Sometimes I think I see Grant in someone’s face while I’m on the street. It’s a mistake because he died around 10 years ago, alone with a bottle of booze, in a motel room here in Salinas. I wonder for a few seconds about what it is I remember about his face. Rough, hard times? Trauma? Desperation? Grief? Grant is a memory of sorrow that I see daily.
Grant was a panhandler. He “worked” in tourist areas like Monterey. He was probably successful because he was so cute. It seems strange for a weatherbeaten old man to seem cute, but he was. I saw him dance to a tune he heard on the radio one day. Grant could cut a rug! He was fun, mischievous, and very likable. He was also disparaging about life outside of his world. He had a street-view of life. He drank alcohol, and he drank until he died.
When I met him, Grant was part of a group he called his “running dogs.” They were the group of people he lived with for companionship and support. All freely admitted that they were addicted to drinking alcohol. Each had experience with residential treatment and recovery from addiction, though no one talked about getting sober, at least while I was with them.
When I met the group they were sleeping in a doorway of a restaurant that had closed down. The space was somewhat secluded and like many people who live outside, they only gathered in the doorway after dark and stayed away “from home” during the day.
One of the group told me that once on a very cold night he had to wrap his arms around Grant to stay warm. “I hugged this old man because he was warm.”
I have developed an eye to recognize the places where people sleep. I know what they are looking for. Sometimes there are a few telltale signs left behind in a doorway; a piece of cardboard, a blanket, a sock or shirt, or trash left behind by a person who is struggling to find a place in the world where they can be. Just be.
Just be. Without moving every morning, fearing the police, property owners, raccoons, rats, and people who may try to take what little they have.
Just be. In safety, without fear of violence.
Just be. Chill. Relax. To belong where you are and not have to move. To experience permanence.
That is how I understand the people who live in the encampments. Living in an encampment is less temporary than a doorway and may feel like you belong somewhere, even when it is a tent on the sidewalk. For some, encampment living may be a step toward getting ready for housing and moving inside.
A common story about leaving the street was told to me by a man who had been living near a picnic table in a park, setting up a tent every night and taking it down every morning, for several months. He told me a now familiar story. His health began to fail. He was on death’s door due to his untreated heart disease. He chose life over more pain and eventual death. He chose to live, sought help, and came inside. Sometimes that is what moves people – facing death or the certainty of ongoing physical suffering from illness and disease. Both are strong motivators. Violence is another one.
When I met Grant, he was already old and worn out. Inspired by the possibility of getting a disability check every month, he agreed to allow us to make appointments for him, drive him to medical appointments, and eventually he began receiving that check. We talked about getting a room for him but he refused to leave his friends on the street.
Until, he started to feel something, a new sensation around his heart. This new awareness of his health and mortality changed his relationship with his friends. Grant decided to choose to live, and to seek medical care. I was with him at the stress test, while he walked on a treadmill as his heart was monitored. The doctor stopped the test after about 60 seconds. They checked his arteries and pretty soon he was scheduled for surgery. He had a triple bypass at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital.
Grant didn’t go back to the street after the surgery. The loyalty and bonds of the family began to fray and they eventually went separate ways. Two of the friends died, separately, outdoors in a final blaze of alcohol. One got sober and lives alone in a rented room. Grant moved into a room and was sober for several months. He had support but I sensed he felt separate and isolated in his new life. I wished he could feel connected with other people like he had while he was on the street.
When I saw him about a year later he was drinking again and unable to manage his income and maintain housing. He said, “It all has to do with ego. I couldn’t deal with who I am.” He seemed resigned to his fate.
Not long after our conversation, Grant died alone in the motel. I was surprised by how fragile he was at the end. His will to live seeped away.
That fragility may be some of what I recognize when I see Grant in the faces of people living in the encampments. Strength, the will to live, and also a fragileness. Life is immensely strong and also, weak, temporary. Living in an encampment with others can fulfill the need for companionship and community. The underlying reasons why people are here are deep and complex. As are the solutions.
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.
Without your financial support, our work doesn’t happen. Join us! Stand with us as we assist people from street life to home life. Your solidarity is humbly and gratefully received.