To the man standing barefoot on the freezing concrete: I’m so sorry. To the lady standing and sleeping with her head against a windowsill: I’m so sorry. To the person who left all of their belongings on the slope up to DOCO and disappeared: I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that I don’t know what to do. I walk through DOCO, this new area that feels so posh and shiny, bang in the middle of disrepair, poverty, loneliness, and addiction staring at me from each side. I just feel so sorry, and so guilty, and then angry because everybody is failing these people, myself included.
Every morning I see a new tent popping up amongst the others on a sidewalk, in front of City Hall, in a grassy space that has yet to be claimed by condo-builders. Not everyone has a tent, there are so many who just lie down on the street and cover themselves with a blanket. Residential streets, shopping streets, downtown government building streets: people set up makeshift homes for a night or two, a bed for now. This morning I walked past someone asleep in front of the house that is for sale for $900 grand.
A woman pulls a shopping cart behind her wearing shoes that are at least 4 times too big while the gentleman who spends his nights drinking cheap 40’s in the awning on S and 5th shuffles his government-issued wheelchair across the main road. And people, like me, walk by, parallel worlds in the same world.
Just after the Christmas break it felt like there was suddenly an influx of visibly mentally ill people in the downtown-midtown area. Around the school mainly. It felt like somebody had just emptied a psychiatric hospital out on the streets, a slightly Gothamesque vision every time I pushed the stroller along F St. One morning a dense fog covered all buildings and swirled through the streets, a similar effect seen during the first real snowfall of winter in NYC. Suddenly a woman’s face popped out of nowhere, cackling about Santy and candy, even though we were well into January by then, her fingers pointing at us as I sped past. I don’t know if the drugs came first, or the streets, or both, but she was not a safe person, not to herself or to others. These are the days when I question our determination to bring our kids up downtown rather than in some random suburban setting.
One day I had a sudden weird desire to cross J St earlier than I usually do, I don’t know why. I pondered my impulsive decision to cross where it was a lot less safe when I saw that a man was having a very angry and violent mental breakdown on the other side of the street. He was throwing his suitcase into the air, shouting, and throwing punches around, and there was no way to settle him down. My gut is never wrong, it usually leads me away from danger.
I walk several different routes to and from the school, depending on the weather, my mood, and my anxiety level (being spat on by a neo Nazi back in the autumn always an event in the back of mind). We always end up crossing the same streets and seeing the same people though. I realized while pushing the stroller through another rain storm on 10th St that we would run into the same man at the same time in the morning, in the same place. And then again in the afternoon. And then I saw him again, walking in the same direction at a random time on a Saturday too. Does he live nearby? He is striking, handsome, piercing light eyes, dressed in what appear to be clean clothes. One day I noticed that he was always carrying a neatly folded blanket under his arm. And that he passed by us for the second time when we were waiting on the corner of the street. That’s when it clicked: he wasn’t on his way somewhere at the same time we were on our way somewhere else every day. Passing him by on the same street at different times wasn’t chance. He was walking round the block, again and again, in a determined fashion, a sense of purpose but no real destination. Is he ex-military? Possibly. Homeless? Definitely, as it has since been confirmed that he sleeps is a doorway on that block every night.
On that same block I saw a man light his crack pipe in the middle of the sidewalk a few weeks ago, a few feet ahead of me. Broad daylight, a well-frequented street, children in a stroller close by, and a crack pipe. The streets are hard, unforgiving, it’s freezing at night most of the time, and when it rains the streams of water pound relentlessly onto the concrete, finding their way into gutters, running into doorways, soaking blankets and cardboard and tarp, pooling around tents. But the drug use is so out in the open, desperate, and unforgiving too. There has to be a better solution that ignoring it and hoping it goes away.
There was a woman dressed in a garbage bag yesterday. One of those heavy duty large black ones, a garbage bag dress. The wind was brutal, freezing cold, more NYC than Sacramento. More and more tents are appearing around City Hall, people gathering together for safety and comfort, so many women. I can’t begin to imagine the traumas experienced by women living on the streets. (But the data is readily available online, although it would be good to see more up to date studies as this is a pretty important subject).
I am still haunted by what happened to us last year in the Capitol Gardens… I was helping one of my daughters use the public toilets when suddenly the woman who had been washing her face in the sink started shouting, cursing, screaming (in a British accent). I held my daughter close and told her not to worry and we stood silently in the stall wondering what we should do. My mother, visiting from the UK, was standing outside with the other kids asked if we were OK but I didn’t respond, afraid I would antagonize the lady even more. And then as suddenly as it started it stopped, and she walked out of the bathroom and away. Another day we saw her wrapped in a blanket not far from the toilets, sleeping.
16th Street Donuts is hands down the best donut shop in the city, with the kindest owner. It’s the kind of place where you tack on an extra dollar or two to your bill and ask them to give the next homeless person to walk through the door free breakfast. The kind of place where you can go and receive a warm cup of coffee when you have no money and no home. That strip mall on the corner of F and 16th is home to many people, their faces the same, their faces changing overnight, new ones replacing old. The parking lot is adjacent to the elementary school, a fenced wall separating the two. I’ve seen people shooting up, relieving themselves, buying drugs, sleeping, reading, eating, fighting, and just living in that small 20 or less car parking lot right against the school grounds. I’ve seen people set up camp in front of the school, and in the school playground. I hear the words “but its downtown, you have to expect it” as I walk by. I’m sure apathy never helped anyone though… I think the donut shop has the right attitude though: treat everyone as human. Most days my empathy overwhelms me, but some days I get angry because I don’t want to have to yet again tell my kids to never ever touch a needle like the one we just stepped over.
Those days when I am angry I go into the donut shop and remember that we are all human.
There are so many more stories, so many more people. I just continue to jot them down in my journal, remember their faces, and hopefully remind those around me that we can choose to look away, or we can choose to be present.
*I’ve seen this happen several times. Sacramento PD has a very bad reputation for shooting first, asking questions next, especially when it comes to homeless and/or possibly mentally ill black men.