Thursday, January 3, 2013



I started to notice it a few months ago.  First, a lone truck with a cab-over camper. It was parked on a dead-end city street near a giant elm tree in the middle of a cul-de-sac. Almost every time I passed the little-trafficked spot, the truck was there, especially in the evenings.  At night, lights were on in the camper.

After a while, another vehicle became a regular sight.  In the daytime, there'd be someone in a lawn chair, reading.  Towels or sheets draped over the insides of windshields and side windows for privacy.  A third vehicle soon appeared, looking lived-in as well.  

At first, it seemed it might be a concern for neighborhood security.  Should someone report them? For what? Were these urban gypsies doing any harm?  If I put myself in their shoes, I'd have thought I'd selected a location rather well. Quiet. Cool under the shade of a hundred-year old tree. A park bathroom nearby. Not a lot of cars going by to  disturb them. It took only a moment to realize these folks were homeless. Their cars are probably their last large material asset. And now their only physical shelter. 

After many months the situation started to seem ordinary on my trips through the park by bicycle. Living just a few blocks away, I feel a mild sense of ownership over the neighborhood, but I began to think that it would be nice if no-one bothered these resourceful campers. As long as they aren't disturbing anyone or endangering the area. We have several anecdotes to show that these particular campers have some civic pride. They seemed to become unofficial members of our loose neighborhood watch. One or two of them are quite polite, sharing resources and looking out for each other. A nearby homeowner observed that the casual drug deals sometimes seen at the park ceased once the campers took up residence.

One recent summer morning, I was riding back from errands, slowly weaving around the dead end past the old tree. I saw a new car parked in the area. A beautiful dog was lying on top of blankets and a sleeping bag piled on the sidewalk. A vibrant young woman was organizing a pile of clothing and some boxes. Her older sedan was overfull. I thought, What if this was my own fate? What if I am someday reduced to living out of a car? 

How did the campers learn about this spot? Did they meet each other elsewhere and share "hobo knowledge" about how to survive? Is there a tipping point coming, where too many will eventually make an unsupportable impact and ruin it for all? (Months later, for unknown reasons, there now seems to be only one car, and it's not there all the time.) 

Is this happening all around the city? I think it is.  Several homeless camps come and go along the river downtown, and around various empty lots in secluded places. Wooded bike paths out of sight from roadways are known spots. The police have done a sweep


or two, moving vagrant campers out at times.  There was a campaign to give bus tickets home to many of these transients in our city. At the time I wondered if there was anywhere they wanted to return to; were they still inclined to name some faraway place as their home? Did they not think of our city as their home? 

As the city grapples with the issue of the indigent or homeless, sometimes they legislate or make proclamations to try and overcome perceived side effects. Recently our city drew a line around downtown and outlawed panhandling within those bounds. It was contested in a higher court and looks like it won't hold up legally. Maybe too broad of a brush, too arbitrary a rule. Is there a better way to groom the behavior of all kinds of citizens downtown? Are we not all free to say no to a panhandler? What kind of asking campaign is legal? Is fundraising the domain of only the elite? Among other things, the rule threatened holiday bell ringers, and a dilemma emerged.

Meanwhile, historical images in black and white come to my mind. Images of early horseless carriages, overloaded with haphazardly secured objects, improbable ones; pianos and furniture. As if a new home were certain to be secured soon, with space big enough for these large material goods.  A poignant sense of hopelessness drips from the scenes. But hope is there, in their defiant sense of courage, striking out for the unknown. I'm referring to migrant photos from the Dust Bowl era, famous images captured by Dorothea Lange.  Writer John Steinbeck made stark reports on the migrant phenomenon appearing in California. He traveled around with the man responsible for trying to govern the many camps that sprang up near farm fields. The work was not enough to sustain the families, their children were not welcomed at local schools, illness and hunger was rampant. Many incurred debt just trying to buy food at local stores, sometimes owned by the same large farms they worked on. A wage may never have translated into savings. 

The homeless dynamic of those displaced after their homesteads were buried in dirt naturally would have had a fragile thread of pride, a forlorn desire to deflect the pain of stigma. Through no intention of their own, they had been wiped like dusty chalk from a chalkboard; the midwestern fields flew up in a seeming rage and made going on impossible. They clung to the possibility of finding work out west.  Large caravans 

Dust bowl era house, North Dakota   (Photo by Alex Sienkiewicz)  

traveled to California; the camps along the way made a visible event that drew attention by its sheer numbers. Though they could have been described as heroic survivors of an event of nature, they were scorned and often turned away. We only later learned that the collective effect of plowing vast areas of grassland contributed to the Dust Bowl, but a fair person would be loath to incriminate individual farmers caught up in what was the order of the day. 

At present, we seem to have a more occult homeless phenomenon, unseen by many. We don't have large caravans to observe. Instead it occurs in ones and twos, adding up to surprisingly large numbers.  It's commonly assumed that many homeless are somehow deserving or responsible for the situation they are in. Perhaps that's sometimes true. But do we feel qualified to decide which ones "chose" to live on the street?  And either way, are we right to turn to scorn? I've seen seemingly ordinary people down on their luck, trying to survive. They find a way to double up with family, or live in their car unobtrusively, keeping on the move. Staying 'under the radar.'  

I think we'd like not to think very hard about this, if only because we may be eerily reminded that our own path may only be steps away from a similar fate. We'd like to think our pure will and determination are a complete defense against ever becoming homeless. We're not at all like any of those who are homeless. Or, are we? 

If we're not called to bring every last one in out of the cold, something easier said than done, at least the graceful thing to do is to reserve judgement about their character and how they got there. 

1 comment:

  1. Just found this article from Rolling Stone. More thoughts on the subject with examples around California.