From homeless to hopeful

Three stories of the difficult stages that many of the dispossessed go through in Sacramento when a home is not available

Photo By Larry Dalton

It may not be as visible here as in the meaner, more urban streets of other cities, but the homeless population in Sacramento is a desperate, burgeoning one. Experts say we have upwards of 10,000 homeless people in the city now, with a significant increase every year.

When I learned this, it shocked me. Having grown up in this city, I couldn’t remember seeing more than a dozen homeless people as a teenager. I know that the cost of living has increased dramatically in Sacramento, but I always had thought of it as a kindly place that took care of its own, whether it was with low-income housing or services for the disadvantaged or mentally ill.

I wanted to try to find out how all these people had become homeless and if there was a common denominator. I also wanted to know if there were success stories out there and how they came to be.

These are the questions I tried to answer when I spent several days and nights at ground zero for the homeless, on the corners between North C Street and Ahern Street in downtown Sacramento.

This is the nexus between Loaves & Fishes and the Salvation Army shelter, two of the busiest shelter and service programs in the area. Every day, several hundred homeless people gather for food, friendship and, if they’re lucky, a roof over their heads for at least one night.

It’s where I got to know three people in that community who seem to represent the stages of this affliction: the perennially dislocated; the people on the verge of changing their circumstances for the better; and that rarest group of all, those who were homeless and despairing for years but now are employed, have homes and are personally very happy.

Finding subjects for my quest, though, was tricky. The homeless are not easy to write about. On the one hand, they are desperate for someone to hear their stories, validate their lives, and document their daily wanderings and struggles. On the other hand, documentation of their misery is not the sort of distinction anyone is born seeking, no matter their circumstance. It’s more like stigmata, most of the time.

Consequently, I was not surprised when the first homeless woman I spent time with on the streets and in a shelter, Maria Brown, flipped from open and accessible to suspicious and hostile. She had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic/manic-depressive. She also decided, on the third day I was with her, to take a bad dose or two of some street drug. But that’s not all that our conflict was about. Maria suddenly realized, through the clarity of madness, or the madness of clarity, that she was going to be one of the subjects of a story in which people like her—the chronically homeless and mentally ill—would be largely a subject of pity. Who wants that? So, after losing Maria for a day, and then finding her, twitching from leftover symptoms she had induced with some street drug, I was not too surprised when she growled at me to stay away from her. (This can be a commonplace response to those who try to treat the mentally ill who are moving through the city. How do you help someone who is hostile to help?)

It started out calmly and promisingly enough. When Maria had been turned away one afternoon from the fairly deluxe setting of the Loaves & Fishes shelter, for want of space, I followed her across the city’s little homeless universe. It’s an intense space to navigate, at any time, and this was one of the most intense phases in its monthly cycle. It was the end of the month. Government checks had been exhausted by booze, drugs or, just as often, one’s own motel room with a hot shower and cable TV; and the congregation of homeless in need, to my untrained eyes, now looked impossibly large and difficult to care for.

Maria was just the sort of person I was seeking to follow and document. Petite, well-groomed and handsome, with clever features and marvelous eyes like huge cups of Colombian coffee, she’d been on the streets for years and seemed to have a navigational plan. She seemed dejected but not without hope.

Instinctively, she turned on her heels and marched toward the Salvation Army shelter across the street. Wanting to have her “permission” to talk, I asked one of the shelter volunteers if they would approach her. Maria said sure, but that most importantly she had to keep moving, keep walking, compulsively. So, we did. I asked her if I could help, and she unabashedly thrust a very heavy bag she was carrying into my arms. She also came to ask for and expect other things from me, like food and money. I later learned that there are two camps of homeless people: those who aggressively snatch the support of an offered hand, and those who are shy and still self-conscious about the need for help. I understood how one could feel both ways.

At the Salvation Army shelter (which intimates know as “Sally’s”—for some reason many of these shelters have pacifying women’s names), it seemed unlikely that Maria was going to get a bed there, either. But Sally’s takes pity on the “overflow” and will let as many people as possible sleep on the floor of the lobby. They forgo all the shelter amenities, like getting assigned a bed number, food, showers and bathroom privileges. But still, it’s a roof over their heads. It’s lit shelter from the cold, and it’s protection from the savaging unmet needs and desires of many other homeless people on the street. And Maria was sick with a bad cold and just wanted to sleep. So, she lay down on the floor, unperturbed by the rocking man next to her and the young, soft-faced girl in a soft pink jogging suit who kept crying inconsolably about somebody who had “hurt her mother and made her want to die.”

By about 6 p.m., it was clear that Maria would have to sleep on the cold lobby floor. So, I decided to stay with her. But neither of us had anything comfortable to sleep on, so I got us both sleeping bags. Maria crawled into one, as if back into the womb, and she didn’t stir for the next 12 hours.

Margaret Mary Canales, the director of Sister Nora’s Place, said her shelter tries to give its residents a sense of home and generally gives them the freedom to just “be themselves.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

I, on the other hand, was supremely uncomfortable, relegated to a row of plastic chairs, not having the forethought to take up early space on the floor. I did not enjoy the prospect of taking a piss in the parking lot, if need be. So, because I was pretty sure I was not going to sleep at all that night, I cracked the book I had brought along (Ironweed, for good measure) and set about reading it in one sitting.

It made me sad, though, rather than distracted. Not so much because of the misery of the lives of the characters in the book, who are mostly homeless and drunks. But because, like in a lot of fiction, the author, William Kennedy, couldn’t resist making his troubled characters almost implausibly smart and self-aware. And he tinged them with a faded, sepia glamour that rivals aging film stars.

I looked around me. With a few exceptions, these people were not formerly glamorous folks who’d taken a wrong turn one momentous night, killed a man by accident, drunk one two many whiskeys, slept with the wrong lover and so had to give up a previously privileged life because of fateful flaws in their characters.

Those in this real world, the ones of the Sacramento streets, were the afflicted. They were mostly severely mentally ill. It is estimated that at least half, likely more, of the city’s homeless people have impossibly debilitating mental problems. There were scores of apparent schizophrenics, gurgling urgently to themselves. There were men and women crying and talking and even laughing compulsively, at nothing in particular, unable to stop. These were not people who could hold down a regular job, get the rent check to the landlord on time, or even cook for and clean themselves. It was altogether predictable that they were homeless. What was more remarkable was that they were still alive.

The system that now takes in the homeless is simply not equipped to deal with that level of illness. So, these people shuffle into Loaves & Fishes or the Salvation Army for a hot meal, compos mentis long enough to eat. Then they are cast out again to fend for themselves, with no natural resources or strengths to fall back on, maybe not even survival instincts.

But now there is a new model of shelter that caters directly to the most mentally ill, the ones who seem the least helpable. The ones like Maria, whose depression and the eventual appearance of schizophrenic symptoms caused her to lose her home and her family. Loaves & Fishes has opened a shelter called Sister Nora’s Place, affectionately named after one of the iconographic founders of Friendship Park, the “social center” of Loaves & Fishes.

Sister Nora’s is specifically for homeless women whose mental-health problems make it difficult to handle traditional programs and shelters. “We take people that would probably be dead soon, that have been shuffled though the system for years without real success, and give them a real home, a sense of pride of place,” said Margaret Mary Canales, the director of Sister Nora’s. It just opened on January 17 and is funded primarily by the Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Fund, the California Wellness Fund and individual donors. It hopes to house 13 women eventually.

Although the four women who were the test cases for this new, all-encompassing shelter declined to be observed or interviewed by me, I did get a chance to see one restless woman, a battered-looking lady probably in her 50s, named Barbara.

She was a smoker, and if you smoke at night, you have to go outside with a chaperone. So, Barbara came out with me and her chaperone, and while the chaperone and I talked, Barbara talked, too. To herself. Quite happily.

According to Canales, she is one of the less severe cases at Sister Nora’s. “We have one woman who gets a little uneasy and will start to clean the toilets compulsively, even though we have a custodial service to do that. It calms her down. Plus, she takes pride in her living space, something she has never had the opportunity to do,” said Canales.

So, what is so different about Sister Nora’s? First of all, the women have their own living quarters—these fantastically designed modular spaces with their own beds and furniture—a space that is only theirs, not one that people move in and out of constantly, as with the dormitory-style of most shelters.

Second, it’s a place where people (like reporters) don’t get to ask you any uncomfortable questions and no one ever questions your behavior, now matter how strange or seemingly maladaptive.

“It’s amazing how calming an effect just letting someone be themselves, no matter how different, can be,” said Canales. “Even if these women go off their meds for schizophrenia [and some of them do, because they don’t like the serious side effects], just respecting them and giving them the freedom to do what they want can make all the difference in the world in their ability to make it through the day.”

Unlike the very proscriptive, often overbearing rigor of other shelters—where you are required to attend scores of meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, or Christian-based gatherings to qualify for your bed—at Sister Nora’s, the women can pretty much do whatever they want: watch a video, make themselves a meal in the kitchen or hang around in their room undisturbed.

After living on the streets for 10 years, David “Doc” Walker turned his life around. Walker, currently a supervisor at Loaves & Fishes, attributes his progress to meeting the woman who would later become his wife.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In just a few weeks, Canales has seen a remarkable change in the women’s demeanors.

Of course, part of the magic is in the training of the nine-woman staff, which is specially trained, equipped and sensitive to the needs of the severely mentally ill.

Again, in most shelters, there isn’t the luxury of being nice with all the “clients.” In fact, I observed a lot of impatient, schoolmarmish scolding by staff members who admittedly are overwhelmed with the needy and often unruly mob of people who pass through their doors every day.

But at Sister Nora’s, they mostly aren’t hassled by other homeless people, who, even if not seriously mentally ill, often are depressed, angry, aggressive and preoccupied with their own needs.

In fact, studies have shown, Canales said, that after living for two years on the streets, most people manifest a mental illness of some kind. And just living among other homeless people in shelters can be enough to drive the sane crazy.

Just ask Barbara Wilson. She is a woman I met at the Salvation Army who is something of a success story. She got a job at the shelter, saved some money for a car, is training to be a bartender and has a happy relationship with her girlfriend. But Wilson says that if she stays much longer at the shelter, she just might slip back into the severe depression and frustration that got her there in the first place.

It’s often difficult to establish relationships in the shelter that don’t turn strange, like the one Wilson had with a married couple she knew for two months. “Then, one day, they asked if I wanted to go with them to get something out of storage. Out of nowhere, the man started getting really personal with me, asking me if I was a lesbian because some man hurt me. I said no and that I didn’t really like him asking me those sorts of questions.” Then, as he went to the storage unit, his wife started telling me about how attracted they were to me and that they had this idea for a threesome. I just told them to back off.”

These kind of herky-jerky, friendly-freaky relationships are pretty common on the streets and in shelters.

“Yeah, women in the shelters are always going on ‘dates’ [a kind of euphemism for prostitution], sometimes two or three in a day,” said Wilson. “Sometimes with men, sometimes with other women. When women find out I’m a lesbian, they see that as an invitation to come on to me.”

Wilson laughed at the thought, because she doesn’t generally think of herself as attractive. She’s a big girl, but she has a sweet face and an exquisitely delicious sense of humor, which serves her well—sometimes too well.

“I am always trying to make people like me, and they can take that the wrong way and want certain things from me that I don’t want to give.”

Wilson’s disastrous childhood with a pill-popping mother, and her subsequent adult depression, made her more emotionally needy than was healthy—and also was a key component to her eventual homelessness. Her desire to like and be liked also can make her disastrously gullible, and that’s a big liability on the streets. On the day she and I talked, she had handed over $200 to an apparent shyster driving a 1970s Caddie with Jersey plates who was promising otherwise inaccessible housing.

“He took me and my friend Opel to this house and said he didn’t have a key and that we’d have to climb in through the window. Then he said there was a woman and her child staying there, but we didn’t see any evidence of it.”

“Then, when he took my money, and I asked for a receipt, he took a really long time to write it out, like he had never written one before. Also, the contact number that he gave me was long-distance, which was strange. I couldn’t call it because I have limited cell service,” she explained.

Although she’s still homeless, Barbara Wilson now has a job, goals and a happy relationship. But in a shelter, surrounded by other homeless people, she worries about sinking back into a depression.

Photo By Larry Dalton

He promised to pick her up the next morning at Friendship Park to take her to the house and get her the keys. But, of course, he never showed. As of the writing of this piece, Wilson had had no further contact with him, yet she was still very hopeful. The touching thing was that she hoped, even after deciding he was a con, that he would sort of take her in, because he had liked her personality and called her a “goofball.”

“I just really wanted to believe,” Wilson explained simply.

Hope and belief are usually in short stock around the homeless, of course. That fact is often what brings people to that condition in the first place. That was the case for ultimate homeless success story, David “Doc” Walker.

Walker is currently a happily employed supervisor at Loaves & Fishes, with a young and pretty wife, Heather (he’s 53, and she’s 27), and a new baby boy about to pop out.

But that’s all recent material. For 10 years, up until about three years ago, he was homeless and lived and worked on the streets of Sacramento.

The tailspin into homelessness took place after his third wife, Sandra, was murdered with a baseball bat while walking to a neighborhood store. “They think it was a vagrant on crack or something. She was mugged, but it was incredibly, unnecessarily brutal,” he said.

Walker blamed himself for the random death. He had just been released from jail, and he and his wife were struggling to survive in a bad neighborhood.

After the murder, the grief and self-loathing overwhelmed him. He just gave up on a normal life, with a job and a house. He hit the streets to deaden his pain. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, Walker turned out to be a natural survivor on the streets. His distinctive looks, charm and smarts enabled him to endure the experience of homelessness better than most. Consequently, he survived and sometimes thrived, for a decade on the streets.

I don’t know how Walker looked 10 to 20 years ago, but I suspect it was much the same. He is a thick and powerfully built man, with a tobacco-stained, otherwise white handlebar mustache you could hang a 5-year-old on. He’s got a close-cropped head of greasy white hair. And his face, while full of character, clearly shows he’s been down 100 miles of rough road. And—oh, yeah—he’s missing his front teeth, due to neglect and some old drug habits. Yet, somehow it suits him, makes him look like a sort of wise old walrus.

And it clearly doesn’t affect his way with the women. He’s had four wives, all pretty and younger than him. He’s clearly a savvy charmer, which is the weapon he wielded—very profitably—in his years on the street.

“Yep, I always wanted to write a book called Being Homeless but Living Like Kings,” he chortled.

Walker was lucky enough to have a pro named Ron take him under his wing, not long after his life spun out of control and he ended up on the streets.

“Well, Ron taught me a lifetime of lessons in a half hour. He showed me that you had to be ‘convincing’ as a panhandler. You had to have props that clearly demonstrated homelessness, like a bedroll and shabby clothes. You had to be minimalist with your style—have a shtick. For example, he would hold up a sign that had nothing written on it. When people would ask him why his sign was blank, he would say in all earnestness that if he had enough money for a Magic Marker, he wouldn’t need to panhandle.” Walker reckons that Ron took in at least a couple hundred dollars a day.

Walker took in the advice, slapped on his own brand of charm and was quickly up to making $25 an hour. “The trick is not so much how much you make in an hour, of course, but how many hours in a day you make that much.” Walker was so good at panhandling—he exceeded particularly through witty signs like “I used to be a model before I became homeless”—that he was quickly sitting rather pretty, for an unemployed homeless person. “I would come into some money,” he recalled rather fondly, “and go eat at Max’s Opera Cafe at Arden Fair Mall,” directly across from one of his many long-term, cleverly camouflaged campouts.

Loaves & Fishes Director Tim Brown shows off a bed at Sister Nora’s Place. The new shelter serves a small number of mentally ill homeless women.

Photo By Larry Dalton

He also would check into hotels from time to time. But really he got most of his amenities for free. For example, if he wanted to watch a little TV in between gigs, he hopped across the street to Sears and took a seat. If he wanted to catch up on his reading, he’d pop on over to the mall’s Barnes & Noble, where customers are provided comfy chairs and are encouraged to read on site.

At one point, he and a buddy conjured a 10-month campsite on Roseville Road that had a solar cooker, a battery-run TV and quite a few other goodies.

“When we finally got discovered by some local cops, they didn’t bust us but just shook their heads in wonder and said, ‘Man, you guys got quite an impressive place here.’”

Nevertheless, while it’s true that Walker had it good, comparatively speaking, he is still adamantly against the romantic notion that many homeless people really prefer being homeless. “That’s not true of any homeless people,” he growled at the suggestion. “Believe me, they’d all rather be warm when they wake up in the morning.”

Walker didn’t face a lot of the afflictions and threats that other homeless people face—he had been a medic for 20 years in the Army, and he didn’t have a lot of fears.

But he still couldn’t get it together enough to find a place to live. “You have to save up money for first and last month’s rent, a deposit. And then of course there’s a credit check.” And Walker had been in jail for two years for trafficking drugs, which swiped away his Army pension and made him an unattractive tenant for many landlords.

But then Walker met his current and fourth wife, at Loaves & Fishes, and he suddenly had what he says is the difference between making it off the streets and making the shelter rounds in perpetuity.

“Meeting my wife gave me back want, desire, will. I had lost that when I lost my third wife, but suddenly I wanted a better life, a good life, for me and Heather.”

So, Walker, ever clever, figured out a plan. He needed a way to save money and still have shelter, food, etc., so he decided to enter the Loaves & Fishes Clean & Sober rehab program. He was there for about nine months and was housed and fed all the while. Walker had a little drug problem—crank—and it was the last obstacle that stood between him and a life he sought with his new wife.

While in rehab, he continued working for Loaves & Fishes. He saved, and first he bought himself a little trailer. Then came an overpriced apartment downtown and, finally, a house with his new wife.

He managed all that change in about three years. In the meantime, he has become one of the most beloved employees at Loaves & Fishes, because he has uncritical sympathy for his “clients,” and they know it. Spend a few minutes in the company of Walker on his rounds, and you get interrupted with greetings from “clients” about a dozen times. Many of them are old buddies of his from the streets. He is tender, merciful and generous with them all, stuffing dollar bills into the hands of many—most of whom pay it back in time.

“It’s an incredibly fulfilling job, though it’s hard on your heart,” he said.

But Walker has a permanent (albeit toothless) grin etched on his face. He came back from hopelessness, despair and self-loathing to be a hopeful, extremely contributive member of society.

And that is really the thing that the homeless need most, said Canales. “Besides a break from the system, with low-income housing and other services for the mentally ill and the like, they need to believe that their future can—and should—be different from their present.”

That’s because being homeless is such a fundamentally dispiriting thing: Even if you were relatively balanced when you hit the street, you’re likely to be severely depressed and despairing after very long.

Tim Brown, the director of Loaves & Fishes, concurs. “We are just a temporary fix, after all. In addition to getting food and shelter, these people need to be reminded of their humanity, that they matter.”

The last time I saw Maria at the Salvation Army, she had recovered from her drug-induced seizures but was despairing of finding a spot in any of the shelters—partially because of her drug use. When I asked her why she would endanger her mental health—already imperiled—and her access to shelter to take drugs, she looked at me rather witheringly and said, “What does it matter? Nothing changes anyway.” Maybe if Maria could be reminded of her humanity, that she matters, things would change for the better for her.