Like many Redding homeless, George Koen spends a lot of time at the Shasta County Library in Redding which features bathrooms, drinking fountains, computers, comfortable chairs, magazines, and shelter from the elements. It’s kind of his home away from – no home.
Because Koen concentrates best in quiet places, he sometimes will reserve one of the library’s study rooms for as many hours as staff schedulers will allow. Inside these rooms, he’ll read or write or just enjoy the solitude.
It was in one of those rooms where I recently met Koen after we’d corresponded via email and Facebook for a few months. He is a regular reader of aNewsCafe.com, and sometimes leaves comments.
He reached out to me with some first-hand insights about not just homelessness, but potential solutions.
Koen brought along a colorful notebook and a small backpack. He said he’d stashed his larger bag outside somewhere for safe-keeping, because library rules ban patrons from bringing large suitcases, packs and duffel bags inside.
George Koen is 60 years old. He has a shaved head, a pale mustache and sports a silver stud in each ear lobe. On this winter afternoon he wore a long-sleeved sweatshirt, long pants and cargo shorts over the pants. He wore sandals over bare feet. He had a lot he wanted to say, which he expressed quietly, with a lovely accent, a holdover from South Africa, where he was born, raised, and served in the military as a combat veteran. He still has family in South Africa. He also has a daughter who lives in Cottonwood, and two grandchildren. His eldest granddaughter is 6, and Koen said she is aware of her grandfather’s living situation.
“My family accepts me and the way I live,” he said. “My granddaughter says, ‘Oupa, do you live in your car?’ I say yes, and she says, ‘Oh.’ I won’t lie to a child. I tell her there are poor people, and that there will always be poor people.”
When asked why he’s homeless, Koen said he has significant mental health issues, from chronic depression to a sometimes debilitating anxiety disorder. Koen said he also suffers from PTSD, caused during warfare in 1977 and 1978, fighting in South West Africa’s territorial conflict. Koen said he’s held three primary jobs in his life: managing a bike shop, working in desktop publishing and as a medical equipment provider.
His official working days are over. He now gets by on disability payments, which he said might be enough to rent some place to live. But the thing is, Koen said he’d rather be homeless than be constrained inside a dwelling and deal with all the associated trappings, from furniture to dishes, and even social expectations to interact with neighbors. In fact, the stress and pressure of maintaining a home grew so uncomfortable for Koen that a few years ago he decided to give up his last apartment and live in his car.
“I lived in that apartment for six months,” Koen said. “I couldn’t manage it well. It’s like I have half a brain or something. I cannot handle being tied down. I cannot function if I’m tied down. I am homeless by choice. I spend a lot of time alone, which is the way I like it.”
So Koen lives on the street, somewhere in Redding. Don’t ask where.
“On the street, you don’t tell where you sleep,” Koen said. “It’s about self-preservation. I will tell you it’s a dry place, as cozy as can be. I stay in one place about a week, and then I keep moving.”
Ask him what it’s like to be homeless and he laughs a little.
“It’s the understatement of the year to say it’s a challenge. Yeah, you get cold, you get wet, you get hot, you get sick, and guess what? All those things will pass. I keep telling the homeless people if all you do is whine and complain, then you’re a whiner and a complainer.”
Koen bathes in the river, which he admitted can be numbingly cold. He uses baby wipes to keep himself clean between river baths. He puts the used baby wipes in bags and finds a trash can in which to deposit them. He has a little camping burner and a French press, one of his most treasured luxuries, for Starbucks brand coffee with cream and sugar that he prepares every morning.
On the street, his fellow homeless have named him “the professor” because he’s smart, articulate and carries himself with an air of confidence. He describes himself as a law-abiding citizen, someone who helps fellow street people whenever possible. When he has a vehicle (he’s between cars at the moment), he’ll give people rides to doctors appointments or to the store for food or the pharmacy for prescriptions.
Although he identifies as being homeless, and although he lives among the homeless, he feels set apart from many of the homeless he encounters in Redding. For one thing, he shuns illegal mind/mood-altering substances, and said he doesn’t smoke pot, or drink alcohol, or use drugs. In his clear-eyed state, he can see why Redding’s “housed” have issues with Redding’s homeless.
“The other homeless respect me and most of them listen to me,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Every time you leave your garbage around it gives the housed another reason to hate the homeless.’ I know that one of the biggest barriers to us getting help is us, the homeless.”
On the other hand, he takes issue with some of the housed, too.
“They make assumptions about all homeless,” he said. “They hate us. They blame us for every bad thing that’s happening in this town. They think we’re all criminals. We’re not. They think we all leave our garbage everywhere. We don’t. They think we’re all drunk or drugged or using. We’re not. They think we’re all lazy asssed, and say things to us like, ‘Why don’t you get a fucking job.’ A lot of the people who live on the streets have serious mental illnesses. They’re sick. They need help, not hatred.”
One of Koen’s pet peeves, something he said is committed by the housed and homeless alike, is when people make generalizations and assumptions, two mindsets he believes are the root of society’s greatest misunderstandings.
He believes the city and county leaders sometimes approve decisions that penalize the homeless out of sheer spite, such as locking public bathrooms, disabling city water spigots and blocking electrical outlets.
Granted, Koen is homeless, and experiences the plights of being homeless. However, he’s also a grandfather, which is why, although he spends time in the park with his homeless friends, and although he uses the library restrooms, he believes both places are unfit and unsanitary for his own grandchildren because of conditions caused by some street people.
“Those places can get pretty disgusting,” he said.
That’s partly why he can understand why many Redding residents have reached a zero-tolerance boiling point over the increasing number of homeless living on the streets, granted, without knowing those homeless people, their personalities and/or unique situations and challenges.
There’s Bill the Canner, a character Koen describes as someone full of light, a man in his 50s who collects cans for money. Bill the Canner gets rambunctious when he’s had too much to drink, but at his core he’s funny and “smart as shit”.
There’s Antenna, a sweet man who believes aliens will abduct him, but Koen said Antenna is also generous to a fault, demonstrated the time Koen was hungry, and Antenna spent his last $2 to buy food for Koen.
There’s tiny Janie, who has a tag-along named Dave who’s mainly there when Janie has money. Janie is giving, too, but she’s incapable of making good decisions, and rarely holds onto money for very long because she falls prey to homeless moochers.
And then there’s Betty, pretty much a female version of Bill the Canner.
“Heart of gold” is the term Koen used to describe every one of these homeless friends.
Koen’s goal is to bridge the divide between the homeless – like the friends he described – and the housed. He’d like to foster more understanding between the two groups, whether it’s educating the housed to realize that not all homeless are a blight on society, or whether it’s reminding the homeless that not all cops are bad.
He has an idea he believes could alleviate some tension between the housed and the homeless. He’d like to pitch his idea to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors and Redding City Council members, and said he’s sent emails requesting a time to make presentations to both entities, but hasn’t received a response.
He says his concept is simple, and fairly cost effective, at what he estimates would be less than $1 million; a far cry from the many millions more the county proposes to solve the homeless crisis. Koen envisions a plot of land with basic amenities for the homeless located far outside Redding’s city center. He pictures a large piece of property, upon which are many concrete pads especially for the homeless to pitch their tents and set up camp.
His ideal homeless habitat would provide hot and cold running water, and showers. This place would be self-policed, with plenty of rules, such as no drugs. Everyone would pay something for the opportunity to stay there, even if it was as little as $10 a month. This homeless haven would have toilets, food, and regular visits by the HOPE van. If there was a community need at the homeless park, then the residents’ money could be used to buy it.
“Give us a space,” he said. “We’ll take care of it. Give us seeds and water and we’ll grow things. What if, instead of begging, the homeless had a place to have a garden, and we could eat what’s grown there? That would be awesome!”
How would the homeless get there?
“That’s their problem. But maybe there’d be a special bus stop, or a van that could take the homeless there.”
What if some homeless didn’t want to be there?
“I would hope they’d all go, but they don’t have to. It’s not a prison. It’s optional.”
Would he go there?
“Probably not. I don’t like to be tied down.”
Koen said he knows his idea is an imperfect solution, but he said it’s better than doing nothing, which is the way he sees leaders handling Shasta County’s current homeless crisis. He said it’s time for the city and county to wake up, and quit pretending the homeless issue is going away on its own.
“As I tell my granddaughter, poor people are always going to be here,” he said. “I know the housed don’t like the homeless here, and the homeless don’t like to be treated unjustly, which does happen in Shasta County. Why don’t we get together and find a solution? If we can’t mend bridges between the homeless and the haters, then for now, out of sight out of mind could work.”
One of the saddest things for Koen is the observation that many people are so fed up with the homeless that they’ve stopped recognizing them as individuals, or even human beings.
“I believe in taking responsibility for my own actions, and I know a lot of homeless have bad behavior, like slamming dope,” he said. “But at what point do we say, ‘Yes, this is a person who made bad choices, but how far down does that person have to go before we them give some help?’ ”
The way Koen sees it, in Shasta County the door to understanding and caring about the homeless is slammed shut.
“There’s not even a key – at least not one that I can see – to open it. Wouldn’t it be great if some of the more pressing questions were simple, like, ‘How do we make you smile? How do you make me smile?’ Without some kind of understanding, we’ll never get there.”
Soon, Koen will have saved enough money to buy another used car, which will mean a warmer, dryer place to sleep, and a means of getting from one place to another, and giving his friends rides to food and appointments and shelter.
Beyond getting the word out about his homeless park idea, and buying a car, what’s next on the horizon for Koen?
“You mean a plan? I have goals, but I don’t make plans,” he said with a smile as he picked up his backpack.
“I’m homeless. I’m a minimalist. You’d be surprised how little you can get by on. There’s nothing to tie me down.”
Our reservation was up in the study room. Our meeting time was over.
In the silence I glanced toward the west-facing window of the library’s second-story study room that overlooks the park below. The view displayed the park’s green grass, upon which were many clumps of men and women, lying on the grass or milling around. There were shopping carts, black garbage bags and piles of blankets strewn about.
Just another winter day in South City Park, located in the heart of Redding, a park so sketchy that even Koen, a homeless man, wouldn’t bring his grandchildren there to play.