It’s no secret that the homeless crisis in California is steadily rising and that no long-term solutions are in place to put a dent in the growing numbers. The ongoing opioid epidemic, natural disasters such as floods and wildfires, rising rents and lack of affordable housing, and inaccessible mental health care conflagrate the issue, but homelessness is not new to the US in any shape or form. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the numbers that appear in city-mandated reports don’t even begin to scratch the surface. Right-wing activists use the homeless as a poster child for their anti-immigration stances (I don’t see them actually proposing actual solutions to get people off the streets though), and others pretend the issue isn’t as bad as it appears. But those of us who walk miles of city sidewalks every day know the score.
I walk eight miles a day to and from my kids’ preschool, rain or shine. During the last autumn and winter I would jot down little stories, anecdotes, and thoughts from these walks, wondering where these people were from, what brought them to the streets of Sacramento. It’s easy to turn our faces away and complain about the (multiple) discarded needles, the human feces and vomit on the sidewalks and the grass, to worry about the mental illnesses that plague so many of the people on the streets, but we have to remember that these people are still people.
Here are some of the stories, fragments of moments in time that caught my eyes.
I suddenly realized the other day that my children are growing up thinking that homelessness is normal. Every morning we walk through the streets of downtown and midtown and they see people sleeping on the sidewalks, under shop awnings, and in tents. My eldest, a four year old, wants to grow up fast so that she can build houses for everyone so “they can have beds and clean toilets and a bath”. She says that it should be easy. It should really, shouldn’t it? I don’t want them to grow up desensitized to what they see. This is not normal. This should never be normal.
As I walk to and from preschool with the kids every day I see the same scenes, different people, but the same poverty, despondency, the rock bottom I hope none of my loved ones ever meet. My father may or may not have been homeless for a while before he died, and while it was a different country, a different time, it was the same sort of drug, and the same issues that none of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads seem to be able to solve. Sometimes I see a boot, black hair, and I look for him in a stranger’s eyes, but that is a story for another day.
As the sun rises behind the Capitol we walk past figures curled around underground steam outlets, wrapped in blankets with their shoes and bags tied together, some empty cans or food wrappers in a corner. People rise from makeshift beds in the Capitol Gardens, rolling up sleeping bags and putting on shoes, washing their faces in the public bathrooms, walking over to wait for the Central Library to open as no one stops anyone from using the restrooms there. Everyone deserves to have access to basic commodities, to the privacy of a restroom, to a mirror, and warm water. But based on the amount of human feces we have to step around in some areas, that doesn’t seem to be a priority for the officials of Sacramento.
There is the beautiful lady with the elaborate hairdo who is probably much younger than she looks. She applies her make up in the public toilet in the Capitol Gardens, and walks away with her neatly packed cart, her face serene, her age unknown, but definitely in the over 50 range. How long has she been on the streets? Who knows…
What about all of the people who are homeless and breathing the Camp wildfire smoke into their lungs? The micro particles embedding themselves into their internal organs, the air quality deemed hazardous. We are told to go inside, to stay inside, but those people have no indoors to enter. There is nowhere near enough space for everyone in the shelters, so they have to stay outside and breathe through the toxic smoke. My kids had coughs for months afterwards, so I can only imagine how it would have affected those who couldn’t stay indoors.
The first time I saw the arm flexer I was walking alone near the girls’ school. I saw him from afar, flexing his arm muscles as he walked, as if he were readying himself for the ring. He may have looked threatening and possibly creepy from afar, but I took my chances anyway and walked past him: harmless. And then I thought about how life on the streets is so dangerous for him, more dangerous, because those who would call the police are really just calling death. Don’t call the cops on homeless black men in Sacramento, they will arrive 5 at a time and aggressively pin your arms to your back and let your pants fall to the ground while they muscle your yielding body into the patrol car*. Sacramento PD have a notoriously terrible reputation when it comes to gunning down mentally ill and/or homeless black men. I see their actions frequently while walking, four to five to one person, manning their bikes like riot gear, ordering people from their sleeping bags, telling them to move on. This is not a solution. This is not even a Band-Aid. Move on? From the streets to the riverside that is currently flooded, bloated with water from another wet winter?
I see the arm flexer regularly now, in different locations, always flexing his muscles, hyping himself up for the powerful walk into the ring, a boxing ring that only exists in his imagination. Or maybe just every day on the streets of Sacramento is the big fight to survive. I can believe that.
The man who always stands on the corner of 10th and L by the traffic lights selling the Homestead newspaper never forgets to smile, to acknowledge you, and to ask you how you are. He deserves the same consideration, a smile, a hello. I don’t know how he arrived here, and I don’t know where he will go, but our paths cross frequently and he always remembers me. I feel so guilty that I rarely have a dollar on me for his newspaper.
I don’t know whether the drugs came first or they are the way to bear life on the street, but K Street and Cesar Chavez Plaza are where deals happen so frequently that people walk through them without even realizing what is going on around them. I see bags of meth passed between hands in front of my kids’ stroller, and want to clap my hands and tell dealers to stop profiting from the homeless, but then again if they don’t get it from one they will get it from another, right? But still, it makes me angry when I find used syringes in the grass my children are running around in, and I have to teach my daughter to never ever touch those orange plastic things we find littered around street corners all over the place.
How do we actually help people survive the streets long-term, how do we effectively treat mental illness, drug abuse, and years of surviving day to day in a world that runs parallel to ours, visible but invisible, but only invisible because we make them so?
A lady carries a basket of food items out of the dollar store without paying and no one says anything, hopefully she will eat a proper meal tonight. I have spent so many weeks when I wonder how to make $20 stretch unbelievably far, but I have never had to wonder where I will sleep tonight or tomorrow, which I know is a privilege now. There are so many of us who are one small upset away from losing our home, one less paycheck away from the worry of where we are going to go if we can no longer afford the rent. The man who used to sit outside the same dollar store with the sad eyes and the little brown puppy has gone. I sometimes wonder if he just moved on, but my spirit hopes that he got clean and made it out alive.
I used to think K Street was bad, but after our walking commute started taking us along the other side of 16th St I realized that it could be a lot worse than K. 16th St is skid row. I can hear the sound of shoes being scraped along the pavement behind me while I’m walking with the stroller, shoes that don’t fit properly, I assume, but I don’t want to turn around and look. I walk past the Governor’s House, on the floor in front of me are flyers warning of government takeovers, and across the street a homeless man is sleeping in a shuttered shop doorway. The new governor decided to move into a house in a place that is “more kid-friendly”, and while I actually like his policies, I think by doing that he just played into the same old system: building walls around his family so that they don’t have to see what we do every day. It’s just wrong, you walk around and it just gets worse, poverty on the one side, and the rich on the other, construction everywhere, but only for new condos and expensive accommodation, no affordable housing anywhere. (Although you always hear the local government talking about “more affordable housing” there hasn’t been any proof of it).
Coming up to J Street I hear the slouching foot sound behind me again, and then the sound of plastic wheels hitting concrete: someone pulling a bag on wheels. Not the sound of someone going to the airport or the train station, not the sounds of early morning commuters I could hear when I lived in my little apartment in Grenoble, France. This is the sound of people pulling their only belongings behind them, their lives in a bag. Going from one spot to another in the city hoping to find a warm place to sleep, a hot cup of coffee, a friendly face, a dealer.
It was 32 degrees last night, freezing this morning, nothing compared to winter in my previous home of NYC, but for Sacramento this is cold. There are over 4,000 people on the streets every night in Sacramento, but those numbers are from 2017 and I know for a fact that there are many more today, just from walking everywhere. There is never enough room at the shelters, the largest holds about 600 beds but is far from downtown, and in comparison with the actual numbers on the streets is nothing. People are cold, walking around with blanket cloaks, it feels like zombie land sometimes: freezing people slouching along, vacant stares, not here anymore. Nowhere to go, no one to help them, no clue if or when they will taste their next hot meal. I walk faster, away from the footsteps behind me, never turning back to see their face.
This is the “land of the free”, the country where supposedly everyone has opportunities, but these opportunities seem to be only available to those who have the privilege of having those opportunities in the first place.
Walking down P St towards home, I realize that for what could be such a beautiful place in the world, this city houses so much gloom, sadness, and darkness. The sky is so blue, and the sun shines so much; there are so many oranges falling from the trees to rot on the ground, and people are going hungry in the streets. Nothing makes sense. All of the new buildings going up, all of the abandoned structures waiting for new life, all places only available to the richer. Sacramento is no longer the affordable city it once was. In January the townhouses in Capitol Towers were emptied, getting ready to be demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel and newer apartment blocks. They are still empty, all of those homes that could be a shelter to many. But instead they pay a security guard to patrol the area 24/7 to make sure no one sleeps there. I understand why, but it seems like such a waste all the same.
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.