Down and Out in South City Park

Photos by R.V. Scheide.

Whenever you hear Redding city officials say their latest proposal to fight transient crime doesn’t target the homeless population, rest assured, it targets the homeless population. Such is the case with the eight-foot-high wrought-iron fence soon to be erected around South City Park.

The city’s attention on the park, long known as a haven for alcoholics, drug addicts and other assorted drifters—including homeless people just down on their luck—increased a couple of months ago, after former Redding mayor Rick Bosetti was assaulted by a transient woman near Tiger Field, which sits adjacent to South City Park and the Redding Library.

Bosetti, a former professional baseball player, is general manager of the Colt 45s, Redding’s minor league baseball team, which plays its home games at Tiger Field. Obviously, the present conditions in the park aren’t exactly conducive to taking the family out to the ball game, and the community effort to “scour” the criminal riff-raff out and “reprogram” the park began in earnest.

The park’s drinking fountain has been shut off and the public restrooms are now cordoned off with a chain-link fence. At night, the sprinklers are turned on to drive illegal campers out of the park. The amount of personal belongings transients can carry into the park was limited to one trash bag full. The Redding Police Department has conducted several “quality of life sweeps” in the park in recent months.

Yet the transient population continues to swarm the park in the daytime. The reality is they’ve been chased out of pretty much every place else. South City Park is one of the few places they have left to go, a small island of shade to ward of Redding’s brutal summer heat. The nearby library has water and restrooms. If anything, transients, criminal or otherwise, are adaptive.

So the Redding City Council voted unanimously to fence them all out of the park, once again assuring the public the proposal doesn’t target the homeless.

Which of course is untrue.

George Koen, formerly homeless homeless advocate.

My Friend George

George Koen was irate. On June 1, the Redding Library began requiring photo ID to use its public computers. For him, the move was yet another indignity on the long list of indignities visited upon the local homeless community by public officials during the past three years.

Koen is the self-styled homeless advocate who A News Cafe publisher Doni Chamberlain interviewed last March. At the time, Koen was homeless himself, but he’s since refurbished an old motor home and acquired a temporary house-sitting gig. I’d been Facebook friends with the erudite South African native for roughly a year without realizing his predicament.

Last Friday morning, Koen reached out to me on Facebook Messenger.

“RV, can you not write an article on the treatment of the homeless? Now, unless you have a pic ID, you cannot use the computers at the library. Fuck man, it has to stop!!!!!!”

I was intrigued. I live 30 miles east of Redding and I visit the Redding Library about once a month, to check out the latest bestsellers. We don’t have a visible homeless problem out here in Whitmore, so I use my monthly visits to the library to gauge both the size and mood of the homeless community.

It’s no secret homeless people frequent public libraries; a phenomenon that exists across the United States, and Redding is no exception. In many cities, it’s one of the few public spaces the homeless remain welcome in. For them, the public library computer is often their only connection to the real world, to friends and relatives, to prospective employers.

Until recently, the Redding Library had generously allowed anyone to use the computers without an ID or a library card for one hour. Now it requires a photo ID, a document some homeless people don’t possess.

What’s up with that? I wondered. I told Koen, who was preparing to serve lunch to the denizens of South City Park, that I’d be right down.

The crowd gathered for lunch at South City Park.

Feeding Time

When I arrived at South City Park, Koen had a table set up in front of his RV and was ladling huge dollops of hearty-looking vegetable beef and barley stew from a 5-gallon stock pot into the bowls of the waiting transients. Sliced bread and chilled bottled water was also available. Koen was standing in for his friend, Ginny Adorador, who normally does the Friday feeding but had to attend a wedding.

There were about 75 people in the park, mostly Caucasian, divided into a half-dozen separate groups, sitting upright or sprawled out on the well-worn grass beneath the trees. Bicycles, wheel chairs, backpacks and trash-bags full of belongings circled around them like wagons in an old movie Western.

There’s no sugar-coating it: There’s some rough customers hanging out in South City Park. Young men in their 20s and 30s with the strung-out gaunt appearance that accompanies methamphetamine and heroin abuse. Mangy, wired lions waiting to prey upon the non-criminal members of the transient community, the old, the disabled and the mentally ill.

Are they the minority or the majority of the people in the park, these rough customers? On this day, it was hard to tell, perhaps because every one on hand was well-fed and relatively sedate. At any rate, Koen is most concerned with the people in the park who are not criminals. In his view, they’re unfairly being lumped in with the criminal element. He’s even come up for an acronym for it: AGE.

That stands for assumptions, generalizations and exaggerations, the process by which Koen believes homeless people are being demonized.

“We are unsightly of course,” he explained. “We are all drug addicts and criminals. I appreciate the nastiness that does happen down here. It never used to be so prevalent. This really started when the younger tweakers and heroin users started moving in around the beginning of the year. Before that there was simply pot and alcohol. I, therefore, do understand where the city of Redding is coming from. The majority of us steer clear of trouble or confrontation with RPD, and they know that.”

To Koen, the library’s photo ID requirement is just another brick in the wall that excludes the homeless.

“When one considers the history of the last three or so years, and remains aware of the fact that we are all capable of paranoia, it really is blatant that this is simply another means to isolate all homeless on the basis of bad behavior by a few,” he said.

Dorothy Bluetear has been homeless in Redding for the past four years.

Introducing Some Real Homeless People

To demonstrate his point, Koen arranged interviews for me with several homeless individuals in the park he felt comfortable enough to vouch for. I appreciated his efforts. There’s a large component of mentally ill individuals in the homeless population that makes obtaining reliable information difficult, and Koen knows this community much better than I.

Dorothy Bluetear, 55, said she was born in Los Angeles and eventually moved to Oregon, where she was married for 17 years and raised five kids. She got divorced four years ago and moved to Redding, where her sister and niece reside.

“They’re not wealthy, but they help me out from time to time,” she said.

Like a lot of homeless people, Bluetear’s descent into homelessness began by sleeping in her car. She said she receives $200 per month in alimony and also receives food stamps. In March, she had to give up the car because she could no longer afford to operate it. She’s been on foot since then.

On this 100-degree day, she had a spot staked out with an umbrella and a tarp next to a chain-link fence on the park’s edge.

“I have food stamps. I have all my stuff here and two cats,” she said.

No felines seemed to be about. I asked her why her marriage had fallen apart. She shrugged and said it had become a mentally abusive relationship. Where were her five children?

“They’re all grown up, living in Southern California,” was all she offered. She assigned no blame, not even to herself. She seemed reconciled with past events and more focused on where she was going to lay her head that night.

“The biggest problem in Redding is you don’t have a place where you can stay, where you can sleep, that you won’t be bothered by the police,” she said.

Bluetear claimed she’s been ticketed by RPD five times in the past year during RPD’s “quality of life” sweeps. “What about my quality of life?” she asked. “They lower my quality so they can improve their quality.”

I later searched the Shasta County Superior Court’s online criminal case database and found only one citation, for a Dorothy Lee Bluetear, during the past two years. The charge was a minor misdemeanor that took place June 1 that may have involved her automobile. The case seems to be stalled. Oddly, no plaintiff is named in the record.

Perhaps that’s because Bluetear is who she appears to be: Someone’s grandmother who just happens to be homeless. She’s grateful employees at nearby coffee shops will give homeless people water, even hot water for soup, if they bring their own cup. She has the grimy patina all street people eventually acquire, but exhibits no overt signs of alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness.

“People in houses do crimes and drugs,” she said. “Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re a criminal.”

She’s disappointed with the city council’s decision to fence the park off.

“It’s a semi-safe place,” she said. “I’m not going to say there aren’t some bad people out here. But I’ve seen more needles outside the park than inside the park.”

Mike Pyle was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and has been homeless ever since.

“The Toughest Town I’ve Ever Been In”

Mike Pyle, 59, has had enough of Redding. He’s moving on.

“I came down here from Roseburg seven months ago for back surgery,” he said, sitting inside Koen’s sweltering motor home. “It was the worst mistake I’ve ever made.”

Pyle said he was diagnosed with renal carcinoma in 2004. He lost a kidney and his job and has been homeless ever since. The cancer recently returned and he was scheduled to begin treatment at Mercy Medical Center. Nevertheless, he’s decided to pull up stakes.

“I’ve been homeless since 2004 when I came down with cancer,” he said. “I’ve been in every city up and down the West Coast, and this is the toughest town I’ve ever been in.”

“Ninety percent of the people aren’t down here, so they think we’re all thugs, criminals and thieves,” he continued. “I can’t really blame them; they go off what they read in the paper. There’s not a lot of love for people in my situation in this town. It’s a stigma. I go out of my way to keep my homelessness hidden from my doctors.”

Pyle’s monthly disability check isn’t enough to pay the rent, so he’s been forced to seek out roommates during his stay in Redding. It hasn’t worked out well.

“I’ve rented rooms in three houses, and all three times it blew up in my face,” he said. “I’ve had trouble finding stable roommates. It’s easier to be camping outside.”

Not that camping outside is necessarily safer. Pyle said he’s been assaulted several times by the gangs of tweakers and heroin addicts that victimize the older, more vulnerable members of the homeless population. He can still walk, but he now uses a wheel chair to get around, loading it up with his personal belongings and pushing it blocks across town to doctor’s appointments.

On Aug. 2, he’s heading north to Bellingham, Washington, where he has a lead on a housing opportunity.

“Things are tough all over,” he said. “I’m lucky I get a check and can afford to move off. It’s all good. I’m 59, I’ve had a good life. I’ve lived a lot longer than a lot of my friends. My eyes are still open. I’m still kicking it.”

Mekaela Knodt has been homeless in Redding since 2013.

Struggling With Mental Illness

Mekaela Knodt, 42, moved to Redding from Manteca 13 years ago. She was making ends meet until the Great Recession came along.

“Right after the economy crashed, Redding was one of the hardest hit,” she said. “I lost my apartment, I lost my job, I ended up homeless.”

Knodt described her situation as “unique,” and it is. She said she’s been diagnosed with complex PTSD and has battled mental health issues most of her adult life. She said her troubles began when she ran away from home at age 12.

“I was put in a psych ward for kids,” she said. “A male nurse drugged and raped me.”

I’ve been unable to confirm this sexual abuse actually happened, but there’s no question Knodt believes it did.  She’s developed a distrust of mental health professionals and social service agencies that precludes her from getting the help she needs.

It was hard to fathom at first, but this intelligent, well-spoken woman in a clean summer dress readily admitted she’s known locally as a “trouble-maker.” She claimed she blew the whistle on one clinic for releasing her medical information to a known sex offender. She alleged her father and step-mother suggest she should consider physician-assisted suicide. Because she failed to pay a disputed medical bill, she lost her HUD voucher and a chance for permanent housing.

“You can’t use anything that’s in the system,” she said.

Like Dorothy Bluetear, Knodt lived out of her car for as long as she could when she first became homeless.

“My father got me a vehicle, but I really couldn’t afford it,” she said. “The reason for that is I just can’t get a good enough job.”

She said she lost her last job because she couldn’t raise enough gas money to get to work. She was forced to give up the car four years ago and has been on the streets every since.

On May 31, Knodt was dozing during the daytime in Caldwell Park when an RPD “quality of life” sweep came through. Knodt said she impulsively snatched the ticket book out of a police officer’s hand so she could “read the ticket better.” She was charged with a criminal misdemeanor and spent the night in jail, which I later confirmed in the Shasta County Superior Court criminal case database.

She said she was looking forward to her arraignment in court on Aug. 6 so she can finally tell her story to someone who will listen.

Because she doesn’t have a cell phone, Knodt regularly uses the library computers to connect to the internet and noticed right away after the rules requiring a photo ID were implemented in June.

“I have to use the library computer, email is the only way I can communicate with friends and employers because I don’t have a phone,” she said. “I have a driver’s license, but I asked for the library’s copy of the new rules. They’re changing our policy, I have a right to know!”

Mike Pyle, soon to be on his way out of town, didn’t have much to say about the library’s new rule. Dorothy Bluetear uses her “Obama phone” to surf the net and doesn’t use the library’s computers, but she harrumphed all the same when I asked her about it.

“The next thing you know, that I can imagine, is if you want to sit and read a book, you’re going to have to have ID,” she said.

South City Park sits adjacent to the Redding Library and Tiger Field.

The Housed And The Homeless

That won’t be the case, according to Tom Ramont, outreach and marketing coordinator for Shasta Public Libraries. He insisted the new rule requiring photo ID to use the library’s computers doesn’t target the homeless community.

“They’re still allowed to use the library,” he said. “They can come here to cool off in the summer and they can come here to keep warm in the winter. If they’re following the rules, homeless or housed, they’re welcome at the library.”

Ramont said the new rule was implemented because some people among the library’s 2 million annual visitors do break the library’s policies. They yell and curse at library employees. They walk away with books without checking them out. Often, when the library attempts to ban them for their behavior, they give a false name, making the ban difficult to enforce.

“We had talked to community stakeholders, and this is just another way of enforcing our policies,” he said.

Although Ramont cited no specific criminal or behavioral problems related to use of the library’s computers, he said requiring a photo ID for their usage enables the library to get the actual names of people, should they wind up causing some sort of future disturbance.

“We’re not the first library to do this,” he said. “Libraries across the country are doing it.”

Which is true. But it still sounds an awful lot like the library is targeting the homeless community, who are more likely to not have photo ID compared to the general population.

For George Koen, the library’s new rule further validates his AGE theory. The library is assuming, generalizing and exaggerating the behavior of the criminal transient community at the expense of people whose only crime is not being able to make it on their own.

“When we as a culture determine it is acceptable to hate a certain group in our society, we are doomed to repeat our darkest moments in history,” he said.

That’s the corner that Koen fears we’ve turned.

“First we lose toilets, then access to water, now we have the fence coming in,” he said. When he found out the library was requiring photo ID, he “decided if my homeless buds cannot use the computers, in solidarity, I will not use them.”

Most of the homeless people I interviewed at South City Park were more concerned with the coming fence than the library’s new rule on computer usage. They understand they’re being ejected from the park so normal people — the housed community — can enjoy a night at the baseball game. Some of them are bitter about it. I asked Koen where they’ll go after the fence goes up.

“That has not been decided,” he said. “Some speak of the river, Sundial, Diestelhorst. Some speak of City Hall, front and back. Honestly, these things tend to sort themselves out. I suspect and am hoping that the wheat will be sorted from the chaff. Also, think shade.”

Editor’s note: Beginning Thurs. July 26, all aNewsCafe.com’s lead stories, including R.V. Scheide’s columns, such as the one here today, will be available for paid subscribers only. The remainder of aNewscafe.com will remain free for everyone to read.  Click here to subscribe. Thank you for your support of community journalism. 

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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