www.iPoet.com: Feature: PEOPLE ARE TREES TOO
Online post date: May 28, 1999
- News Story: EDGE CITY
a reprint of the East Bay Express article of that name
by Chris Thompson, reporter, and
Faith Cathcart, social documentary
April 9, 1999: page 5
(page 5 OF 5)
By the time we pull around the rear of Golden Gate Fields, the rain is falling at a steady pace. The entrance to the plateau runs up against a wide parking lot behind a chain-link fence that demarks racetrack property. McElree has a line on four twelve-foot by sixty-foot "modular trailers"-potential temporary housing for the homeless. The racetrack's management has already given him permission to store them on the parking lot for a while. When the squatters are evicted from the landfill, McElree hopes he'll be able to shelter some of them here. If only he can get those trailers in time.
The landfill camp could be worse; McElree says he's been to places in Oakland that would haunt your dreams. But it's no picnic in Albany, he says. "We got one guy out there named John, we're really worried about him," McElree frets. "If we get those four modulars, our next job is raising the money to get him some help. He's been out here a very long time, with almost no human contact. He's been in an accident at some point in time, and he doesn't have good mobility, so he has a tendency to lie there for very long periods of time, and his circulation's gettin' bad. We really need to work on that; we try to get him up and moving around a little bit. If he's got gangrene, I haven't seen it. But he doesn't want to do anything; he just lies there. Your hands are kinda tied. If he really needed help, I think we could get him to go, but it would take a little work."
The landfill residents park their bikes and line up at the side of the ambulance. Almost all of them are white and male, although some are women so prematurely aged and street-hardened that I mistake them for men at first. I've rarely seen homeless men this old walking around on the street; it's shocking to find out that they exist. One man has a brown road map of a face, the vague eyes of approaching senility, and a bald pate surrounded by snow-white hair that trails down into soiled, rainsoaked tips. His tennis shoes are held together with duct tape and string-his feet must be freezing. One of McElree's assistants hands the old man a white plastic bag filled with a sourdough loaf, some Clif Bars and MREs, and Spam-the standard Operation Dignity care package.
One couple stops by on their bikes, and the man leans into the ambulance. "You have any clothes, by chance?" he asks.
"Well, we have some weather gear. Do you want that?" McElree says. "Naw."
"I got some sweaters here, but I don't know if they'll fit. Socks?"
"Yeah." The two of them stuff their new socks inside their jackets and wheel their bikes around. Plastic jugs hang from their handlebars as they ride off in search of a spigot.
We hear that John got a new bike, so he should be mobile. Because of his legs, John can't-or won't-walk anywhere; when his tricycle broke a few weeks ago, he was stranded inside his tent. But now that he can move around again, McElree hopes he might show up for some food. When he doesn't, we start to worry. "John's on Social Security. There's no reason for him to be out here," McElree grumbles.
A man named Robert, a Hawaiian with medium-length hair and a mustache, is usually the first to hear the ambulance siren. He's made it his job to ride around the landfill and tell everyone that McElree's here. "Altogether, I've lived out here for four years, something like that," Robert says. "I don't mind it, 'cause you get your little sense of freedom, and I just got so fed up with the social world, all this dog-eat-dog crap about jobs and everything, that I just said, 'I don't wanna deal with it no more.' I found myself someplace that's a little out of the way, where I could make a little bit of money and live for free. I quit a job where I was making $3,500 a month, just so I could get away from society. And now they're gonna take this away from us.
"To me, it doesn't seem fair. Some people don't like what other people are doing out here, but you know, I can't control what other people do, but what I do is my business, and I just try to keep to myself. So I don't like what's gonna happen, but how you gonna stop it? When City Hall says they're gonna do something, they're gonna do it. We could probably put up a little fight with them and stuff, but in the long run, we're not gonna end up winning. We're just gonna have to find someplace else or something."
When McElree first began coming to the camp, Robert figured that people who intend to live out here ought to come prepared and not wait for someone to drop off free sleeping bags. But then the cops picked him up for outstanding warrants, and while he was in jail, someone burned his shed down. When Robert returned, he was mighty glad to see McElree again. I ask him if he remembers the time when one of the residents was set on fire, and Robert nods. "Yeah, Bonnie got set on fire. The guy's supposed to get a lot of time. He was a sicko, I could tell he was a time bomb getting ready to go off. It was his birthday, and he was like, 'Nobody will talk to me.' We were just kinda laughing at him and stuff. But I could tell by the way he was acting that something was gonna happen. That girl didn't do nothin' to him, but he set fire to her tent and tried keeping her in while it was on fire. She lived, but she got burned pretty bad. She's out of the hospital now, but she's pretty traumatized. She don't act the same like she used to. She came and visited us recently, but won't go near that site."
As Assistant City Administrator Ritzma arrives to open the gate, one final figure appears over the plateau ridge and coasts down the hill. A thin, white, middle-aged man, with a white mustache and only one leg, rides down the wet grade in a wheelchair. His red windbreaker is ripped and torn, and one sleeve seems to have been entirely severed. His girlfriend soon follows him down, carrying his crutches. Once at the ambulance, he hops onto his crutches, and the two of them load the wheelchair with supplies and prepare to haul it back up the hill.
His name is Pat McMullin, and we chat while McElree assembles his supplies. Three months ago, the house McMullin rented was sold out from under him. He tried living in his car for a while, but the cops kept ticketing him, and the fines ate up the lion's share of his monthly $667 SSI check. Although McMullin's lived in Berkeley for ten years, he could never find anywhere cheap enough to stay for very long, just SROs and student sublets over the summer. The way things are going, he says, it won't be long before the city "pushes people like me into the sea.
"They just keep tearing you down, and you can't get up. There's no low-cost housing in Berkeley anymore. The Berkeley Inn, that church where Mike Pachovas lived, it's all gone. It's like people are saying, 'We don't want you in Berkeley no more, you're not part of our society." When I tell him about a low-income housing project being built at the corner of Dwight Way and Sacramento Street, McMullin snorts, "Sixteen units? That might clear out the space in front of Blondie's. Look, I slept in People's Park a couple of weeks ago with a guy who had multiple sclerosis, a lady who had lost two legs, and a crazy guy. There's nothing for these people. A lot of these people, they're not as articulate as I am, they can't wade through the system, so they're just walking in circles out there. Every now and then, their warrants come up, and they go to jail and get a vacation for a few days. I mean, look at this place. People came out and dumped all this crap out here, ruined the damn tidelands, and when we come out here, now they suddenly want it for something. What, to walk your dogs? Look across the water there, that's Cesar Chavez Park. Walk your dogs there." We've fed all we came to feed, and there's still no sign of John. McElree and I hop in the ambulance and slowly cruise up the hill and round the plateau, asking neighbors if they've seen him. We finally park the ambulance and hike into the forest of coyote scrub along the north shore. On the way, we run into City Councilmember Allan Maris on one of his twice-weekly hikes through the landfill. Maris is a lanky, quiet gentleman with a white beard and sunburned face. The three of us arrive at the edge of the squatter subdivision that includes John; the squalor is remarkable. Great circular patches of garbage fester above the flattened vegetation; I suspect the stench would be overwhelming if it weren't raining. Abandoned clothes lie in a sodden paste.
John's campsite is a patchwork of tents, tarps, and old blankets lashed to branches of the coyote scrub. McElree snaps on a pair of surgical gloves and crawls into the contraption as Maris and I wait outside. After a minute or two, he emerges: "He's not in there."
A neighbor calls something out from under her tent. "What?" McElree asks. "He's on top of the hill now?" Apparently, some of John's friends have moved him away from this trash heap and deposited him in a slightly cleaner section. At least he's got people taking care of him, I say to McElree. "They're robbing him, that's what they're doing," he replies. "Yes, they help him out sometimes, but there's a price for that. They take him into town and cash his Social Security checks for him, and then they buy drugs with it. He's just glad to have the company; most of the time, he just lies in here under blankets all day. He's got isolation syndrome from being out here so long. He talks to himself, and it's hard to understand him when he talks to you."
I peek inside John's tent and catch a glimpse of how he had been living. Wet blankets and rotting foam cushions and carpets lie in a jumbled heap; John spent days at a time nestled under them. The carcass of a propane stove lies in a corner beside a few milk cartons, and the remains of McElree's MREs litter the ground. John's last meal here, it seems, was a ham omelet that came out of a cardboard box.
We never find John, but we're satisfied that he's still alive. There's only so much time in the day, so we climb back into the ambulance and make the long drive back to West Oakland. In two months, I think to myself, all this will be gone. The cops will descend on the camp, and the man with no leg, the man who quit his $3,500-a-month job, the man who tried to hide his needle-they'll all have to find some other cold, wet piece of ground on which to rest. Some of them may wander alone into the dark, but some may gather together in new encampments. If they do, McElree will probably find them again. As we drive south along I-80, he's already pointing out prospects for tomorrow. "I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts there's homeless in there," he says. "And there. And over there."