Redding’s New Normal is Unacceptable

I drove through the Home Depot parking lot Monday on my way to pick up some varnish for my newly restored Douglas fir floors when I saw a 30-ish looking woman – filthy leathery skin, torn pants and blouse – changing clothes behind a rental truck. Strewn on the ground around her were soot-colored blankets and clothes.

Cars like mine passed by, driven by people like me who appeared unfazed.

On my return trip into the downtown Redding area, I saw a scruffy, thin, bald, bare-chested dirty guy who looked in his 20s riding a bike in the scorching sun. Worse yet, on the back of the bike was an infant seat that held a shirtless, hat-less toddler, his chin resting on his small chest as the man sped down Market Street.

There was a time I would have called 911 to report that scene as child endangerment.

I did nothing.

A few hours later, on Pine Street, a skinny, bald, heavily tattooed man with a stained backpack knocked hard on the passenger window of a parked pickup as the two women inside shook their heads no, no, no. The women looked horrified.

I was glad he wasn’t pounding on my window.

In the last few years, I’ve seen things in this town I never would have believed possible; things that at first shocked me. Now, I consider these scenarios evidence of Redding’s new normal.

I’ve seen people who resemble the walking dead drop their pants, squat and defecate on the downtown post office lawn and in the brush at the entrance of the Shopko parking lot. I saw a couple having sex in an alley in broad daylight. I’ve seen people rummaging through trash, and searching gutters and sidewalks for cigarette butts. I’ve seen people zombied out on heroin, or tweaking from meth.

There are the physical similarities: missing teeth, sunburned skin, sores, filthy clothes, matted hair, floppy shoes or no shoes; byproducts of neglect, addiction, poverty and exposure to the elements. They remind me of wild-eyed peasants depicted in Old World paintings that illustrate a chaotic market scene with snarling feral dogs, crazed old women and enraged men fighting over hunks of meat, all done in blacks and browns and grays so oppressive that you can almost smell the rot and hopelessness and poverty.

Lately, perhaps because of crackdowns on illegal encampments, I’ve noticed transients on bikes hauling Volkswagen-sized carts piled high with chairs, bedding, buckets and all kinds of stuff. At daybreak, it’s not unusual to see people sleeping on the ground in the middle of an empty parking lot. And perhaps you’ve noticed a group of transients who have claimed the steps of Black Bear Diner headquarters on Shasta Street as if it’s their headquarters.

I’ve adapted. For example, if I’m driving and am stopped at a light or stop sign and see someone who looks like a transient in the vicinity, I lock my doors, though I confess, I feel embarrassed and hope they don’t hear the click of locks.

I drive more defensively than ever, because many transients have taken to aimlessly walking – stumbling – staggering – across traffic as the crow flies, seemingly oblivious to crosswalks or traffic signals. Some are obviously high, or maybe they’re mentally ill, or physically sick or all of the above.

I leave nothing of value in my car, even when it’s locked. When I park my car, especially somewhere like a movie theater or restaurant, where I know I’ll be gone for a while, I choose my parking place to be as visible as possible.

For lack of a more precise term, I’ll call these people transients, although the term “homeless” probably fits, too, along with many other words, like addicts or criminals. Some are purely victims of circumstance like illness, job loss or financial or personal catastrophe.

I recognize “regulars” – like the guy with the beard who sits crossed legged on the lawn by the empty newspaper racks at the downtown post office where I’ve seen him pour water from a small plastic bottle over Top Ramen, stir it and eat it cold. He’s there nearly every weekday. Nearby, on a shady patch of lawn in front of the post office, is a tiny grubby woman and a few equally grubby guys who hang together. That group collectively smells so strongly of bodily waste that I have trained myself to hold my breath as I pass by them.

In the last few weeks I’ve noticed a newcomer around town, a short woman – sunburned, wild chopped dry hair, who lugs cumbersome bags in each hand as she trudges along Benton or Market or Court. Where is she going? More important, where is she from? What happened to that woman to bring her to this dire station in life? Is there anything she could have possibly done wrong to deserve this life? I look at her, day after day, week after week, and wonder what keeps her going.

Likewise, there’s an older woman with long gray hair who wears layers of clothing as she pushes a shopping cart and is often near the Eureka Way Starbucks.

It was at that particular Starbucks this week where I was working on my laptop inside the crowded coffee shop when I noticed a grimy middle-aged man walk in and sit down at a table. He had what looked like a single bill – maybe a dollar –  in his hand. From across the room I saw a Starbucks employee quickly approach the man. I heard her ask him to leave. She said something like he’d already left one cup of water outside, which made no sense to me, but then perhaps there was a lot I didn’t know about that situation.

I found myself fighting back tears at the sight of him leaving the air conditioned Starbucks and heading out into the heat of the day. Where would he go? How did he get here?

I don’t know. But then, there’s so much I don’t know.

But this is what I do know: I feel powerless to do anything to change this situation, so I’ve adapted by trying to un-see what’s before my very eyes. It’s not working, because the sight of these people is getting harder to ignore.  In fact, the sight of them hurts my heart, because I’m aware that no matter how they got to where they are now, they’re living human beings subsisting in a way that our society wouldn’t condone appropriate for a dog.

But I’m a realist, too. I sympathize with businesses that have adapted, too, with spiked fences and even concertina wire and lots of metal.

prison fence

Burger King hands out tiny rest room tokens for customers only to insert in heavy chrome locking mechanisms. Retail stores have carts with either automatically locking wheels or tall poles that won’t fit through doors, which is a major inconvenience for paying customers. Businesses shell out money for security guards, surveillance cameras and alarms.

You can bet that nowhere in any MBA program is there a class that teaches how to shovel shit, needles and puke from a business storefront.

This hits close to home, because I recently ordered not one, but two security systems for my new home. Better safe …

An acquaintance said her grown out-of-town kids follow the crime on various Redding Facebook pages and are so convinced Redding is an unsafe city that they have vowed to never visit again.

The thing is, with few exceptions, I don’t usually fear these walking-dead people. Most of them look so tired and lethargic that they don’t look like they have the energy to be a real threat. In fact, I wonder and worry about many of them, and I can’t help but feel the glaring contrast between their lives and luxuries I enjoy in my life:  my air conditioned car and money to buy food at a time of life when my most pressing concern is getting a low bid for my new ducting system and hoping my building permit is approved soon so I can resume my home’s remodeling project.

Even so, as a longtime Redding resident doing my level best to adjust to this not-so-new normal, I’m a whirling dervish of emotions. On the one hand I feel angry and fearful about shattered car windows, home break-ins and retail smash-and-grabs. On the other hand I feel disgusted and disappointed that I can’t take my grandchildren to the park or library without walking the gauntlet of transients. I resent that I must think twice before going to the river trail at dawn or dusk, the only two cool times of our summer days.

Redding residents struggle for solutions, some of which may be well-meaning but, in my opinion, misguided, such as demanding a recall of two city council members, something I see as no more effective than shooting the messengers. Other residents are getting their CCW permits, or are like me, and are investing in home security systems.

Finally, there are those Redding residents who’ve given up, and have packed up and moved away, or plan to leave as soon as possible. I get that, because at some point, if you can’t solve the problem, and you lack confidence that leaders have the will, a plan or the power to turn things around, it’s probably time to leave, rather than stay and become increasingly bitter, disillusioned and disappointed.

You know, love it or leave it.

Meanwhile, on this day in Redding when it may reach 117 degrees, I’m haunted by the image of that toddler on the back of the man’s bike, and the elderly woman trudging with the shopping bags, and the young woman changing clothes in the Home Depot parking lot, and on and on the list goes.

But I’m also haunted by the loss of the Redding I used to know. I wonder if there’s any way to raise this city from the dead and give it new life, or is Redding a lost cause.

Either way, considering the fact that Redding’s a ticking time bomb and the residents are growing increasingly restless, now would be an excellent time for our elected officials and appointed leaders to actually to lead us out of this mess.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's 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's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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