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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Homeless in Arcata


The first time I visited the Arcata Plaza I immediately noticed that there were “homeless” people hanging out in front of the bars and in the park across the street.

I later found out that it is not uncommon to see a homeless person here. In fact the area is a “magnet” for people who are homeless either by choice or from unfortunate circumstances.


I couldn’t help notice a wildly bearded guy standing in the sun. He looked like he hadn’t bathed or slept in weeks. I talked to Christopher who said he had been homeless for 8 years, “drank a lot and was in jail on and off for stupid stuff “.
He said that one time he “waved at a cop” in Fortuna and was thrown in jail”. When asked if the city of Arcata has a good program for people in his situation he responded that “it’s a good program and that he has slept in a church” but usually sleeps “under a tree”.

I asked him how he ended up homeless and he answered that his dysfunctional parents “threw him and his belongings out and he started hanging out with “gutter punks”. He had trouble speaking clearly and most likely in need of rehabilitation which is a resource available in nearby Eureka.
One guy said he “Fly’s a sign” to make enough money to keep him alive and buy gas. His signs read “Traveling Broke” or “Traveling Hungry” and he usually makes $20 per day and tries to keep his car with no less than a half tank of gas. He said he knows a guy who made 50 k one year “flying sings.”



The gentleman with the nice smile is a war veteran and I donated $5 to help him.
Like many he had "fallen on hard times".

A gray bearded guy named “Big Al” is a fixture on a corner that "he owns" in Arcata “Flying a sign”. When I took his photo as I drove by he turned and gave me the bird and shouted obscenities. This person must do pretty well because he keeps coming back day after day. The rumor is that he isn't homeless and this is his profession.
The last time I saw "Big Al" he was on the corner of Giuntoli and Valley West Blvd. and had added a grocery cart full of his stuff and a dog.



I drove up to Redwood Park and talked to a few Young homeless people hanging out at the picnic area cooking up a pot of Coffee.


They all greeted me but seemed wary and were not immediately forthcoming as I began my 2 hour conversation with them. The first guy who opened up was obviously ‘brain fried,’ his sentences incomplete with scrambled thoughts from his long history using alcohol and drugs.

However, some of these young people were obviously articulate and wanted to share their stories with me. When I posed the question to the group “what do you think of the future”, they all broke out in uproarious laughter which was so infectious that I laughed also.
They said that this way of life was a choice because they don't want to be obligated or responsible and would rather enjoy life by living for "the moment".
This could very well be the best times of their lives.


After a while they warmed up and perhaps even trusted me as they told stories about the “park maintenance” crew that repeatedly take (“steal”) their stuff and discard them in the trash. Because of this they set up camps hidden far back in the forest where most people wouldn’t go. Some of them carry their possessions on their back to avoid losing everything they own.

The encampments in the park are considered illegal by the city and have no qualms about clearing out these “forest dwellers” and their belongings.


Jeremiah told me that the park maintenance crew took 20 lbs. of dog food, tarps, and his sleeping bag. When he confronted them they called the cops and he was arrested because they uncovered a record that occurred six years earlier in Southern California when he did a “Dine and Dash”. This is when a person eats at a public restaurant but leaves without paying he explained.
He said he was hungry and desperate then and knows how to survive now.
Jeremiah sleeps in his car and makes change selling his rock jewelry.


A young woman named Tavia left an abusive relationship recently and had nowhere to go so she decided to live with the “Forest dwellers” for the last 3 days. When I asked her how it was she answered “it’s scary”! The reason it is scary she say’s is because “you don’t know who to trust and there may be mountain lions out there”. She had a job but quit it because she feels safer here than where she was before.


There were some talented musicians in the group and they entertained me with some of their favorite songs. They had to go far back in the woods to retrieve their instruments which were hidden. It was worth the wait because these guys could earn a living playing gigs around town. They told me that they enjoy playing music in the plaza occasionally and even make some change from donations by appreciative listeners.

Jester and “The Lloyd” play the Harmonica, Ben plays the Banjo, Max plays the Guitar and they all sing. They have a good sense of humor noted by their quick answer to my question what’s the name of your group? They pointed to a sign laying on the table and said “right now we’re called Help wanted” followed by spontaneous laughter.

Their songs included “Coffee, God and cigarettes”, “Drags”, and “I’ll be there in the morning if I live”. Their music was earthy,folk and very good.



These people need basic things including; food and shelter but Jeremiah say’s “we need help with gear, sleeping bags, tarps, tents, boots, socks, plastic bags for dog poop , and a sustainable place to camp where we won’t be harassed and a restroom”.

I thought to myself there must be someone out there who can at least provide a portable john for obvious reasons.

Some say the problem with giving them a sustainable camp area is that it would attract homeless from all over the country and exacerbate the local problem .
Other members of the community complain that they don’t use the trails in the park because they’re afraid of being panhandled or intimidated by the homeless people’s dogs and they litter the forest with garbage and feces.

An article in the Times-Standard by Donna Tam raises the question of safety, citing that “Homeless camps in Arcata forests raise a fire risk”.

The homeless people that I talked to claim that “the junkies that pass through ruin it for others” and that they are willing to police their camps and keep them clean and would even work for a hand out.
That’s what I wanted to hear but I found out later from talking to members of the Native Plant Society that the state park officials won’t allow volunteer help because of “liability” issues.

Further research indicates that “homeless” issues have been at the “crisis” point for years in Arcata.
The Arcata Endeavor has been helping the poor and homeless with food and “Extreme” weather shelter for over 32 years but the City would rather have them relocate because of the problems they cite as public health and safety as well as nuisance issues. The city apparently feels that if the “Endeavor” would go away the homeless would also.


I think that the community needs to be more understanding and compassionate and perhaps the City of Arcata should use the “Hand up hand out” approach to see who is truly homeless and who are just choosing to make it a life style.

On April 9 I attended a conference on Poverty and Homelessness at the Arcata Community Center. When I walked in I noticed a young man sitting in the back of the auditorium near the door with his back pack. He had a cloth head cover and a dark bushy beard with a tubular braided section in the center below his chin about a foot long. He appeared to be dozing in and out as he sat there and responded when I said good morning to him.

At the first break I went back and sat down next to him and started a conversation. Bret was apparently the only "homeless" person there and was very articulate.

He told me many things but mainly that he prefers to live outside because he doesn't like the toxic chemicals that are in most homes. He spoke of how the chemicals come from the carpets and noted that they are a culprit in destroying the ozone.

Until recently when he was banned from HSU campus for loitering after hours he liked to spend time in the library where he sometimes fell asleep. When that happened he would be told to leave while others (students) who also slept were not bothered.

He was ticketed recently for sleeping in public and was told by the judge that he would have to do community service.

During our conversation a lady who works with the homeless came over and said "hello Bret I want you to know that you will get 5 hrs.toward your community service obligation for attending the conference today".

When she left Bret told me that he comes down to the Community center often to use their restrooms and wash. He just came in to get warm on this day.

Bret is an Eagle scout but says his parents pressured him into the program. The best thing he liked about it was the summer camps which got him outdoors and away from home.
I invited him to eat during the lunch hour and he noted that the food was much better than the food provided locally for the homeless and poor. His plate was filled to the brim but he ate it slowly as he talked to me about his diagnosis as a "paranoid schizophrenic".



Some of the homeless that hang out around the Arcata Plaza have mental issues.

I've learned many things about homelessness and realize
that it is a very complex issue of which I have barely scratched the surface. In todays economic environment homelessness will only get worse if society doesn't join together to solve the many issues.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is really an eye-opener and a good blog!Down here in Santa Rosa, California,The homeless have more options,and alot of them are career homeless,going from shelter to shelter and back again. The powers that run the shelters try to help them get jobs and get back on their feet,but only twenty percent are willing or able to do so. For most it is a cycle that goes on for years,and even is sometimes generational.

metasequoia said...

Very nice article, Terry. Maybe you should be an investigative reporter? :)

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