Today – for 24 hours – Shasta County’s homeless will be counted as part of a “point in time” census conducted by the City of Redding and Shasta County’s Homeless Continuum of Care. It’s an annual event.
I don’t need to wait for the results to tell me what you and I already know. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, especially in the downtown Redding area where I live: The numbers of homeless – or people who appear homeless – are increasing at a jaw-dropping rate.
I don’t know whether these homeless are locals , or, as some people opine, that the majority of these homeless have flocked to Shasta County because they’ve heard that the north state is a homeless promised land.
Either way, we have a homeless problem of epic proportions. Drive around Redding any day – not just the homeless-census-counting day – and you’ll see scores of seemingly homeless men and women. They’re prominently scattered around South City Park, Library Park, Lake Redding Park, the ravine off Lake Boulevard, under the Cypress and Highway 44 bridges, in front of the post office, along Highway 273 and deep inside Henderson Open Space. Shopping centers all over town now seem an especially popular place for the homeless to not just hold signs, but wander the parking lots like zombies, asking shoppers for money.
Last year, someone – the police suspect a homeless person – smashed my car window with a cinder block in the Cypress Square Shopping Center, to grab my purse that I left (stupidly, I know) on the floor inside my locked car.
Here at aNewsCafe.com we wrote a series last year about Redding’s unsheltered homeless, and covered the story from many angles. The problem seems worse now than ever.
We can argue until the cows come home about how the homeless got int0 such dire straits. We can blame substance abuse, mental illness, crimes, economic disasters, unemployment, laziness and irresponsibility. But the fact remains that these are human beings living unbathed, unsheltered and exposed in all kinds of weather in a way that most of us wouldn’t allow a mutt to subsist.
Please don’t tell me these homeless are living joy-filled lives, or that they are happy campers who love being homeless, or that they feel proud of the way they live, or that they wake up each morning with a spring in their step as they anticipate another glorious day.
I won’t believe it, any more than I believe that being homeless and existing like a feral animal on the run, rummaging through trash and picking up used cigarette butts, was why they were born – their reason for living.
Their dubious distinction of being homeless has placed them in an other-world where somehow, it’s OK with society that this entire sub-class of fellow human beings are nearly invisible. We step over them. We look beyond them. We avoid eye contact. For God’s sake, we certainly don’t touch them.
If you saw me sitting in the gutter with my head in my hands, or if I saw you lying on the sidewalk, we’d rush to help each other. Right? But the homeless have become so prevalent that they’ve been transformed into nearly inanimate objects, an unfortunate blot on the landscape.
We adapt. We know to watch for weaving homeless in crosswalks who stagger across the street against a red light. We expect to see homeless panhandling with signs – sometimes a variety of signs – at the Lowe’s entrance or at the intersection near the downtown Safeway, a store that’s hired uniformed security guards to help put shoppers’ minds at ease.
Our cities and citizens suffer, too. For example, you couldn’t pay me to take my 2-year-old grandson to play on the colorful playground equipment at South City Park. We’d first have to navigate a gauntlet of homeless, which would be scary, not because there’s anything frightening about someone who lacks a home, but because many of the homeless are seriously mentally ill, or under the influence of Lord knows what. So the park belongs to the homeless by default.
Likewise, there was a time when I felt comfortable walking in my former south-Redding neighborhood after dark, or walking the Sacramento River Trail alone at daybreak. No longer. Call me a coward, because I am.
Yes, programs do exist to help those homeless willing to participate and cooperate with rules and who believe in a future. Those who succeed turn into the poster children for hope and rehabilitation. But what should we do about the perpetually homeless, those who say they prefer to live on the streets? Then what? Put them in jail? Jail, for many homeless, would be a welcome change from where they live now.
I bring this up because of what happened Monday evening at the Ross’ Dress for Less parking lot. As I drove in, I noticed probably half a dozen scruffy looking guys with matted hair and soiled clothes. Some had dogs on leashes, and sat with their backs against the building. Others stood and talked with each other. One young bearded man sat far from the group, with a massive backpack, his head down, as if asleep.
I remembered I had some Christmas cards in my car that someone had given me, especially to give to the homeless during the holidays. Yes, I know the consensus is it’s a mistake to give money to the homeless, rather, it’s better to direct them to places that serve food to the homeless. But each envelope included a hand-made card, a kind message, wishes for a good new year and a $5 McDonald’s gift card. I’d been aware of not wanting to give the cards to downtown homeless, because there are no McDonald’s downtown. So Monday on Hilltop Drive was perfect, just a block from McDonald’s.
I put the cards in my pocket, and sure enough, when I left the store I was approached by a heavy-set blond woman in dirty clothes. Her hair was greasy and her face was dotted with sores. She said she was hungry, and asked if I could “spare” any money. I pulled two of the envelopes from my pocket and told her they contained $10 in McDonald’s gift cards. She looked blankly at me, then mumbled thanks and then restarted her journey around the parking lot where she continued going from shopper to shopper with the same spiel: Excuse me, can you spare some money so I can buy some food?
So much for the holiday gift card idea.
A much better idea would be if our country took care of our mentally ill, and veterans, and the unemployed, and aged-out foster kids, and the uneducated, and the parolees and the sick and the poor.
Only then would the homeless numbers dwindle to the point where there’d be nothing left to count.
What a wonderful day would be be.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.