He had plastic bags wrapped around his shoes
He was covered with the evening news
Had a pair of old wool socks on his hands
The bank sign was flashing “5 below”
It was freezing rain and spittin’ snow
He was curled up behind some garbage cans
I was afraid that he was dead
I gave him a gentle shake
When he opened up his eyes I said “Old man, are you okay?”
— Craig Morgan, “Almost Home”
For obvious reasons, homelessness is particularly jarring to the eye in the wintertime. The cold, wet and windy weather we have been experiencing in northern California for the past month or so leaves me running from house to car and from car to office as quickly as possible. I try to avoid spending more than a minute or two outdoors at all costs. And I find myself saying a silent prayer for those who lack a roof over their heads.
Tuesday of this past week was particularly bad. We had to drive well over 100 miles to visit a client’s location to deliver a staff training program. About five minutes into the trip, the heavens opened up and it proceeded to pour down rain, causing cars to creep along the freeway in an effort to see what was right in front of them and avoid hydroplaning or spinning out. But first, I had to get from my office to the car, a distance of perhaps 100 feet or so. The wind was gusting so hard that I had to walk backward through the puddles, as facing the wind would have left me unable to breathe. My wonderful wife had come to pick me up and, seeing me struggle, braved the elements herself to relieve me of my bag so that I might have some chance of actually making it to the car.
And, through all of this, we have neighbors huddled up in sleeping bags or blankets, some curled up in corners under awnings, others sleeping right out in the open on the sidewalk downtown.
We live near a tiny stream known as Dry Creek, an irony not lost on any of us here in recent days. Playing the mouse that roared, the little trickle became a raging river that rapidly overflowed its banks, leaving some of the streets in this area under enough feet of water that only the tops of Stop signs stuck out to remind us that a road is there. The larger rivers in this area, such as the American and the Cosumnes, have been running so high, it’s scary. On the news every night are stories about saving levees by opening floodgates that have been closed for years. Out west of town, in the Davis and Dixon area, the fields have been inundated by brown water that goes on for miles.
About the only thing we haven’t had here is snow, which is somewhat surprising considering that the temperature has dipped well below freezing on several nights. Having spent the first 35 years of my life in New York, I never imagined that such weather would be in store for me in California. What happened to the land of perpetual sunshine, Hollywood and Mickey Mouse? It’s not LA or San Diego up here, folks.
Years ago, an acquaintance told me that if she were ever homeless, she would simply move to Florida, even if she had to walk to get there. I am certain that quite a few of our neighbors who sleep outdoors would be more than happy to move to Florida or to San Diego, if only their physical and mental disabilities would allow them to walk there. Meanwhile, San Diego has enough problems of its own with people arriving from other parts of the country in the belief that, even if they hit rock bottom, they can always survive in the sunshine on the beach. Each year, charitable agencies down there end up purchasing a lot of bus fares and plane tickets home for those who are sadly disillusioned after ending up broke, arrested and, often, victims of crime and abuse.
Which still leaves us with thousands of people who have no family or friends to take them in, no hometown to which they can return. All they have is the here and now, fighting the wind and rain and the biting cold as they struggle to make it through another day, exposed to the elements.
Homelessness tends to make the news a lot more often in the winter than it does during the rest of the year. We hear about warming centers being opened temporarily to prevent hypothermia among at least some of our local people who are living on the street or in cars. We hear about the insufficient number of shelter beds, the poor conditions in shelters that leave people preferring to take their chances outdoors rather than become victims of crime indoors, and those to whom shelters do not apply because they cannot or will not adhere to the rules.
The rules. Basic things like no drinking, no drugging, no fighting, no yelling, no exposing yourself, no relieving yourself outside of the bathroom. The kinds of things that most of us take for granted.
Some would be thrown out of a shelter in a hot minute due to inability to adhere to these rules. Others stay away due to addictions that make it near to impossible for them to comply with such rules. And then there are those who are simply freedom lovers, who don’t like to be told what to do and believe that rules do not apply to them. Is that really a serious enough offense to warrant a death sentence?
There is not a lot of sympathy out there for those who fall into this last category. Many of us don’t care what happens to them, justifying their position with the belief that whatever disaster befalls them is of their own doing.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9 (NIV)