Sacramento’s coldest season
A Sacramento man, unemployed and forced to live on the streets, describes a recent night in a winter refuge
“The park is closed!” the voice bellowed out several times.
At first, like everyone around me, I was not sure what we were hearing, but soon I recognized the voice as the park employee, Jay. His deep, crackly voice carried easily, but soon his words were drowned out with outrage as the gathering crowd demanded why the park was being closed two hours early. Jay just replied that someone was caught smoking dope! And now because of it, as it started to rain heavily, the no-tolerance rule was in effect.
People, including myself, started grabbing their things, yelling at Jay, at their friends, at no one in particular, demanding to know who was caught smoking the pot in the bathroom. The mob wanted blood. No suspects, however, were pointed out as the masses were led out of the park. Whoever had committed the crime was long gone.
I spent the winter of 2010 at Loaves & Fishes’ Friendship Park, as one of the many misfortunate outcasts forced to call the streets my home due to unforeseen circumstances. I became a stranger in a strange land, forced to live among the forgotten and forsaken through one of the coldest and wettest seasons of my life. The park was meant to be a safe place that offered protection away from the elements. Truthfully, it was a cage, meant to keep those that no one wanted to see away from the civilized world.
Or so I came to understand.
The closing of the park was not a rare occurrence. While the rules were clearly posted and many individuals did respect them, there were always those that felt the rules that governed the rest of us did not apply to them. As a result, the whole had to suffer because of the individuals’ mistakes.
Day after day, since I’d become homeless, my free time was spent waiting: for food, for a shower, for the park to open, for the rain to stop, to get warm, for the library to open, for more food, and now for a place to sleep. The rain hadn’t let up. It was coming down in torrents that seemed to signal the second coming of the flood. I found a friend standing by the corner, quietly by herself, huddled as close to the side of the building as she could, trying in vain to stay dry. I carried an oversize umbrella and decided to walk over to her. She was a Russian girl, 32, two years older than I. She was short, attractive and thin, but walked like a championship boxer nearing the ring to defend her title.
I extended my umbrella as I stepped before her, offering its protection so that we both could be dry. She thanked me for what I did for her a few days prior when an older Russian man, drunk, had approached her, violating her personal space, and tried to force himself on her, in front of a crowd that did not protect her. I stepped up when I realized what he was doing and threatened him as I pushed him away from her. He turned quickly and ran down to the corner.
Finally, the shutters to the warehouse opened up. The mob of a hundred people rushed inside so we could wait longer still—three extra hours. The warehouse was unheated, the temperature inside below freezing. There were a hundred bodies, all crammed together. I sat away from them, but the constant noise in such a closed space was driving me crazy. I had always been a solitary person, a person that enjoyed his own company and desired quiet.
The Volunteers of America bus came. The monitors charged with watching over us called women first, as they did each night. It didn’t matter, however. Everyone, but mostly the men, charged forward, pushing and shoving the women aside; the monitors yelled, but they could not bring order to the chaos, so they allowed it to continue unchecked each day. There was only one ride today, which meant it would take four trips to take everyone to their final destination—a total of 25 minutes each way.
Somehow the women made it onto the bus while the men took the rest of the seats, and then the bus was gone. The warehouse grew smaller by 25 people, but it was still overcrowded and noisy as I sat, waiting, alone and freezing. The bus came back and 25 more left. The noise was lessened. The loudest individuals were gone to some place warm, but the cold for those of us left behind got worse with each new hour. The sun was gone, and then the cycle repeated again as the bus came back. Another 25 left. It was quiet now. The more patient men were left behind. The conversations were intelligent as we talked about our past, our likes, how we got here as we shared our commonalities—our common bond.
But we became hungry and impatient. And then, nearly three full hours since it all began, the bus came back for the last time. It was 7 o’ clock at night. We all got on the bus and for the next 25 minutes, it was quiet. We enjoyed the ride; it was a moment of peace, away from the madness and chaos that had been the day. We could have fooled ourselves into believing we were just a bunch of guys heading up to Reno for the weekend.
The ride came to its conclusion as we pulled up to the church that would be hosting us that night. We were greeted by a group of churchgoers as we stepped off the bus. They smiled at me and welcomed me, even clapping—why, don’t ask me, but I felt like a soldier coming home from Afghanistan. I admired some of the church girls. Why are so many damn Christian girls so pretty? But I did not want to be there. I was out of my element, trapped between those that slept on the floor and the God-fearing people who wanted to save my soul.
Inside, the first three busloads of people had already eaten and were playing various card games with the church representatives. Or they had picked their spots and laid out their sleeping bags. We were at a school attached to a church, placed in the auditorium. Large tables were set up inside, seating 10 people each. Toward the back was a row of long tables that had a spread of food laid out across it. The smell of the pasta filled the air; right away I knew it was spaghetti, a common dish served by many of the churches. Another set of tables had water coolers filled with overflavored juice. Behind each table was a row of smiling Christians, older folks, the very young and other assorted volunteers.
The long wait meant that the food wasn’t fresh or warm. But it was decent; I ate a single helping. I glanced up and saw my worst fear coming toward me with the same uncertain and nervous smile I had seen each night I visited a church. It was one of the hosts, an older woman in her 60s, beehive white hair, dressed in a seasonal Christmas sweater, wearing thin glasses. She asked if she could join me. I knew what that meant. Why don’t I ever get the pretty Christian girls? I thought, as I glanced over the old woman’s shoulder and saw that the prettiest girls had already been gobbled up by the first men to have arrived.
I smiled warmly and said, “Of course. Have a seat.” I don’t like to be rude. I was raised to respect my elders, but I really did not want to be bothered. These people weren’t judgmental; I was just sick and tired of the same questions, asked in the same manner day after day: “Hi, how are you?” “My name is _____,” “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “What brought you here?” “Oh, that is so sad,” “God loves you,” “Jesus loves you.” They asked these questions because they were told it made us feel special, that we wanted to have our story told, that it made us comfortable. It didn’t. After a long, very long day, cold and endless hours of boredom and waiting, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to people; I just needed to be left alone, eat, read my book and try as best as I could to go to sleep. I knew despite good intentions, the food, the place to sleep, it did not solve anything. It was a stopgap—not a solution to the problem.
Then the one thing that would make me angry started—they began to preach! Not every church did it, but some churches saw fit to force their views on us—despite what they might have thought, not everyone in the world—not everyone in the building was a Christian. But they didn’t care. They only wanted to spread the word of God. No one would ask me if I wanted to listen. I hoped they wouldn’t talk for too long, so I sat and tried to ignore them. But my knee started to shake involuntary, which is what usually happens when I’m most annoyed or getting angry.
I finally bolted out from my chair. I was shivering. I couldn’t listen; I never trusted religion. I studied it. I researched it. I’ve tried it. I had found only half truths, whole lies and stolen mythologies. For me, this was the ultimate chaos and disorder—something that I could not control—could not walk away from or cry out against. I had no power over my own destiny, no less my life.
We had to lay down to sleep by 9. The lights finally went out, but the darkness did not bring peace. The talking was gone, but now it was replaced with constant snoring, farting, the ruffling of sleeping bags, the muffled footsteps of people walking by my ear and frequent coughing. Everyone was sick. I was sick. When I got better, I got sick again. I woke up during the nights. The dreams weren’t deep. I looked down at the red wristband that they had made us wear, branded with our number. I wasn’t Christopher anymore. I was No. 23. I tore it from my wrist. I didn’t allow them to give me another one. I demanded just a small piece of my self-respect back.
I craved peace. I searched for salvation.