As I approach the benches, I can tell that several members of the group are frustrated. It is triple digits today in Bakersfield and the heat oozes through dry grasses and radiates off the pavement and steel like a throbbing rosebush. A small dog hides under a blanket that is hanging off a blue Igloo ice chest.
"They took away our water. They cut it off two days ago," one of them tells me and points toward a lone metal spigot that sticks out of the dry earth like a thirsty periscope.
"We always try to keep it clean. We wipe down the moss so no one slips," she tells me. "The public has to use this to and we don't want no one to get hurt."
Turning off the water, to the group here, seems to be a tactic used by the the city to discourage the people from staying here. At least that is how it is perceived. The rest rooms in most parks are locked after hours - to help curb other illegal or immoral activities which occur in these areas. For the homeless, having access to public toilets is a necessity and a way to ensure that they avoid engaging in behaviors that will provide fodder to an already disgruntled public.
"We need the water though," Charmaine tells me. "We need to wash our dishes so we don't have to buy new ones that are expensive. We need to wash up and stay clean in case we have a job interview. We need to stay cool and refreshed when it's hot out."
Hurting the homeless is a hate crime
No Safe Street cites more than double the number of fatalities from bias motivated violence against people who are homeless than the FBI has tracked for all federally protected classes combined.
— National Coalition for the Homeless
One of the stories that I have heard from this population involves public indifference of a violent nature.
I imagine that one would get used to proclamations such as "Clean yourself up. Quit panhandling. Get a job!" Many of the homeless I have spoken to are immune to this sort of verbal abuse. Most expect it. The stares, the people who look away, or even cross the street.
Those stories I am familiar with or can imagine...and perhaps have been guilty of myself as a participant in the past.
Three people I have spoken with in this group, have told me that they have been run over by people who seemed to do it intentionally. One man's wife was killed. In all instances, the drivers fled and no one stopped to check on the victims.
At first I found some of the stories to be hyperbole. Buda says he was put into a wheelchair after a driver speeding down Ming Avenue, pulled up on a curb and made contact with him. Jesse sustained head injuries and the trauma caused damage to his short term memory functioning. Charmaine has been hit three times and the last incident broke her bones in thirteen different places.
A study - more than a decade old - published in Wikipedia states: "Nearly one-half of homeless people are victims of violence. There have been many violent crimes committed against homeless people due to their being homeless."
The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that statistics indicate that crimes of violence targeting the homeless have serious statistics: "No Safe Street cites more than double the number of fatalities from bias motivated violence against people who are homeless than the FBI has tracked for all federally protected classes combined."
Homeless People Do Not Matter....
One possible explanation for this is the message that criminalizing homelessness sends to the general public: “Homeless people do not matter and are not worthy of living in our city.” This message is blatant in the attitudes many cities have toward homeless people and can be used as an internal justification for attacking someone.
— National Coalition for the Homeless
Assumptions and Attitudes
Many people believe that most homeless are alcoholics or have addiction issues and their current situation is due to the fact of their chosen lifestyles. According to a study published by streetsteam.org roughly 20% of the homeless population are either alcoholic or struggling with drugs. Another study published by the banyantreatmentcenter.com places that number as high as 38% (in comparison with 25% with the housed population). Many scholars - and the homeless themselves - will tell you that addiction is a result of being homeless rather than a cause.
In this sense, a reliance of a chemical substance to make life easier to deal with, becomes an unhealthy coping skill. In the parlance of the sociological professions, this translates into a state of co-morbidity where two (or more) situations in a patient are working together. In most cases, these become a barriers to the person's well-being.
"I once had a three bedroom house. I worked as an office manager for a well to do company in town," says one woman. She works to make sure the park maintains a state of cleanliness. She picks up trash and sweeps the pavement. "I didn't choose this lifestyle."
Many are also victims of trauma. Most of us have experienced an event that has upset us for a moment. Some of us have had to deal with changes that greatly altered our life. And most of us adapt or recover. However, there are many who may not be able to handle a single - or a series of events. Resilience is not a trait that is intrinsic for everyone.
Mental Health First Aid states "It is common to feel upset after something traumatic happens. But while some people may feel better in a few weeks or months, others may experience changes in thoughts, feelings or behavior that impact their daily lives. They may need more help over a longer period of time to heal."
It is common to feel upset after something traumatic happens. But while some people may feel better in a few weeks or months, others may experience changes in thoughts, feelings or behavior that impact their daily lives. They may need more help over a longer period of time to heal.
— Mental Health First Aid
Article on Violence Against the Homeless
Crafts and Conspiracies
I meet one man who tells me that he believes that California State Lottery is a sham and that he wants to get the word out and the government should do something about it. J is 78 years old, and tells me about his situation. "I'm better off than most people here. I have it easy."
And honestly, he looks it. I am not sure if he has some retirement income from previous employment or if he manages his social security payments well. I try not to pry too much. He keeps himself occupied by painting address numbers on people's curbs. I see his stencils and cans of spray paint in his cart.
"I ask for $8 and they usually give me $10," he says casually, holding a ten dollar crossword scratcher.
"Well why don't you ask for ten then?" I ask.
"That's too much."
He goes on to explain the lottery conspiracy to me: "All of the big payments were already paid out years ago. But they still sell them. People think they have a chance to win a million dollars, but it's already been spent."
Charmaine and others have talked to me about having a homeless event in the park where people can display their skills and look for someone who wants to hire them. "Most of us have a talent. Some of us are artists, but most can do things. I can restore items, but I can't carry things with me."
This certainly sounds like a good idea for an event. An all day craft fair in the park. You could have music and health care. People can learn how to do resumes or look for work by demonstrating their capabilities in a talent show.
"I want to talk to the mayor about this," she says excitedly.
Mental Health First Aid
One of the realities that the homeless face is that they are targets for criminals looking for easy prey. "You have to be careful because someone is always stealing your stuff," Charmaine explains. "We have no where to keep it. That's why we have carts."
I explain to her about the bin program that exists in LA's skid row that allows the homeless to store their belongings. A similar program exists in San Diego.
"We have no way to keep our IDs or other documents safe," she says. This paperwork is absolutely necessary for anyone who wishes to get assistance, housing or employment. Without a card or piece of paper proving who you are, life becomes much more difficult.
I am also told about the bulldozer sweeps practiced by code enforcement on the homeless camps by the river. A three day notice is given and anything that remains is swept into the river banks. "They're actually making things worse. They are not cleaning up," one homeless person explains. "They are polluting."
While I have not witnessed any of these clean-up efforts myself, I have heard similar stories from homeless in other areas of the county - in the urban camps, along the waterfront, in places such as Mill Creek Park. The stories are eerily similar and talk of large trucks moving in.
I imagine a scene from the science fiction film Soylent Green in which a futuristic world demands that people be bulldozed with large trucks in order to control the population.
An Article on LA's Bin Program for the Homeless
- Inside LA’s storage facility for homeless people | KCRW
In the early morning hours, a crowd of people gathers outside of a nondescript building in Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood. They’re all homeless and all looking to find shelter,…
According to a 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States. At a minimum, 140,000 or 25 percent of these people were seriously mentally ill, and 250,000 or 45 percent had any mental illness
— The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation
As I prepare to leave the park, a man runs up to me.
"Sir," he says. "Sir, I'll take that water now."
I stop and turn and open up the small cooler I am carrying. "I'm sorry, I am completely out now," I explain.
I had offered him a bottle earlier, but he adamantly refused. He began running around and shouting obscenities and saying that people were trying to poison him and that everyone was no good. And now, that I am leaving, his entire demeanor has changed. He seems placated almost passive, and a shell of the disturbed figure I encountered when I first entered the camp.
Mental illness is another factor that is a reality for many of the homeless. One government study states: "According to a 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States. At a minimum, 140,000 or 25 percent of these people were seriously mentally ill, and 250,000 or 45 percent had any mental illness." Certainly one must realize that the pressures of living without shelter, coupled with the social stigma would be a serious stressor. In other words, even if you were not mentally ill previous to your homeless situation, being in that environment could push you over that delicate edge.
I understand that even though this is a public park, it is a new territory of its own. It's a city with a way of life and mores (please pronounce this as morays) that are unique to the community. They have their unwritten rules and a way of weeding out those who are deemed undesirable for the community.
"The police have said to us," a homeless woman confesses to me, "you guys have to police yourselves...or we will come police you."
And such as with any location or society that has existed since the beginning of time. Humans are social creatures and need to develop a way to maintain as a group. Ultimately, survival is the main goal for any living being. And that is what I see as I look around me.
I walk back to my car a little more slowly as I sense the disappointment in the thirsty man. The temperature feels like I am standing in a furnace. My sweat occurs and disappears immediately. When I move to wipe my forehead it is completely dry.
I arrive at my car and turn around. I see a few people sitting on benches. Others are lying on the grass, reclining. Some are reading books or newspapers. Couples sit on blankets and smile and talk and flirt. A few other younger people jump up and down as if they are participating in a game.
This is Bakersfield and the city in which I live and there are people who are having a day at the park. I drive down the road and head into traffic and know that tomorrow will be different for me, but for some it will be the same.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Fin