As a reporter writing on homeless issues in Northern California for almost 20 years, I have attended countless community meetings, seminars, town halls and workshops.
I’ve seen many statistics, court documents, draft ordinances and powerpoint presentations. I’ve heard from politicians, residents, service providers, shelter staff, NIMBYs and police officials, but it’s rare when a homeless person attends a public meeting to speak at the podium.
Wednesday, I went out to give them their three minutes, so to speak. I’ve only talked briefly with a few people, but so far, only one let me pull up a curb next to him and chat for a few.
Smiling at passing drivers, James sat on a corner in the Jedediah Smith Shopping Center with a sign asking for donations and rain gear. A couple, maybe in their 20s, had just given him a light rain jacket and were returning to their car as I arrived.
Asked if he considers himself homeless, he replied, “I’m as homeless as anyone can get.”
A well-spoken man wearing a fleece jacket, cap and camo pants, James was welcoming and open to speak about his life as a homeless person.
He started by saying he had lived here from 1996 to 2001 and left the area. He came back to face the relentless rains of spring 2019 in Del Norte County.
“I returned about two months ago,” he said. "I was homeless when I landed here and it’s pretty hard to get something going out of nothing.”
He said while he has no family locally, he returned to Crescent City because it is where he wants to be.
“I love the redwoods and the ocean,” he said, noting that he currently sleeps in a covert campsite in the forest near Hiouchi.
“I definitely have a history here,” he said. “I was on the fire department, I was an EMT, and I drove the local bus back in about ’96.”
James said he camps out of town to avoid a certain segment of the homeless population.
“You have homeless people go in (other campsites) and steal other people’s gear,” he said. “I had two sets of gear, one that I came into town with, that was stolen. As soon as I replaced it, it was stolen again. On the third time, I went farther out where you’re not going to find it.”
James said the bus gets him back and forth to town from Hiouchi, but he is held to its schedule.
“I’m hoping that I can come in in the mornings and find a job,” he said. “Something like six hours a day so I’d still have time to catch the bus.”
Asked what type of job he’s looking for, James disclosed that he is a cook by trade.
“Before I had a trade, I would take jobs, and they were pretty good jobs, but since I left and went to Vermont, I gained 15 years of culinary art experience,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
Asked how he came to be homeless, James said when his relationship ended, it put him in a financial situation from which he has yet to financially recover.
“For one reason or another, I just haven’t been able to get myself back to where I was,” he said. “At least not yet.”
Talking over passing cars exiting just feet away, James said most people have been friendly, some helpful. However, he said they are less inclined to help when there is a person on every corner.
“People are tired of seeing this,” he said, motioning to himself and his sign. “At one point, you may have somebody there and there and over here and over there all at one time. That’s going to start wearing on people’s minds.”
He said that while he practices a first-come, first-served code about occupying panhandling areas, not everyone else does.
“The problem isn’t with the kindness of people, it’s with the homeless,” he said. “It isn’t always that way and it doesn’t mean everyone... but from where I left before and have come back to 20 years later, I’m really disappointed in the amount of homeless here.”
James said numbers have increased, along with an increase in drug use among the homeless.
“I’d say 90 percent of it is meth use,” he said. “That’s where you get all the homeless fights and problems within the homeless community. I can clearly see it, and that’s coming from a homeless person.”
James said that while he enjoys marijuana, he has been clean of hard drugs for 20 years.
“Meth and heroin and stuff like that, I have zero tolerance for it. It’s a big problem with a sector of the homeless community here,” he said. “Until that’s addressed it’s really not going away, but again, you’re talking about a sector of the homeless population.”
What do do
Asked what city, county and state officials can do to address homelessness, James thought for a minute.
“Well, it seems to be a real struggle about legal campsites,” he said. “I think the town should just break down and build something. When you have over 350 homeless, you need a shelter. Of course, no one wants it in their backyard, I got that, but if you want to solve some of these problems you have...”
Recalling a program in Burlington, Vermont, James alluded to its shelter, which also had a “Daystation,” where people could linger on bad weather days, make calls and do laundry. Known as COTS (Committee on Temporary Shelter Serving Vermont), the service is always open.
“This daytime drop-in shelter is open 365 days a year, seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It offers a refuge from the streets and access to an array of services and medical care,” its website states. “This is where individuals can meet with COTS staff and connect with local resources, receive mail and telephone calls, and find support toward their goal of self-sufficiency. Daystation staff provide support, assistance and referrals, as well as educational and recreational opportunities whenever possible.
Our Daystation offers free showers and laundry facilities. Each day, we average 10 showers, and 4.5 loads of laundry.”
Back in Crescent City, James said most local homeless attempt to linger in local restaurants for as long as they can.
“If you have a shelter, it can’t be 24 miles outside of town, because nobody will be able to get there,” he said, chuckling, “but having a legitimate place, like a dry place to get in during the daytime...”
Noting West Coast highways are a transit system for most homeless persons, James said the homeless are here to stay.
“They’re going to be here, so you gotta deal with it, not close your eyes and pretend it will go away. It’s not going to,” he said. “Every major city is trying to make homeless people disappear. Ain’t going to happen, so you gotta deal with it, and whatever you gotta do to do that, get it done.”
He remarked that aside from sending in undercover officers to get a handle on the meth problems of the homeless community, he didn’t have a suggestion for that segment of the population.
“But you definitely have a bad problem here,” he said.
You don’t know
James also serves as an example of how we judge, perhaps involuntarily, those we see asking for donations on the street without a clue as to who they are inside. While his appearance and clothing aren’t that different, his sign and status as a panhandler may influence us to make certain assumptions.
However, in researching James’ story, it was discovered that he was recently honored by a Vermont fire department for saving the life of a truck driver after he had a heart attack at the wheel of his big rig.
According to the Burlington Free Press, James was camped near Interstate 89 when he saw the rig scraping to a stop along a guardrail. Fire officials there said James used his Red Cross training and experience as a former firefighter to perform CPR on the driver, who survived after having surgery for blocked arteries. James continued until emergency medical personnel arrived.
The Williston Fire Department honored him at a ceremony in 2017 where he was able to meet the driver whose life he saved.
James is just one person I’ve talked to recently and I will talk to others the coming weeks. I’d like to help broaden understanding of issues regarding local homelessness. I’d like to speak to people who don’t typically come to public meetings, such as those who are homeless themselves or those who have overcome it. I’d like to hear what it’s like to be homeless in this area, where one goes to meet their daily needs and what it’s like within the homeless community.
For those who have escaped homelessness, I’d like to hear how that was done and who helped make it happen. Feel free to give me a call at 707-464-2141.