It was a week an a half ago that I met him. Let’s say that his name was Isaiah. He was young, so young that I almost did a double-take.
I don’t think we’ve met before, I said. Do I know you?
Do I know me? he replied, barely making eye contact. Quickly, I inferred that Isaiah was high. Tripping, in fact. I handed him a brown paper bag.
Behind him, a woman emerged from her tent. Let’s call her “Carol”. She and I know each other. When she threw her arms open for an air hug, I noticed the tract marks on her arm. I told her that I’d heard that some folks in the encampment had tested positive for COVID-19. She confirmed this, and she told me that she had heard the police were coming to clear the encampment tomorrow. Both she and Isaiah were part of the community of people living in the commuter parking lot under the 101 Freeway at 5th and 6th Streets in Santa Rosa. Earlier this year, unsheltered folks began gathering there after county officials cleared them off of the Joe Rodota trail, just a half a mile away. With the onslaught of COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place order, the police and sheriff’s department promised that they would no longer chase homeless people out of encampments, unless there was a place that they could legally go.
The promise was hailed as common sense. After all, the county’s shell game strategy of disappearing homeless folks has never worked in the past. When one encampment is to be cleared, officials say that they have arranged beds for all of those folks at the one (hellacious) homeless shelter in town. Of course, to make those arrangements, other people need to be moved out of the shelter, and people who were already on waitings lists for housing were passed over. The result is the same individuals moved and traumatized again and again, as they grow increasingly disillusioned and frustrated.
I don’t believe that they’re going to clear us out, Carol said. They literally, literally promised in public that they wouldn’t. It was at this point, I realized that she was also high. She stammered for a while longer.
And then, zeroing in on my eyes, Carol said, I mean, they lie to people us all the time, but they won’t lie to people like you. Will they?
I was taken aback. People like them, and people like me: People like them, on the street on drugs or out of their minds, and people like me, in houses who have the financial or social capacity to hide their issues from others. The “people like them”, like Carol or Isaiah, are the homeless stereotype – mentally ill, struggling with addiction, and (Carol, at least) holding a criminal record.
Over the years, I’ve heard many “people like me” defend the homeless population at-large. In public meetings about the development of affordable housing, well-meaning people like me say, Not all homeless people are crazy. Not all homeless people are addicts.
That’s true. And also, the very wording of that statement passes a moral judgment. Because when we draw a distinction between different group of homeless people, we are saying that some homeless people deserve housing. Which means that others deserve nothing. Not our support. Not our compassion. Not even, as it turns out, our word.
The day after I spoke with Carol and Isaiah, Santa Rosa police cleared out the entire encampment under 101. Ostensibly, they said it was for “health reasons”. I must not understand health. I assumed that when someone tested positive for a deadly and contagious respiratory disease like COVID-19, the “healthy” thing for the entire community would be for that person to stay in-place, and for the people exposed to that person to stay in-place, too.
I do, however, understand politics. Carol was right: County officials would be more reluctant to lie to people like me. But it’s easy, really, to hide a lie, especially if you hide it in fear. When they cited “health reasons”, county officials blew a not-so-subtle dog whistle. People like me may shake our heads at the plight of the homeless, but when we drove under 101, we wondered why they couldn’t just clean up after themselves. Why they haven’t tried to get clean or sober. We viewed them as people without mortality, so we do not have to worry about failing them, because we think that they have already failed themselves.
I confess, it took me an entire week to respond. During that time, I biked under 101 almost every day. One night, I pulled up on my bike up to the spot where I’d spoken with Isaiah and Carol. From there, I could look up at the multi-million dollar hotel that is close to completion. Funny. This hotel seemed to pop-up over night, even while the county is flummoxed by the impossibility of developing the affordable or permanent supportive housing we would need to end homelessness. By “funny”, of course, I mean entirely lacking of any integrity. The division we have created is such that the vices of the wealthy are seen as acceptable, and the vices (ie coping mechanisms) of the poor are seen as eyesores.
I got back on my bike, and thought I’d go home by the Joe Rodota Trail. When I got to the trail junction, I saw it was fenced off. Two homeless men I did not know were sitting by the fence.
Right, I said, remembering that I’d read about the fence in the newspaper.
Yeah, they want to keep us from sleeping there, one the men said. I asked him where he had been staying before, and he told he in the encampment under 101. He was immediately defensive.
Yeah, shit was going down, but like misdemeanors, not felonies. We aren’t bad people, he said, as though I’d implied that he was. Because I probably did. In the way that I was standing, or how I had positioned my body. People like me, even compassionate well-meaning people, are uncomfortable with people like them. But the truth is, they are not only fellow human beings, they are the standard by which we must measure our own integrity. Because if we only care about homeless people who are clean, sober, sane, polite, and grateful, we might as well not care at all. Because no one gave us, or anyone, the sole right or the authority to decide who is worthy of justice and who is not. In the United States, no one person is to be judge and jury. No cop. No do-gooder. No pastor.
People like me, I thought, as I biked away a while later. I thought about Carol. I wondered where she was now. I thought about how she teased me about my hair that kept falling in my eyes during our conversation. As I was saying good-bye that night, I looked over at Isaiah again, and noticed that he seemed to be frozen in time.
Should he eat something? I said to Carol.
I got him, she said.
There’s a chicken salad sandwich in there, baby, she said to him, nodding at the brown paper bag he still held in his hands. She gently took the sandwich out of the bag and unwrapped it for him. She helped him put it up to his mouth, and I noticed her eyes were full of tears.