Laura, a woman in her 40s, who is grateful for the overly warm bus, given the weather outside. She talks to another passenger about how she’s looking forward to “just taking a shower, taking my medication and crawling into bed.”
Laura says she’s been walking all over Sacramento that day and her asthma is acting up. But she was able to see a public health doctor today and secure her asthma medication, along with a multi-symptom cough syrup and for that, she is grateful. She coughs frequently as she tells how she and her boyfriend have come out here from Dallas, Texas, so he can testify in an insurance case.
“We’re getting some money from the first settlement on [Feb. 1],” she says with confidence. “And we’re waiting on money from the second [case]. After we get that, we’re out of here. So I’ve only got a couple of weeks left of this.”
The woman across the aisle can’t stop coughing. Actually, the entire bus sounds like a rolling hospital ward at times. Kathy Jensen’s concerns about Joe’s health seem well-justified.
When the first bus pulls up to Cal Expo, shelter workers hurriedly line up the baby strollers, which were placed in the baggage compartment of the bus. It’s still raining hard and the gravel and dirt walkways to the nine trailers that make up the shelter are mostly mud.
Angel finds Joe’s stroller and struggles to wheel it over the rocks and through the mud without knocking loose the myriad items she has placed both inside and on top.
Beds are assigned by trailer, or building, based on where one slept the night before. Anyone without a bed previously has to wait until all the buses have arrived before seeing what beds are open. Each trailer usually sleeps 19 women, though they can accommodate up to 23 when necessary. Tonight, it’s necessary: Four of the nine buildings will house women and children, with the shelter’s total for men, women and children reaching 211.
Angel heads into Building 9—selected because it’s the trailer closest to the bus. She’s informed by the dorm monitor there, Darla, that she’s free to park her stroller and wait, but that she can’t be assigned a bed until all the women on the previous night’s list have been accounted for.
All Angel wants to do at this moment is use the restroom. The unpleasant thought of dragging the stroller and Joe back outside in the cold to do so registers on her face. One of the women sees this and offers to watch Joe—an offer she doesn’t have to make twice. Angel wraps a blanket around herself and quickly heads for the door.
The woman picks up Joe and notices his sleeper is damp from the rain. He has started to fuss because, as Angel would later explain, his tear ducts get clogged easily. The woman gingerly takes Joe and places him on her lower bunk bed and begins wiping his eyes. He quiets down quickly and is soon sleeping again.
“The only good thing I can say about this is that he’s too small to know what’s going on,” says the woman. “Unlike my little girl, who’s [8 years old] … she knows exactly what’s happening and it’s not good.”
Dance with denial
Angel returns about 20 minutes later—she’s been waiting for Arthur to arrive—and begins to unpack some of her things to dry them out.
This is deadly serious business—homeless with a baby—but Angel appears to be more concerned right now that her floor-length crushed velvet cape has gotten wet and has some mud on the bottom. While the other women dress for warmth and comfort—layered T-shirts, sweatshirts and hand-me-down coats and jeans are the order of the day—Angel attracts more than one comment about her “pretty dance clothes.”
She shrugs these off, however, saying, “Oh, this isn’t dressed up for me—I’ve worn this for the last three days.” And she has, but she seems to have no recognition that an ankle-length velvet brocade dress with long sleeves and matching velvet cape are not exactly shelter attire.
In fact, when talking about the future, Angel is as likely to frame her experiences on the street as some sort of adventure—a dream that she will awake from in a land of sunshine and hippie communes (she’s heard that these exist in Florida)—as she is to discuss the hardships.
But Angel’s demeanor shifts when someone mistakenly refers to her son as Joseph; the smile leaves her face and her voice becomes lower, her tone harder.
“His name is Joe,” she says. “I named him after my iguana. Yeah, that’s right, my iguana. Every thing that I’ve chosen to love has screwed me over, has stepped on me. Except that iguana, man … he was always there for me, up until he died. So I named [my son] after the only thing that I loved that didn’t step on me.”