As I mentioned in some columns a few months past, I’ve strained the relationships I have with my sheltered neighbors over the issue of homelessness. Sometimes I feel like that one lone juror who holds out against the other eleven well-intentioned civic-minded peers who feel the culprits are guilty, of something. All I have to go on is a gut suspicion that the defendants aren’t guilty. But I can’t prove it.
The scenario in front of my building and the two adjacent streets that run perpendicular to my block, are overcrowded every night with sleeping bodies snuggle in sleeping bags, blankets and sometimes less. They can start drinking first thing in the morning. There are pee stains and drying up streams etched on to the sides of buildings, until the sun evaporates the liquid, leaving that traceable familiar intangible smell of piss and concrete. And that’s just Number One of our problems we all share living on this block.
The trouble started two months ago when my neighbor, Paul, who lives at the end of my block, and I mean, at the end of my block, was told to move from the spot he had placed his cardboard mattress and sleeping bag. There was a new owner who took over the building he was sleeping in front of, and was told he had to go.
Paul doesn’t drink. Oh, he’s homeless. If you weren’t familiar with all the different people who live on the street, you couldn’t probably tell him apart from the other multi-layered wanderers who roam our burg. Paul’s been my neighbor for over five years. Over the years I’ve brought him food, clothes and in the old days, maybe some marijuana for the cold and lonely nights he faces. I stopped giving him Weed when I noticed he would sit in his bag all day, burning his lips, getting every last toke out of the roaches I gave him. We talk all the time. It’s hard for me not to talk to someone who’s living on my block, sometimes sitting in his concert chair, low to the ground. Some days we’d talk politics, San Francisco, the Giants. Other days we might just say, “Hi.”
My girlfriend like others, don’t appreciate when she’s leaving for work in the morning and a bearded face wrapped like a mummy says, “Good morning.” Like most people on my block, they just want to be left alone. I’ve talk to the homeless guys in sit in front of our building or around the corner, about not talking to the people who live here. They think they’re being respectful and disparaging the notion that the straights need to not be afraid of us. I said, “It doesn’t matter what you’re thinking, they don’t want to hear from you.”
This hurt their feelings, except Paul. He kind of understood. But he’s lived here for five years and he thought he had found a way to ingratiate himself, without being a problem.
Because Paul doesn’t drink, he doesn’t hang out with the rest. He goes to bed around sunset and wakes up around seven. He has breakfast. Usually something with bread and cheese and whatever goes in between. Then he moves his shopping cart in front of my place (I gave him permission, he doesn’t need it, it is legal to do) and then he goes across the street for the rest of the day until darkness begins to fall again.
But since he was told to move, life has been very uneven for Paul. The other guys are bad news for him. They get busted for drinking and for talking loud and belligerent. They create messes and force the Regs to walk around them and their icky shadows on the sidewalk. Some days, and especially if a woman has joined the group, it’s a party. There could be vomit and bodily fluids to follow until the cops come and tell them either to quiet down or rarely, to move.
So for the past few months Paul has been depressed. I asked him once where he used to live. He pointed with his fingers the spots, the locations where he used to set his bag at night before he moved to the end of my block. Where he used to live was no more than one hundred yards from his corner. For the previous five years before Paul lived on my corner, he moved around five times, each time not more than fifty feet away from the last local. I never knew what to think of that, except people don’t like change.
I’ve tried to get Paul work, but he won’t do anything that involves him leaving the block. So if a neighbor needs help moving some furniture or other heavy lifting, Paul and I do it. I give him the money. That’s how I think I’m helping him.
As often as I tried to pry to figure out what was going on with Paul, he was pretty tight-lipped. It wasn’t until about a year ago, that I found out that Paul was born in San Francisco. That he had been a carpenter and showed me his up-to-date union card for his local. It was on the job that he hurt himself and something else happened around that time, something emotional. It was during that event that Paul ended up on the street. He doesn’t give me details, I don’t go farther than he allows.
People who live in my building are from all over America. Some have been only in the building for less than five years. They want Paul and the other homeless to move. At some point in time, it’s like everyone feels they have a right to their spots, the place they unwrap their bedrolls, indoors or out.
Because of the economic times we live in, there’s no slow up on the arrivals of homeless people attracted to coming to San Francisco. It is a major problem for all concern. Today it was announced that President Obama is cutting aid to low-income homes for heating back East. And this is from a democrat.
I could get into the politics of the situation, but I’m not going to. That is not the purpose of today’s column.
Last weekend Paul told me he was moving. He couldn’t handle living over here anymore. He said if I didn’t see him one day that means he’s moved to Hunter’s Point. This is almost the last section of San Francisco that is not totally redone. You can still get mugged there on a normal night, no problem. It’s the part of town that the police still no longer respond to.
Paul said with a smile, “Out there, no one bothers you.” Referring to the drunks he has to share the street with, not my neighbors who have asked him not to park his cart in front of their building during the day.
When Paul said he was leaving, I got sad. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to follow up on him. I wanted to be able to talk to him in a couple of months to know he’s okay. I thought of giving him my email address, but that could be hard for him to access a computer. Then I thought of giving him my phone number. But I could only imagine a three A.M. call from the police or some other official voice asking if I know a homeless guy named Paul?
I didn’t know what to do.
Paul told me thanks for everything that my girlfriend and I had done for him. We shook hands and he said, “Don’t worry Jack, we’ll see other again. I know where you live.”
And I still don’t know how I feel about that.