San Diego George sleeps under an awning just past the corner of 12th and Market, "or if it's a nice day, in the parking lot across the street from the barber college." If he's up by 6:00 a.m., he can get breakfast at the Rescue Mission, and then he comes to St. Vincent's for lunch at 11:00.
"After that," he says, "no dinner, nothing until breakfast, unless you can go out and panhandle. I do the best I can, usually asking someone, will they help me get a 99-cent hamburger." He works the trolley stop at City College. If he doesn't get lucky by 11:00 p.m., the guy at the Quick Corner Market will let him have whatever hot dogs and hamburgers he didn't sell that day. "They're all hard," he says, "cooked up under the hot lights. But it takes away the hunger pain." He carries his belongings -- donated clothes, a blanket, a blue hard hat -- in plastic bags. He has been homeless for a month.
A month ago, George, 43, was living in a two-bedroom apartment in East San Diego with a woman and her nine children, none of them his own. The rent was $560 a month. He was working as a nurse's assistant at Chase Care Center in El Cajon, making $7 an hour. "That ended on [November] tenth," he says, without explanation.
Last Christmas, he gave the kids bicycles. "It was a really good Christmas for me because they didn't expect to get anything. They thought they were going to get little trinkets, and they woke up and they got pink bikes and a black bike and a blue bike -- I really did them up well. It made me feel good to see their faces -- knowing I did good, I made them happy. That was my family, and I loved them."
But the woman he lived with "started staying out all night. Then one night, she came home drunk. First, she said to get out of her room. I said, 'Your room? This is our room.' But just to calm her down, I went and sat on the couch. She came and said, 'No, I want you out of the house.' I said, 'I'm not leaving. I pay the rent.' She pulled a knife, said she's going to cut my throat. Dialed the phone, got these two thugs to come over. I don't want to get hurt, and I don't want to do nothing that's going to put me behind bars. I just left." He has been on the street ever since.
George grew up with his mother, his sister, and his three brothers in a three-bedroom brownstone on the west side of Chicago. (His father was in the Air Force and was often away from home.) "Racine and Taylor, over by Cabrini Hospital. The Jane Addams projects. They had iron doors, and when they slammed, they would slam.
"It was pretty rough there, with the gangs and everything. At the age of 14, the gangs drafted you. If you were in the neighborhood, you had to be in a gang, or they would jump you and beat you until you joined one or the other. My brother Carl, he got in one. They beat him and beat him until he did -- busted his teeth, took his clothes." George spent as much time as he could at the Boys' Club in an effort to avoid the gangs. "I'd go there, play basketball, shoot pool, and I got damned good at Ping-Pong. But after the Boys' Club closed, I had to find a way to make sure it was safe to run home." Then, just as he reached recruiting age, his mother died of asthma, and he moved to Merced, California, to be with his father.
The projects were his childhood home, and his Christmas memories from those days are happy ones. "From the time we woke up on Christmas, it was a surprise. The only thing that never surprised us, we knew we were getting holsters and guns. The Christmas stocking was a tradition. We each had a stocking full of nuts and candy and oranges and apples. We didn't get an overabundance of toys, but we got one certain something that we wanted. I remember I got a green and red Tonka truck. I got a Mickey Mouse that was about [two feet] tall -- if you moved it, it would walk. I got a Mister Peanut Butter Maker. We got air rifles, which was the worst thing, because we would dig them in the dirt and shoot the dirt at each other."
"One year, I wanted a bicycle so bad, and my dad shipped it from wherever he was. It was red with chrome fenders and the little thing on the back you sit packages on, and it was beautiful."
George decorated the family's green aluminum Christmas tree each year. "We had the old-fashioned bulbs with designs painted on them, indented in the middle." Ham was the centerpiece of Christmas dinner. And the family always went to church, at the Union Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, on Roosevelt Road. "We used to go, seemed like 24 hours a day when we weren't in school." George says he used to lead the church choir, a hundred voices strong, and that they once traveled to Vegas to sing at a convention, taking the stage immediately following Elvis Presley.
What does Christmas mean? "Family. The birth of Christ. He came to save us all. He died for our sins. It's because of His death that we have salvation and have access to it. And to know that is there for you -- I mean, this is just temporary. I would love to go to heaven. That's the only thing to look forward to in life right now. They say when you die, you go to heaven or hell. To me, this is hell right now."
George's Christianity is not warm and fuzzy; his thought of the Incarnation leads immediately to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, all so that sinners might be redeemed. "[Jesus] is coming back," he says, "and He's coming back soon. He's coming, and only the righteous ones are gonna go back with Him. The leftover ones are going where they really don't want to go."