“Ranked in order, I honestly believe the most common causes of homelessness for this age group [18–24] are family, followed by mental health issues, and, third, drug or alcohol abuse,” explains Alexandra Cochran, 28, a three-year veteran volunteer at Urban Street Angels. “Of course, sometimes more than one of those three issues are true.”
I sit with Cochran (who came to San Diego from Pittsburgh by way of Brooklyn) at a long card table near the door of the spacious community room at Missiongathering Church in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood. It’s a Tuesday evening. The night’s guests, about 25 teens and early 20-somethings, mill across the large room’s carpeted floor. They find crisp linens and cots along its walls. Each also finds a little personal real estate beneath the nondescript room’s ceiling ready to be claimed as her or his own. Some partake of late-night snacks laid out by volunteers near the church’s kitchen at a far end of the room. Others take advantage of showers, no-charge haircuts, or a consultation by visiting Family Health Centers of San Diego.
“Where drugs are the main cause of homelessness among this population, more often than not, it’s the drug addictions of their parents and the families that they were born into and which they left in their early teens straight into homelessness that’s to blame,” says Cochran. “You can kind of see for yourself right now... It might surprise you, but I don’t think any of these kids are high or drunk.”
I do look. And later I talk to a few kids. No one seems high, certainly not on anything more than maybe marijuana in one case.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seems to agree with Cochran’s assessment. “Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home....” The agency also says that in 2014 there were more than 45,000 homeless minors surviving alone on America’s streets. In 2016, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless conducted the most comprehensive census in history of San Diego’s population of homeless youth. It revealed that at least 145 “unaccompanied minors” live on our streets. At the same time, another 685 between the ages of 18 and 24 are also homeless in San Diego. That age group represents a “sweet spot” of youth who are most likely to be ready to be helped out of homelessness, according to officials at Urban Street Angels.
Humiliating beach showers
I ended my own experience of recurring homelessness, caused by my dad’s alcoholism, by leaving home and quitting school at age 14. I passed myself off as an 18-year-old and landed a decent-paying office job. I could type very quickly, and I could navigate the desktop computers of the mid-1980s. I also worked a fast-food job at night. I’m proud of myself for escaping homelessness, but I still feel guilty about having left my little brother to endure a couple more years alone with our dad.
I’m not eager to recall the first-hand bafflement that comes to a 12-year-old mind sitting curbside as happy faces tucked snugly inside automobile safety glass rush by. My young soul craved answers: “What’s so different about me? Why do they get to be safe and sound in their mom’s car? Why do they get to be so legitimate looking? Why am I stuck out here in the heat (or the cold)? Why are their stomachs quiet while mine’s making all this noise? Why do those kids inside that Mercedes get to laugh, while my little towhead brother keeps hacking up green snot. Why doesn’t Daddy take him to the hospital? Why can’t we have a house or at least an apartment? Huh, God? You’re not even there, are you?”
It’s been about 35 years since I was a homeless 12 and 13-year-old with my father and little brother, Michael. It was a three-month period in the 1980s and then again for another three months just before I turned 14. I’m ashamed to say that the proposition of talking to these homeless youth so up-close-and-personal really rattles my now decades-old comfort zone.
I’ll be 50 next year. That period of homelessness was a mere six months of my entire half-century on this planet. And only now do I realize how both scarred and scared I have been because I was homeless for six months during my childhood.
The first stint of homelessness with my dad was in San Diego. For some reason, even though he was single and homeless, Daddy had two cars. He slept in the Ford LTD. My brother and I slept in his old Cadillac Fleetwood. Then we migrated north to Orange County. He sold the cars, bought a van. We took showers at the beach in Huntington. I found it absolutely humiliating. It was the materialistic 1980s. It was obvious we were homeless when Daddy hauled out the cheap shampoo and conditioner and made me and Michael use it at showers intended for rinsing sand off your feet or wetsuit after a day at the beach. We lived in a van in Costa Mesa, and finally in a homeless shelter in the City of Orange.
“It’s the bugs...”
...Levi Dippolito tells me. I’ve interrupted his search for a spot at Urban Street Angels, where he’ll camp out this Tuesday night. “That’s the worst part of sleeping outside. You always have to find a place where there aren’t too many bugs. You can’t help but worry about what’s crawling on your body at night.”
Dippolito is slight of build and handsome. He looks much younger than his 20 years and emanates a youthful vulnerability. He was born and raised in San Diego. “I started out borderline homeless, because I was with my mom. She was homeless, but she was also with a friend who — well, they were always in borderline homelessness, too.”
Surviving as a homeless youth in San Diego, Dippolito says, is all about resources — knowing what you need as well as when and where to find it. Tuesday nights with Urban Street Angels is a perfect example, he says. “As long as you have the resources you need, it can be not so scary. San Diego Youth Services is one. Kickstart is another. I just learned about Urban Street Angels. This is my first time here.”
The kids I talked to at Urban Street Angels’ Tuesdays-only shelter said the people and the place are marked especially by mellower volunteers and an overall “vibe” that is milder and calmer than any other shelter at which they’d ever stayed.
“You hear that?” Dippolito interjects midway through our interview.
I tell him I don’t really hear anything unusual, nothing more than sounds you might hear in a family room where the TV is on as some family members head for bed while others stay up to watch Jimmy Kimmel.
“I know...” His voice trails off. “It’s nice.”
A few nights before he had awoken outdoors somewhere in East Village to find cockroaches crawling on his body. He didn’t realize that in the darkness he had chosen a spot to sleep near a drainpipe — a portal for vermin that he’s learned through experience to avoid.
“You get so-o-o-o tired,” he says. Then I see it, the toll of homelessness writ plainly across Dippolito’s face, exhaustion you’d expect to see on the face of a middle-aged wage-slave whose just lost his only friend. He sighs, “Everything is hard. Where am I going to wash my face? Where am I going to use the bathroom? How am I going to eat this morning? You’re like anybody. You wake up and say, ‘Damn, a cup of coffee would be nice right now. But it can take a couple of hours to make that happen. Some days you’re so exhausted by the time it’s dark that if you make a mistake like, where you decide to lie your head down, you might wake up with bugs on you.”
Rather than spending the next morning working to find a way out of homelessness, Dippolito explains, one can spend half a day trying to find a shower or at least a sink at which to rid oneself of the sense of being a human roach nest. “All you want is just to reclaim your humanity at that point,” he says.
Dippolito’s heretofore dignified demeanor seems suddenly threatened. I don’t push. It’s time to move on. But he asks me to wait. I ask him what he would tell someone younger than himself who suddenly found himself homeless. His voice softens and he thinks for a minute. “There is hope. There are resources and people who are willing to help you.”
Focused on me
Shay Brown is 23. She’s been homeless for “a few weeks.” She’s staked out her personal space for the evening by placing several neatly packed reusable grocery bags, carry-on cases, and backpacks around her, dispersing them symmetrically on the ground and across a sofa where she sits. Somehow Brown has alchemized around her an energy that could be described as intensely private. It’s hard to cross into her boundary, but I do.
“I’m a little tired, but sure we can talk.” Her voice is soft and lilting.
Brown is uncommonly precise in the way she enunciates her consonants, especially the letter T. She says she ate before coming to Urban Street Angels and promises I’m not keeping her from the pizza I see being laid out as a late-night snack. Brown seems a little shut down, though not exactly standoffish. “This is my second time here,” she says. “Last time I came, I had my boyfriend’s mom with me, so I wasn’t alone. This time I’m alone. I don’t know where my boyfriend is, and it’s a little upsetting.”
Brown is a beautiful, young woman of color. As an African-American experiencing homelessness, she says she has chosen to sleep outdoors on occasion rather than face what she says is racism inside some shelters and other homeless-services facilities. I nevertheless ask Brown if this organization is different than any of the other shelters.
“I know when someone cares and when someone doesn’t,” she replies. “I know when someone’s here to help. I know Jerry’s here to help.”
She speaks of Jerry Troyers, founding boardmember of Urban Street Angels — more about him later. Brown first encountered him when the organization’s main work was taking food and services out to homeless youth on the streets every Friday night.
Shay Brown wants to be a political scientist. She says she knows how she’s going to get there. “I start school [at San Diego City College] in a couple of weeks,” she says. “I’ve applied for financial aid. I’ve been approved. I will use my award for housing and food, just like you’re supposed to do. I love politics and that’s what I’m studying.”
Brown knows where her blind spots are as well. “It’s him. It’s the boyfriend. I don’t do drugs. I’m not someone who can be around that. I am now focused on taking care of me. But it’s hard when you love someone so much.”
I envied “normal”
It’s tough to describe the pang of an empty stomach at age 13, when your body is rapidly growing, but you’re homeless, and your dad’s broke yet somehow patronizing a beer bar while you and your brother wait outside for him hour after hour. I learned years later that when we were broke, Daddy drank by beating drunker men at pool. I remember feeling sick with envy watching kids around my age getting in and out of “normal” cars with “normal” parents for a “normal” family dinner at the Chuck E. Cheese down on the other end of the strip mall. God, I wanted to be “normal.”
Is there a feed tonight?
The warm air inside my Prius is comforting as I look for the glowing digits on the console that tell me it’s 53 degrees outside. I’m in Ocean Beach, mid-January. It’s 15 minutes after 5 p.m. and the sun has just set. Whatever sunlight remains in the short daylight hours of this wet day is blotted out by the bloated clouds that burst just after I park the car and start walking. Rain hits the pavement so noisily that the figure walking toward me from the ramp of an alley off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard just a few feet away from where I now stand in a church parking lot between Cape May and Brighton Avenues has to shout in order to be heard.
“It’s freezing, man!” The figure is a shivering, thoroughly drenched male of about 19 or 20. He’s tall and lanky — maybe 6´1˝ and 145 pounds. “Do you know if there’s a feed tonight?”
I surmise “a feed” is a street term for when groups, such as Urban Street Angels, feed hungry people.
“Yeah, man,” I reply. “The guy who coordinates the —” I don’t want to say “feed.” It makes me think of farmers and livestock. “The guy who coordinates volunteers to bring food down here is running a little late, probably because of the rain.” The lanky guy nods and asks for a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke. Sorry, man.”
He meanders off, shivering.
Lanky looks ravenous. I feel another pang of survivor’s guilt about how long it’s been since I’ve felt that kind of hunger. I walk over and tell him I’m a journalist. Would he mind chatting about how he ended up here? Does he consider himself a homeless youth?
“Yes, I’m homeless; but I’m not the talking type,” he answers. “I’m not big on talking to the media either.”
He sounds like he’s talked to reporters before, maybe recently — even rolls his eyes. I feel like a gawker, like a zoo-goer. For a second, I’m ashamed. Then I see another possible source. Maybe I’ll let him know I’ve been in his shoes before.
“Hey, man: you got a second?” He’s willing to chat. His name’s Samuel, 22, originally from Nashville. It takes some time for him to open up, but we get to know each other as the cold, wet, wind beats at our faces over the course of a couple of hours.
About 45 minutes in, I ask him if he’s hungry.
“I never get too excited when it comes to food,” says Samuel, who tells me his last name but asks that we not print it. He thinks there may be a bench warrant out on him for not paying a ticket issued to him for smoking a cigarette on the beach.
“When it comes to food and eating, sometimes it happens and sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”
Samuel’s thick-framed and a tall guy. He speaks with a regionally indistinguishable accent. His face borders on childlike. “Ah,” he says, “that’s because I just had a shave!”
The lanky guy comes back toward us from a circle of people who’ve now gathered under a large tree at the front end of the parking lot near Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Urban Street Angels’ director is on his way with food. This I know because I’ve been on the phone with him. The crowd is restless in the rain. Lanky guy asks again if there’s going to be a feed, this time orienting his query more toward Samuel than me. Samuel says he thinks so. I assure him hot food is on the way.
Fifteen minutes later more people arrive. But Lanky’s had it. He marches off, leaving contrails of frustration in his wake.
“They’re not coming,” he says.
“Don’t worry, he’ll come back,” Samuel says. “I’m ready to move back to Nashville. I think I could do better, maybe up north, maybe in Northern California. Maybe I could get a job as a hired hand on a farm. Then I’d always be able to eat and grow my food.”
I’m not sure how to respond to his oversimplifications or his contradictions. Instead, I relate a memory of something a friend of mine, who was from western Pennsylvania, said once. We had been sitting in my car at an intersection on Benedict Canyon Drive in Los Angeles waiting for a light to change. Tom, looking around at the palm trees, the Bentleys, and the Mercedes surrounding us, as well as the pretty, seemingly contented people walking and jogging by, began a dialogue that went something like this:
“You know, Thom, this isn’t normal.”
“What’s not normal? You mean all the wealth here?”
“Not just that.”
“This!” Tom had said raising both hands above his head. “It’s not like this in the rest of the country. Everything’s not okay. It’s like you guys in California think everything’s okay. But it’s not okay, Thom. Everything’s not okay.”
“Totally!” Samuel agrees. “The rest of the country isn’t like this, man. It isn’t like California, especially if you’re broke and you’re homeless.”
A man waiting for dinner while sitting with his dog in an older-model Toyota pickup parked near us unexpectedly chimes in. “I know what your friend was talking about!” The guy, who at first glance appears pretty rough around the edges and longer in the tooth than the younger folks around us, says loudly in a slightly fried voice from his pickup’s cramped cab. “I know exactly what your friend was talkin’ about, man!”
I move toward his open window.
“It’s like this,” he says. “I’ve hitchhiked all over this half of the U.S., dude. Only here in California do they run you fucking dick-ragged.”
There’s a new expression. I realize as I listen to the guy’s voice and peer into his baby-blues that he’s younger than first glance suggested.
“You’re not allowed to sleep anywhere,” he goes on. “You’re not allowed to stand anywhere. You’re not allowed to hang out anywhere. You’re not allowed to piss. You’re not allowed to eat anywhere. You’re not allowed to talk to each other. That’s if you’re a street kid. Now, the yuppies can do anything. They can stand together on any street corner in any size crowd they want.”
He tells me that law enforcement in California is the most unforgiving he’s encountered as a humble traveler. Unwilling to give his name, he says our state’s cops engage in overly vigilant surveillance, unrelenting enforcement of minute local ordinances — my description; his was not printable — and, according to him, are more willing than cops in adjacent states to “bully” and to allegedly violate the constitutional rights of homeless people.
Enter the Sergeant
“CLEAR THE SIDEWALK! You cannot block the pedestrian walkway!”
San Diego Police Department’s Sgt. Dave Yu could not have arrived at a more inauspicious moment. Our interview and the darkness of the night are broken by flashes of blue and white light from Yu’s Ford Explorer police cruiser at the corner of Brighton Avenue and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.
The brightness of his light bar is multiplied by the water-covered surfaces on this church-lined stretch into Ocean Beach. The natural sounds of rain and wind are disrupted by a blast of Yu’s amplified voice-of-authority broadcast over his outboard speaker.
“People need to be able to walk by you on the sidewalk. DO NOT BLOCK THE SIDEWALK!”
The irony of Sgt. Yu’s ensuring these hungry folks don’t prevent any of Ocean Beach’s better-off residents from enjoying an evening stroll during the biggest rainstorm in half a decade is not lost on anyone waiting to be fed. Nor is it lost on two young couples who have simultaneously arrived with donations.
I ask Dave Yu for a quick interview. He says okay, but only if it’s not recorded; so I turn off my device. It’s too wet to take notes. But he told me the same story he told reporter Delinda Lombardo for a Reader story in August of last year: “What really got to me is, I saw a dad walking with his kid and these two guys sitting there asked him for cigarettes or money and the dad just ignored him, and the guy goes, ‘F-you. I hope your kid dies.’ I was, like, Wow. I can’t believe this. So I go up to them and say, ‘Hey, is that necessary?’ He’s, like, ‘F-you, it’s my First Amendment Right, you pig, blah-blah-blah,’ and I said, ‘Yeah it’s your right, but it’s not cool to do this.’”
I ask Sgt. Yu — who tells me that all of the 25–30 people who have gathered at the Episcopal Community Center are dangerous — if it’s fair to judge all homeless youth by that one encounter. He says the people I’m interviewing are taking advantage of the church and the people who feed them. When I tell him that I plan to spend the night with one of them, he tells me to watch my back...that I might want to rethink that.
Returning to the parking lot, I realize the guys with whom I had established a rapport now look at me a bit askance.
I ask the guy in the truck if we can continue. He says he’s been targeted by police for what he believes is harassment for nothing more than the crime of not having a place to live. (A 1983 Supreme Court decision, called Kolender v. Lawson, struck down California’s vagrancy law that previously outlawed homelessness.)
“I only have one more thing to say,” he says. “I will tell you that Officer Yu needs to be fired.” His emphasis. “Officer Yu should never have any kind of job with any authority over other human beings, ever.”
Some of the folks waiting to be fed are now huddled farther away from the tree under which they had been prior to Yu’s arrival. Before I left to interview the police sergeant, they had been closer to the alley, the sidewalk, and the church doors. They’d been standing under the tree because it served as a natural umbrella.
I was sure they had backed away because a cop car had pulled up and they were just waiting until it left to return to the tree. But as I return, some of them move even farther away from the tree... and from me. Yu’s flashing lights are still on and his car remains parked about 100 feet away, north toward the street corner. Do they think I’m affiliated with the police?
This is a dynamic of my own making. I wonder, have I removed myself so far from my past as a formerly homeless youth that when Sgt. Yu rolled up with lights on I wanted to be sure the officer knew I wasn’t part of his group? I’m not sure. But I try to reclaim the rapport I’ve lost.
“Hey, Sam, can I ask you a few more questions?”
The other guys look at Samuel. There’s a pause. He looks at them. There are about a dozen 17- to 27-year-old men wearing quintessentially O.B. homeless-hip attire. I get the sense that, while they are all passingly acquainted with one another, these guys are not a posse.
“Sure, man,” Samuel finally replies. “Do you know that cop? He’s bad. He thinks all of us are criminals.”
Samuel tells me that when he first arrived in San Diego two years ago from Nashville he was robbed. “They took my wallet, my ID, my ATM card, everything,” he says. “I had a few hundred dollars. I can’t get a new ID, because I don’t have a birth certificate. You have to have a birth certificate to get your ID in California. There are no exceptions. If you don’t have ID, there’s no way out of this situation. Even if I had a birth certificate, it’s, like, 70 bucks to get your ID There’s no way out, I’m telling you.”
About this time, Urban Street Angels director Jerry Troyer pulls into the church driveway.
“I think that’s Jerry,” I tell Samuel. “He’s the guy who runs the feed. I’d like to introduce you to him. He might be able to help you get your ID and maybe even some housing.”
I barely finish my sentence and Samuel takes my cue with so much gusto, I’m surprised. By the time I catch up to Sam, he’s already grabbed Troyer’s hand and is shaking it. I hear him say he’d like to improve his life. He asks Troyer if he can take some boxes inside the church.
“Well, hello, Samuel,” says Troyer, who’s pleasantly taken aback. “It’s nice to meet you. Yeah, if you can grab that water right there and bring it in, that would be great.”
A sense of identity
As I listened to Samuel fret about losing his ID, I recalled something Jerry Troyer had told me during a previous conversation. “We have a couple of volunteers who will work with people to get them a new driver’s license or ID card, or to get them a Social Security number or those kinds of things,” he said. “A lot of people have been on the street for years and years and have not had the opportunity to get those basic things that a lot of us take for granted.”
How drastically can getting an ID change the life of a homeless young person? Profoundly, says Troyer. “I believe it gives them a sense of identity,” he said. “But also it allows them to get a job. It allows them to apply for public assistance, and just the basic act of cashing a check if they have one.”
Troyer points out that just about every basic “Life 101” building block starts with having proper ID But, in the post-9/11 era, many states have made it harder to get copies suitable for state agencies to issue identification cards and driver’s licenses. “It can be harder than you might think for some people in this situation, especially younger people who have been homeless for years. But you’d be amazed what they can do once they have identification again for the first time.”
The magic years
According to Jerry Troyer, who comes out of the kitchen after 15 or so minutes getting his band of volunteers set up to prepare the much-anticipated meal, the ages between 18 and 24 represent “magic years,” a potential golden period for ending the cycle of homelessness for many young people in Samuel’s situation.
“Studies show that if we can get to young people, if they’re motivated, during those years with the right programs, we can actually help homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24 by getting them into housing and jobs and help them become useful, productive members of society,” says Troyer.
“We have a three-pronged approach with the Friday-night outreach here in Ocean Beach that we’ve been doing for years, plus the Tuesday-night shelter that you saw in North Park at Missiongathering Church last fall,” he continues. “And we also have transitional housing for some individuals who we identify, usually first here during the Friday outreach, as being potential candidates who might benefit from more intensive help.”
Troyer tells me he’s given his contact information to Samuel, whom he sees as a candidate for more intensive help. “I told him to come and stay with us on Tuesday in North Park at the shelter, where we can talk about other services Urban Street Angels may be able to help him with,” he says. “I think we can help him.”
I keep can eye out for Samuel. I haven’t yet asked if he’ll allow me to tag along with him to wherever he plans to sleep tonight. He emerges from the kitchen, having finished helping Troyer’s volunteers unload the vehicles. When I ask if I can stay with him through the night, he’s cool with it. He says he wants readers to understand what it’s like to be young and homeless in Ocean Beach.
“It’s not so bad, but it’s not so good either,” he says. “I have my own carport where I sleep. It’s in front of an abandoned car. Well, I can’t say if it’s abandoned. It’s a classic car. It’s a —”
The vehicle is unique enough that naming the make and model of the vintage American muscle car in front of which he feels safe making his bunk might put an end to Samuel’s nightly routine.
“She’s a beauty,” he says. “I just curl up between the carport wall and the front end of the car and make sure my feet don’t touch the bumper or any part of the car.”
I won’t be able to sleep. The idea of even staying awake in someone’s carport in front of their classic muscle car makes me nervous. I can’t help wonder how brightly lit the space will be, and which would be safer — darkly lit or bright? If it’s dark, maybe there’s less chance of the car’s owner shooting us if this happens to be the night when he discovers uninvited sleepover guests.
On the other hand, if it’s bright, maybe there’s less chance of, well... I don’t really know Samuel, do I? He did admire the late-model iPhone I’m using to record our interview. It’s easily worth a couple hundred bucks.
“Hey, man — you go first!” Samuel taps my shoulder. The line has moved while my mind drifted. “The food’s really good here. I saw what they’re making; it’s gonna be great, all from scratch!”
We’re near the back of a line among about 25 to 30 other people inside a courtyard of the Episcopal Community Center along the north, window-lined wall at the center of this low-slung, post-modern complex on the southeast corner of Brighton and Sunset Cliffs. My mom lives just down the block.
I’ve seen the regular gathering of homeless folks who gather here for the free food, toiletries, and other items every Friday night through the years. The sight of people less fortunate than me being helped has always elicited gut-level positive responses as I’ve waited to make that sometimes harrowing left turn from Brighton onto Sunset Cliffs to head out toward Interstate 8. But, I confess, I’ve also felt repulsion, which, at best, can be couched in the platitude, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Now I stand in line among the hungry and homeless at the Ocean Beach Episcopal Community Center, and I realize something. “This could be the line at the DMV, or the check stand at Vons,” I mutter.
Samuel asks me what I said as we move forward in the line. When I confess, he chuckles and says, “Maybe we’re just tired or cold because of the rain. We are like everyone else. We have to get along with each other. When you see drama between us traveling kids it’s because we don’t have TV! It’s kind of like we’re acting sometimes.”
Can’t go home(less) again
As we draw closer to the dining-hall door, I see Jerry Troyer greeting guests entering the warmly lit room. Still midway through the line with Samuel, I peer in from the cold to see about 30 place-settings meticulously set for a home-cooked meal that’s almost ready to be served to Urban Street Angels’ guests.
“Guests.” That’s what Troyer calls the homeless youth his group serves. There’s nothing cute, ironic, or thematic about the way he invokes the word. Before letting Samuel know that I’ll probably stand with Troyer in order to ask him a few more questions while he eats, I ask him about how he stays warm on a cold night like this.
“I have a blanket,” he says. “I know how to stay warm; the main thing is knowing how to be safe and dry. You know what’s harder than you might expect about being homeless? Staying hydrated. You can’t just go into a shop or restaurant and ask for water most of the time. You have to go to the faucet down by the beach and guzzle water all at once. Or, you have to buy it. If you’re new to this or you’re a new kid on the streets in Ocean Beach you need to know there’s a convenience store on the corner of Bacon and Newport where you can buy a large jug for a dollar-fifty and they’ll let you fill it with water every time after for free. Other than that, there’s the shower at the beach or the library.”
Samuel loves the Ocean Beach library.
“That’s where I go in the mornings after I stretch and find something to eat. I read, I use the internet. I read a lot of books and learn things I missed in school. I’ve become more educated the last two years as a homeless dude. I just want a job now, man.”
He says he worked at a pizza place back in October for three weeks. “It was great because they were paying me in cash,” he says. “I didn’t need an ID to cash a check, but then my hours got cut down to zero.”
We get to the doorway. I step up to Troyer and tell him about Sgt. Yu’s visit. “There’s so much misunderstanding and generalizing about young people who, for whatever reasons, don’t have homes,” he says. “Are there some bad apples? Of course; but does that mean we throw them all away? Of course not. Will we get taken advantage of here and there? Maybe. I don’t think we should let that make us cold and hard.”
One of the homeless folks being fed asks if there are dog biscuits.
“Oh, darn!” says Troyer. “We forgot to bring them. I’m sorry.”
That’s okay, the man says, walking away with his scruffy, small pooch. I offer to run down the street to buy some.
There’s a lull in the storm. It’s just about as far to my car as it is to CVS drugstore on Bacon Street and Santa Monica. I pull the umbrella out of my jacket and hightail it on foot. En route, at the northwest corner of Saratoga and Sunset Cliffs, I encounter two guys who had been in line ahead of Samuel and me. One has long, wavy hair. He looks like a very Nordic version of Jesus. The other wears an ostentatious, furry club-kid hat. Both are about 30 and carry wooden sticks about as tall as they are. I ask if they enjoyed their dinners. Turns out they didn’t eat.
“That Samuel kid you were talking to,” the guy with the hat begins— his name is Colton Syverson, he says he’s a 29-year-old Army veteran — “he’s a good kid. But you know, that’s kind of bullshit about the water. You can get water anywhere. Just buy a bottle of water, man. At the end of the day, being homeless is a choice. There’s always something you can do. Earn some money.”
“Some people just aren’t cut out to survive,” adds the Jesus-looking guy. His name is Jesse.
Syverson jumps back into the conversation with a final, albeit obtuse, thought before I head off to complete Operation Milk Bone. “I’m just stupid and lazy, and I don’t want to do shit,” he says. “And, I’m good-looking. So I play music and I do things for money — not sex things. I also sell party accessories,” he continues.
I realize the deviation that was my interview with Jesse and Colton Syverson has taken more time than I should have given it. By the time I return with the dog biscuits, it’s raining again and people are streaming out of the church. Fortunately, Samuel’s still there. But he’s hanging out with someone I don’t recognize from earlier. He’s about to leave. Samuel says he’ll catch me later.
I remind him that we were going to hang out for the rest of the night. He says maybe next time, and heads out with his friend, bulging backpack strapped around his shoulders. I’m crestfallen, yet somehow relieved.
I consider finding a spot to sleep on my own. But what would be the point? It doesn’t take that much imagination to think back to 1980 and recall the feeling of sleeping for three months atop the poly-wool blend Star Wars blankets my mom had sent me and my little brother for Christmas 1979. The seepage of cold up from the sheet metal of my dad’s ’67 Econoline van where we slept during those homeless months couldn’t feel that much different than the cold seeping up from the concrete through Samuel’s blanket in his carport tonight.