Land of the Free: Wireless, Homeless Connections


I was supposed to meet someone Monday at Safeway around 6:45 a.m., right after Jazzercise.

Aside from the fact that early morning worked for us, I liked that location for three other reasons:

1. free wifi.

2. coffee from the store’s Starbucks, a place that starts serving at omg 5 a.m.

3. After Jazzercise we’d be sweaty and rumpled, no make-up, basically looking like crap, but so what? At that hour, who’d see us?

I arrived first, so I sat down at the far end of a long, empty cushioned bench that Safeway designated for people to eat and read and work on computers and do whatever. This area is inside Safeway but across from its in-store Starbucks, a pickle’s throw from the Safeway deli counter. This wifi area is a pleasant, open space, with a few round tables, comfortable seating and little signs that advertise Safeway’s wifi.


As I waited for my friend I opened my laptop and logged onto Safeway’s homepage. 

I wondered if my friend forgot about our meeting, or slept in, so I emailed her and told her I was at Safeway, but not to worry if she’d forgotten or was running late. I’d just use this found time to catch up on work.

There’s much to be said for taking a home business elsewhere. No distractions. No laundry begging for attention. No sink of dirty dishes. And should that familiar feeling of restlessness overtake me, the one one that causes me to jump up from my keyboard and do anything else, what in the world would I do at Safeway? Put away my laptop and go grocery shopping? Not likely.

So I worked and I waited.

A little after 7 a.m. a large guy with a somber expression and cafe mocha-colored skin sat down on the polar end of my long bench seat. He opened a newspaper and stared at it.   

A few minutes later a thin woman with long, wispy gray/blond hair strode into the Safeway seating area. She carried a worn, soft-plastic lunch sack with a hand-penned name on its top. She wore a day-glo orange hooded sweatshirt; a dingy vinyl jacket was draped over one arm. She grinned wide when she saw the seated man with the newspaper. She greeted him by name and then asked, “Any news in there about low-income housing finally being built? God, won’t that be the day! Wouldn’t THAT be something?”

The man with the newspaper said there wasn’t any word about about low-income housing, and yes that would be a great day when low-income housing was available. All the while, he never lowered his paper.

The Orange Sweatshirt lady set her belongings on a small table beside mine. I asked if she had enough room. I didn’t want to crowd her.  She said, “No problem, you’re fine.” Up close I could see that she wore full dentures. Her age was impossible to guess: maybe 45 to 75.

About 1 minute later a heavy-set young guy with a knit hat decorated with a camo pattern joined the two others. Good mornings all around.

I tried to concentrate on writing, but the threesome’s conversation broke through. They talked about a bad fight that happened in South City Park, caused by some tweaker-white-kid. They talked about how the cops looked for the kid, but nobody knew if they’d found him. They talked about “stupid” rules they hated at the mission. They talked a lot about how hard it is to find a place to live in Redding. They talked about money and families and parole and prisons.

Camo hat guy: “I turned 19 in prison, 20 in prison and 21 in prison. I’m 22 now.”
Orange sweatshirt lady:Wow. You’re young. I know about prison. I married at 16, and I may as well been in prison. I got beat up, told what to do, slapped around, all kinds of worse stuff that I won’t even tell you anymore.”

Camo hat guy: “After I got out, I didn’t know what to do. All that time I was used to someone telling me when to go to bed and when to get up and they had food and everything that I didn’t have to think about. People were like, dude, why did you have your wife wash your clothes and cook for you? I tell them that before, I always had someone to do it for me. I didn’t know how to take care of myself.”

Newspaper reader guy: “I can take care of myself fine. But I can’t find a place to live, cuz I can never get enough saved up for a deposit or nothing. I’m on Social Security and disability, it’s still not enough. I looked into the Rancheria . . . got paperwork . . .” 
Orange sweatshirt lady, laughing: “You’re Indian? Right on! See, you’re lucky that way.”
Camo hat guy: “I’m totally eligible for SSI, but I don’t want it. I want to work.”
Orange sweatshirt lady: “You’ll be sorry because you watch, you’ll get some job and get injured and that’ll be that. I’m on disability. But my situation’s mental. I would never go hit somebody, but if they are hitting me, or holding onto me, or if they’re hitting someone else, they’ll be sorry. I took at oath – I went to college and took Tai Chi . . .”
Camo hat guy interrupts: “Mine’s physical and mental – 5150. That’s what I like about California, you can defend yourself. In Oregon, you defend yourself and they put you away for assault.” 
Orange sweatshirt lady “No you do not want to defend yourself. Not in Shasta County. Then it’s domestic violence and you both go to jail.”
Camo hat guy: “I don’t get that. Like you know that cute little black-haired girl, the one with the baby? Her old man beat her up and stole her purse. But she’s still with him. I saw them together at Wendy’s”

Orange sweatshirt lady pounds the table with one fist: “Her? No way! That’s horrible! You know the one I’m having the trouble with is Mary, she doesn’t know when to shut her f-ing mouth.”
Camo hat guy: “She’s the one who hit me in the nuts. It took everything I had not to hit her in the mouth. But I don’t hit women.”

It’s after 8:30 a.m. when my cell phone rings. The group stops talking and looks my direction. I try to answer quietly. It’s my daughter. We talk for a few seconds when I notice that the woman in the orange sweatshirt is gathering her lunch bag and coat, and the guys are picking up their things to leave, too.  

I break from my call to apologize to the woman. I say I didn’t mean to bother them, or chase them off.

The woman smiled.

“It wasn’t you,” she said. “It was time to go. We have someplace else we need to be. We’ll be moving on now.”

 Shasta County Homeless Statistics 

• 3,316 total individuals representing 1,986 households were homeless at some point during the year.

• 2,332 total individuals representing 939 households were imminently at-risk of becoming homeless.

• 1,092 children were homeless.

• 995 children were imminently at-risk of becoming homeless.
• The total of homeless and at-risk children: 2,087

~ Source: People of Progress website/2007 City of Redding Shasta County Homeless Continuum of Care Council (COC),

Last year POP served 500 homeless people by providing food, clothing, personal hygiene items, motel rooms for those not able to stay in shelters for medical reasons, voice mail, referrals and emergency casework.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is 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, California.
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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Kerry says:


    What a snapshot. If each of us took a few moments from our relatively comfortable lives to talk with these folks, to share the gift of belonging to the larger human clan if for but the few minutes we engage, their struggle would be lifted for that brief time. Someone wise once left me with – make tracks while you comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Thank you for helping me remember the relative comfortability of my own life.

  2. Avatar Skip Murphy says:

    Well written, and thought provoking. Thanks Doni. It's a complicated matter, the difference between having a place to call home, and not. It affects people. You wonder what their conversation would be like if they lived down the street instead of on the street. Should having a home be a basic human right? Its a valid question to ponder in a wealthy society.

  3. Avatar shelly shively says:

    Fine writing, Doni….colorful, yet troubling. Provokes my soul for answers.

  4. We have so much to be grateful for. Sometimes we just need to just open our ears to understand that others have lives that are hard and seems hopeless. If not for the Good News Mission, I don't know where most of these people would get a warm meal or bed.

    Time to feed the bucket.

  5. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    There but for the grace of God goes anyone of us. While in college I took in a childhood friend who had a bad streak, getting arrested while in the Marines and unable to find any work for months. I got a place for him to live and showed him where to look for jobs on campus.

    A few years later I graduated and moved to California to look for work. I slept on friends' couches for 6 months until I could get a bedroom and pay full rent. If my wife kicked me out, I have no idea where I would wind up. My job is in the toilet and my wife lost hers.

    Hurry up Obama!