By Jill Allen
My friend Tommy died a couple of months ago. He died in the ICU at Natividad Medical Center. There was no family surrounding him, although his little sister, a woman with an incredibly huge heart, had been loving him over the phone for the week prior from her home in North Carolina. Tommy died alone, just as he suspected he would.
Tommy was what “The Block” here on Soledad Street refers to as an “OG.” There have been many OGs here in Chinatown and I’ve had the privilege of knowing a few. Tommy was the exceptional OG in my life because he maintained his end of our relationship by teaching me, without knowing he was teaching me.
If you look up the term “OG” in a slang dictionary, it means “Original Gangster,” a term made popular almost 30 years ago by Ice-T’s album “OG Original Gangster.” If you look it up in Dictionary.com, it “is a slang term for someone who’s incredibly exceptional, authentic, or ‘old-school’." Tommy fit all of those descriptions. Tall and handsome, wearing his hair in neat dreadlocks, he always had a smile and hug for me, one of many he called “sis.”
He was authentic in his praise, exceptional in his talent. He was a star basketball player in his youth at Hartnell. His military service messed him up, although he never spoke much about it. He turned his charm into income, running the streets. He knew he had authority there. People paid attention when he talked and when he did business.
I knew Tommy as a homeless person years ago. But before he lived on the streets, he had his own apartment for about seven years, I think. He once got a big check from the VA and bought himself a bright yellow Hummer, so it was easy to know when he was in the neighborhood. And then, after a year, I saw a lot of him without the Hummer. He was homeless again.
Among other health problems, Tommy was suffering from AIDS. He used it to play on my sympathies. “I’m not going to be alive much longer… ,” he would tell me.
His AIDS was well maintained, but I feared for his well being on the streets again. He wasn’t young anymore. He was consistently asking for a couple bucks every time we met, or maybe a ride somewhere. Once in a while, when I had the time, I’d take him where he wanted to go, and stop somewhere for a bite so I could feel like I was getting some nutrition in him (he missed meals at Dorothy’s a lot). It gave us a chance to talk, but when I suggested that we could help him at Dorothy’s, the conversation switched to something else, and a vague promise to come by sometime.
Six months ago, I noticed dramatic changes in Tommy. He was very depressed, hanging out in the Drop-In Center without saying a word. When I tried to talk with him, I got a lot of “It’s no use. I’m done. It’s over.” Yes, it was. I realized he had neither his health nor his authority. He was just waiting for the end.
Just before COVID hit, he was walking, or weaving rather, down the street as I parked. He called to me. I was able to help him to the curb before he collapsed. A friend came to his aid and took him to the ER. His liver and kidneys were giving out. But he was back on the street in a couple days.
He came up on our list of most vulnerable clients when we had the opportunity to assist 40 people into sponsored motel rooms for COVID-vulnerable isolation. He spent his last two months in a nice motel room, frequently calling his sister in NC. I thought maybe this was going to lead to a room in our House of Peace Transitional Living Program, but no. Our staff at the motel called for an ambulance and three days later, he was gone. I really think he wanted it that way.
So why am I writing about Tommy? Because even in his passing, he’s teaching me. He’s teaching all of us. Here’s my take-away:
Here we are, a big community of smart human beings, frightened about dying from COVID-19. The whole community, wrapped up in fear and anticipation, and too frightened to come into a homeless encampment because they’ve been warned that coronavirus spreads through encampments because of the lack of sanitation and access to medical care.
From the federal and state level come proclamations and orders on how to stay safe, and how homeless services providers and County authorities should pluck vulnerable homeless people out of encampments and place them into self-isolation in motel rooms.
So I ask you, why did we wait? Why do we regard filthy encampments, trash piled high, no running water, no toilets, full of people with multiple chronic diseases, as normal? Something that we simply don’t have the resources to deal with? When we had the Hepatitis A scare a couple years ago, and we realized that it would spread through encampments like wildfire and from there infect everyone in our community, there was a vaccine, but we still sprayed the streets and sidewalks in Chinatown with bleach, because we realized the clear and present dangers of encampment living.
But did we do anything about those dangers? Nope. Hep A was controlled and we forgot about the encampments, but they didn’t forget us. They got bigger. And now, they will get even larger and denser from new homelessness that will result from the economic impact of COVID-19.
Instead, we’re spending millions of dollars, millions that we didn’t know existed, in an emergency knee-jerk reaction to save the general public. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t save the public, not at all. I’m questioning why we’re not saving the people in encampments, and in overcrowded living arrangements so that this tragedy doesn’t happen again. I’m saying that the threat isn’t the coronavirus, it’s our own maintenance of subhuman living conditions that make the entire community vulnerable and will keep us vulnerable until they are eliminated. And please don’t tell me that we don’t have the resources to do it.
Until we create a public mandate to get people out of unsanitary encampments and overcrowded living conditions, we are doomed to relive this panic again and again. We can’t wait for the next pandemic. We need to get all the Tommy’s off the streets, no matter what it takes, and NOW.
Jill Allen is the executive director at Dorothy’s Place. She stands for grace, acceptance, and respect.
With love, respect and compassion, Dorothy’s Place provides essential services, transitional support and housing assistance to people experiencing the injustice of homelessness and extreme poverty.
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