Written at 12:30 a.m. Friday:
I've never been more grateful to come home than I was tonight. The promise of a hot shower, clean bedding, a flushing toilet, running water to wash my hands, a place to sit without worrying about lice or faeces... it calls for a celebration.
But I am too heavy hearted.
After all, I've just discovered that hell isn't a metaphysical place. It's very real. And it exists just around the corner, or under my feet, on a day-to-day basis.
Tonight I went on a ride along with Doug Stewart of Central County Homeless Outreach after telling him that I wanted to get a better understanding of the homeless situation in Concord.
I learned more than I can describe in one article, so this will be the first of a series. But I now know the following:
1. Homelessness is much more prevalent than I had expected. Stewart says there are around 1,000 homeless people a night in Concord, mostly able to remain out of sight due to the city's many open spaces.
2. The issue is very complicated. There is no "typical" homeless person. They all have a different story to tell. Many are alcoholics and drug addicts who were born and raised into the lifestyle.
3. Getting them off the streets is very difficult to do. Stewart says that of the 900 people he made contact with last year, only two or so ended up getting off the streets into jobs and housing.
Here's a glimpse of what I saw.
First, we went to get tacos for three regulars sitting on the curb in Todos Santos Plaza. One of the guys had just come out of the drunk tank, and was upset that his dog had almost been taken away because of it. Stewart explained that the reason many homeless people in the area won't go to a shelter is because of their pets — which the shelters don't allow. And with the rampant mental illness and disillusionment in the homeless population, sometimes their dogs are "all that's holding them together," said Stewart.
Thursday nights are supposed to be his evening in Concord, but since Stewart is the only homeless outreach worker in the county working from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., he often gets called out of town. When the phone rang this time, it was a staff member at the Martinez jail asking him to come pick up a couple of guys who needed to get to the BART station. We drove over, and found two men sitting on the bench, waiting. He checked their papers, patted them down for weapons, and we all got in the car together. It turns out that one of them was finishing up a month-long stint for a parole violation, after ten years in prison for theft. He had five kids, one of whom had been shot and killed while he was inside. "I feel like I failed him," said the man. He was headed to Richmond to stay with his sister and was grateful to have family support.
The other guy didn't have any family support. In fact, he had been the one supporting his family, he said, until 300 days of incarceration got in the way. "I lost my job and my family," he said, claiming that the jail-time had been in error. Apparently, some paperwork got "messed up," but the situation had finally been resolved. "I feel like I got played out of my life," he said. "And the system owes me."
"Is there anything you can do about it?" I asked.
"Yep," he replied with a knowing smile. "But that's confidential."
We dropped the men off at the North Concord BART station, and then headed over to the canal. And that's where a new world opened its doors.
Part II, coming next week: Stewart and I explore a tent village; there is a lot of barking — from dogs as well as humans; and a river of trash flows through the city's underbelly.