If I had a dollar for every word A News Cafe.com has published about the homeless, transients, street people, and homeless encampment clean-ups, I’d be an extremely wealthy, retired woman living in my Waikiki beach house, sipping sidecars and writing my screenplay.
Like many of you, I’ve gradually adapted to what should be unacceptable anywhere in the world, let alone Redding, California.
I’ve adapted to living among, driving past, walking around and avoiding eye contact with what looks like the walking dead: flat-eyed, filthy, crazed, drunk, tweaking, toothless. All human beings – somebody’s sons and daughters.
I’ve adapted to knowing it’s considered unsafe to walk the river trail alone. Even with a companion, not only do I bring pepper spray, but I carry it with my finger on the button at the ready.
I’ve adapted to the ever-present security guards at the store I’ve shopped since I was 9 – now affectionately known as the unSafeway – a place that once stayed open 24 hours, but now closes at midnight, its solution to the countless police calls for shoplifting and fights there.
I’ve adapted to driving even more cautiously at night, on high alert for people hauling huge bags and backpacks, whizzing down the middle of the street on too-small bikes, sometimes even carrying a second bike in one arm.
I’ve adapted from a point of time four years ago when a male friend and I routinely walked the length and back of Cypress Street Bridge at night, because it was so beautiful to see those blue-hued cone-shaped lights, with the moon above and the water below. Today, for the most part, the pedestrian paths along the Cypress Street Bridge are used by street people, homeless and transients. Literally, you could not pay me to walk that bridge at night now, alone or otherwise.
The Cypress Street Bridge is just one of many places that have been taken over by transients, homeless and street people. Other places include the library, sports bleachers and parks.
If it weren’t so sad, the story I heard from one woman recently would be funny. She was driving to the library and saw the bleachers packed with people. She thought it odd that a baseball game would be playing on a weekday morning. When she looked more closely, she realized the stands were filled with street people.
I keep thinking about Redding’s gradual decline, the public’s adaptation to our new normal, and the metaphor of boiling a frog. Turn up the heat slowly enough under what started as a live frog in a pan of cool water and eventually you’ll have fully cooked, seriously dead frog.
Sometimes I wonder if Reddingites adapt more easily to our supremely crappy state of our city because of our extreme heat. We’re used to sucking it up and dealing with the heat’s discomfort. Only newbies, babies and heat weanies complain about Redding’s heat.
The thing is, sometimes, whether it’s a frog being slowly poached to death, or a city falling apart, having a high pain threshold may not be in our best interest. Redding’s in major hot water, and it needs to wake up and do something before the city’s dead, and all the good people have left.
There was a time when I was a pretty decent ambassador for Redding. But my heart’s not in it anymore. And no exaggeration, for about the last year or so, as I drive around town, I sometimes find myself saying these words: Get – me – out – of – here.
Of course, I am still in love with our north state’s surrounding beauty – its lakes and natural wonders – but the city itself is depressing as hell. Truth be told, if it weren’t for the fact that I have a twin and two grandchildren in this city, I’d be setting my sights on moving. Where? I don’t know. St. Helena? Elk Grove? No place too far a drive from Redding.
I return to the same questions: Am I kidding myself. Is it like this everywhere?
This topic is on my mind even more than usual after my up-close encounter with downtown Redding last week. As I drove out of my beloved Garden Tract, I noticed the usual collection of people pushing shopping carts full of stuff. I don’t even give them a second glance any more. I’ve adapted.
As I drove west up Placer, there was a trio with sleeping bags and blankets. Check-out time at Library Park.
A half a block further was a young man with a dog. The guy had a tarp-covered pile that was about four times his width, and nearly reached his shoulders. The tower of stuff was on wheels of some sort.
A few feet beyond the young guy was a bearded, elderly man, eyes closed, one foot in the gutter, sitting on the sidewalk, slumped against a sign pole not far from Wilda’s.
Finally, at my destination – the post office – I parked my car. After I left the post office I walked down Yuba Street to see my friend, Sam Allen, who owns Carousel, a woman’s boutique.
Allen’s huge shop windows have given her graphic views of things like drug deals, fights, high people, drunk people, passed out people and lots of police and ambulance calls. She’s cleaned human waste from her shop steps and washed urine from her windows, left behind by street people. Allen has shared her stories and photos here before.
On Tuesday Allen just shook her head as she watched across the railroad tracks as a police officer approached a young woman who’s created an epic mini-city of cardboard and garbage on Yuba Street. The next time Allen and I looked toward the tracks, the woman and cop were gone, but a young man in purple with a backpack was picking through the woman’s abandoned collections.
Allen talked about the revolving door of characters who pass by her window each day, many of whom have made themselves at home – literally – in the newly opened Library Park, closed during Lorenz Building’s seismic construction. She told about a young black woman who’d been in the park for days and some very cold nights. Allen said she was concerned, so she reported the woman to social services. Later on someone official looking came and spoke to the woman, and at some point someone else brought the woman a sleeping bag and a tent. The tent disappeared quickly. Allen learned later that for starters, the woman was schizophrenic, and pregnant.
“But I think she’s moved on,” Allen said. “That’s good. I hope she got help.”
I left Allen’s shop and took a walk through Library Park where I found a young black woman sleeping on a concrete slab against the Library Park stage upon which bands perform during Marketfest.
A few feet away was a man with short-cropped gray hair and a plaid shirt. His shoes were off, showing clean white socks, as he slept curled up on a sleeping bag.
I stopped and spoke with one of the few upright, awake people in the park at 10 a.m., a young woman with strawberry-blond hair. She sat on a bench flanked by a cart stuffed with a peace-symbol backpack, and bedding decorated with daisies and Tweetie Birds, topped by a tampon. Her eyes were bright. I asked if I could take her photo, that I was writing about the homeless. She said yes.
As a reporter, I know better than to interject my opinion about anything to a subject. I’m supposed to be the observer. But seeing her there beside clean bedding that looked like it was just stripped from a 9-year-old’s room; it just got to me.
“You look so … young to be out here by yourself,” I said.
She smiled and said she was older than she looked: 20. When I remarked that 20 wasn’t old, she said she felt old.
I asked where she was from, and she said here – Redding – that her mother had died and the young woman had no place to go. I asked how she gets food. She said someone gave her a honey stick that morning, that she gets by. I asked about the guy on the grass nearby, sprawled out on a blue blanket next to his own mounds and carts of belongings.
“A friend,” she said.
I used to think The Solution was my Pollyanna idea of a huge ranch, where the most down-and-out people would have food and shelter, and could develop a sense of purpose by doing all kinds of things, like raising chickens, and milking cows and growing gardens and canning fruit. But alas, as they say in psychology, I was projecting. For me, I could not imagine a world where I wasn’t being productive, where people weren’t counting on me.
But that was a simplistic solution to a much more complicated problem. And make no mistake about it: Redding, we have a major problem. And if you’ve noticed, so far, none of the “solutions” are working.
One-way bus tickets may seem like a bright idea, but they just pass these people to another city. No solution there.
Arrests don’t work, because our jails are full and the arrested will be released and re-arrested, sometimes dozens of times for the same person. No solution there.
Bigger jails aren’t the answer, either, because eventually those people may be released back into society, and then what? No solution there.
Fines – for loitering, public intoxication, sitting or lying on public sidewalks, whatever – don’t work because these people have no money. No solution there.
Clearing out illegal homeless encampments restores natural habitats, but just as squeezing a water balloon displaces the water from one side to the other, clearing encampments simply chases the homeless to another area – Lake Boulevard to Henderson Open Space, and back again – each time leaving tons of garbage in their wake. No solution there.
For the generic homeless – people who need a place to live because of such life circumstances as unemployment or catastrophic illness, let’s find transitional housing. That’s on its way via programs like The Shasta Humanity Project. That is one solution.
And for the criminals, the AB109ers, that’s another topic for another day. What I will propose here in a second would leave the jails and prisons available for the hard-core criminals nobody wants released, especially not because of over-crowding.
The biggest issue isn’t about parolees, or people down on their luck who just need a place to live until they get back on their feet.
The Big Issue is mental illness. Mental illness is the reason we’re seeing people who look like the walking dead in Redding, and we’re seeing it in spades, everything from heroin junkies and meth addicts to veterans with untreated PTSD and people like the sleeping woman in Library Park, suffering from schizophrenia.
Shasta County, as we’ve reported here before, fails miserably when it comes to helping the seriously mentally ill. Stories here on A News Cafe.com about young men like Colby Brousseau , Josh Valdez and Thom Jones are poster-child examples of Shasta County’s substandard mental health care.
Here’s my proposal: What if Shasta County built a state-of-the-art mental health facility with hundreds of beds, something along the lines of the Veterans Home, but for the mentally ill? One component would be a treatment center for those battling addictions, rather than filling the jails with people whose addictions turned them to criminals.
It would put people to work building it, and after it was opened, it would keep people in jobs for the rest of the facility’s life.
It would get the seriously mentally ill off the streets, from beneath bridges and in parks, and give them food, treatment and shelter.
It could put the north state on the map as the place that found one way to help the mentally ill.
It could bring revenue from other counties that need somewhere to send their mentally ill.
Most of all, it would care for the least among us in a way that illustrates that we value these people and believe them just as worthy of a life of dignity and hope as the rest of us.
After all, it’s not OK for a seemingly civilized city to allow human beings to live like feral animals, scrounging for food, shelter, and places to sleep and shit, as we look the other way.
And it’s not OK for a 20-year-old woman to feel old before her time.
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.