Last week when I went down to our building’s laundry room I (gently) kicked the door open with my foot as my hands were full. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw a man as startled as I was in the room. He rapidly picked up his belongings as soon as he got over his shock, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. Not that many people use our laundry room at 8am on a Tuesday morning, so I’m sure the guy thought it would be a safe shelter. This wasn’t my first time finding a homeless person in our laundry room, and it probably won’t be my last seeing as our property managers can’t seem to do anything we ask them to do (another story for another day). I’m not going to report the gentleman for sleeping in our laundry room, just like I won’t report the couple who were charging their phones in there the other time. If you have nowhere to call home and all the shelters are full you are going to look for somewhere safe to rest your head, aren’t you? That said I have obviously requested that the lock be fixed in the building.
We live in downtown Sacramento and we know how hard it is to find a place to live in this city. The rental market is tiny, the supply is way lower than the demand, and rents have risen by 7.2% in the last year alone. We spent over a year looking for a place on and off, and we were rejected from every single place we applied to. It didn’t matter if we had excellent references and rental history, if we made X times more than the required rental fee. Our credit was never high enough, and there were always about 50 other people interested in the place anyway, so we never stood a chance. We got rejected the first time we applied for the place we live in now, thankfully they accepted my mother as guarantor. How embarrassing is that though? Neither myself nor my partner had ever required a guarantor in our adult lives before!! But we have a home, and right now that is better than many others who live in this city.
There are currently just under 4,000 homeless people in Sacramento, a city of just under half a million people (1,723,634 million if you count the entire Sacramento urban area). This doesn’t include all of the people who are couch surfing or staying in extended stay hotels. 56%* of these people sleep on the streets every night. In larger cities such as San Francisco (7,499 homeless out of a population of 865,000), LA (55,188 homeless out of a population of 3.976 million), and NYC (62,974 homeless out of a population of 8.538 million), for example, the issue is even more visible: and rather than getting better it’s just getting worse. Just last year San Diego was plagued by an outbreak of Hepatitis A due to the virus that transferred rapidly through the growing homeless population. Shelters are not being built fast enough to keep up with the demand, and physical and mental health outreach and access is appalling.
I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve seen poverty, I’ve been to places where the dead are picked up in the streets in the morning before the tourists see them. I’ve also been and lived in some of the richest countries in the world, some of which have amazing social safety nets to ensure that those in need receive a helping hand. I always wonder where the safety net is in the US for all of these homeless people sleeping on the streets. Why do I see all of these new luxury condos get thrown up all around where we live whereas the waiting lists on the affordable housing complexes run into years rather than months. Why has the city built a new shelter to house 200 people instead of focusing on building more affordable housing? There is no way we can afford to move when our lease is up in June, so we will be forced to pay whatever higher rent rate that they offer us to renew – so I can’t even begin to imagine how hopeless it must seem to someone who is actually on the street already.
I often walk around the downtown area but I’m always surprised at just how strange it is. My experience of US city life is mainly relegated to NYC where I experienced living in more rundown areas (Bushwick a decade ago for example), as well as more affluent areas (West Village). But downtown Sacramento is quite shocking in its stark black and whiteness: part brand new sparkling luxury, part boarded up, falling to pieces, abandoned locations stanching of piss. Take K Street for example: at one end there is the new arena, faced by the Convention Center a few blocks down, and in between there are bright restaurants flanked by old, abandoned buildings, a retro movie theater followed by an IMAX with missing lights, a dusty corner store followed by sparkling jewelry shop. And all along the road people standing, waiting for a new direction, or for the drug dealers, staking their spot to lay their heads. It’s terribly sad, and very confusing. It’s not just K Street though... Every single street in downtown Sacramento, and all along the riverbank there are makeshift tents, bikes laden with someone’s belongings, probably all that they have in the world, cardboard boxes flattened against steam outlets, people sleeping on the grass in the parks... Human shit mixed with dog shit, people who have been on the streets for years, those who haven’t, the loners and those who travel in groups, the addicts, the mentally ill, the ones you don’t know if they are addicts because they are homeless or mentally ill, or homeless because they are addicts. I walk through the Capitol garden early in the morning and men and women pick up their belongings, roll their blankets and sleeping bags up, and walk away. Sometimes if you walk home at night along Capitol Mall figures rise up in front of you, only visible when you hit a rare street light, and you feel like you may actually have landed in zombie land. But these are PEOPLE, human beings like you and me, and the country seems to have forgotten them.
The country also seems to have forgotten about their veterans. With the military budget being as enormous as it is ($700 billion for 2018) one would have thought that this country would look after veterans better than they do. PTSD can hit anyone, and it doesn’t always manifest immediately on return from a war zone (or proximity to a war zone). Mental illness can affect anyone, whether they have served in a war or not. There are currently approximately 40,000 veterans living on the streets in the US, and another 1.4 million at risk of becoming homeless. We are failing these people by leaving them to suffer, after serving this country in the way they felt was the best. How can you push a gun into a young person’s hands and tell them to shoot, and then dump them out on the streets when you are done without any kind of psychological follow up? While services ARE slowly getting better, so many have fallen through the cracks. It breaks my heart to see these men and women sleeping rough in the parks, and on the sidewalks. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website has lots of important statistics, as well as information on how individuals can make a difference if they are so inclined.
I was walking past the Capitol this morning and saw the same homeless man I had found in our laundry room. He was sitting on a bench, staring into space. I don’t know what I can personally do about the situation apart from provide kindness, and food/necessities when we can afford it ourselves. Every so often we buy large Ziploc bags and fill them with socks, protein bars, toothpaste, sanitary pads etc, and keep them in the stroller basket to hand out as and when. I hope they help a little. But in the grander scheme of things we need to collectively keep pushing our representatives to take care of those who need it the most, and that includes families who struggle to make rent every month, families who have to juggle bills and are constantly paying late fees. If the number of homeless people in this country isn’t scary enough (just over 500,000), those living below the poverty line (40 million in 2016) is even scarier. How many of these people are one bill away from eviction or foreclosure?
We need better and more accessible mental health help, we need rent controlled and accessible housing instead of brand new luxury apartments that remain empty. We need to raise the poverty thresholds to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks, and that parents don’t find themselves living in their car with their kids because they couldn’t keep up with rent and daycare costs. We need proper shelters that are open to everyone with real access to rehabilitation help, whether it’s for guidance on how to find a place to live, a job, an address, food, medical help etc. Because turning a blind eye to those who are sleeping on the street, in shelters, in their cars, or on a friend or family member’s couch is not going to make the problem go away.
*Figures taken from Homelessness in Sacramento County: Results from the 2017 Point-in-Time Count
I usually pop a camera into my bag every time I go out and last year my partner and I decided to work on a juxtaposition of photos of Sacramento, showcasing the many people sleeping rough on the sidewalks with a backdrop of luxury buildings, government offices, and hip bars and restaurants. I found it very difficult to randomly take pictures of people, and felt super self-conscious about it, so I tried to avoid capturing their faces directly. You can see the collection here.