Can Life Be Lived in Dignity by Every San Diegan?
BY Rocky Neptun
November 12, 2009.
East Village, San Diego……………
Bill Foster rolls his tattered sleeping bag up carefully, not to disturb the layers of newspaper underneath, avoiding the dirt soiled sidewalk and looks at me with a smile. He knows I’ll be good for breakfast and plenty of coffee. Almost clean-shaven, ruddy-faced without many wrinkles to show his 54 years, Foster often panhandles enough change for only one meal a day. He tells me he’s just no good at it, even after all these years. He sleeps in the downtown because “there is safety in numbers;” having been attacked by territorial transients along the San Diego River bank and by neighborhood youth when he moved to a creek near Bancroft Street in Spring Valley.
“I have enough left over to cover two coffees at the roach coach over at the construction site, want to join me?” he asked. To his relief, I suggested a nearby restaurant. But first, we hiked the nearly two miles to the only public restroom on the streets of downtown at 3rd Avenue and C Street, where he could change clothes and shave. Its stainless steel walls and stalls were clean, overseen by an attendant who told me that it took years for activists in support of the homeless to get the city to agree to this facility. “But, the no-fly zones, no bums allowed areas, continue to be pushed out, block by block as new condo projects go up, away from the toilet, so more and more folks just go where they are at, especially in the mornings when they can’t make it here. “
Over bacon and eggs, Foster tells me of his former home world in northern Ohio. Most of his life was centered roundabouts the neighborhood store one block over from his parent’s house. From childhood’s fetching cigarettes at twenty-five cents a pack for his parents to penny candy, he became an employee in junior high school making deliveries. Through high school he worked and dated the owner’s daughter, finally marrying her after he became a full-fledged clerk. Inheriting the title to the store, he and his wife worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep it afloat while the neighboring factories closed up and moved their jobs to Mexico.
Carrying food debt for his neighbors split him from his terrified wife. After the 1980 divorce, he moved to San Diego with just under $1,000 in his pocket. Knowing retail, he went to work on the 11 p.m. shift at a corporate convenience store in Chula Vista; where he worked for several decades, never promoted because he was told he was “too slow,” but did manage to secure health insurance from a manager because she was afraid to work the graveyard shift. Yet, in spite of his years of service, he was terminated 6 years ago, when a new district manager decided to fire everyone with health insurance and altered the books to show Foster had stolen money. Without a previous “reference” for his work in Ohio and the “thief” jacket which effectively barred him from retail anywhere, he has been unable to find a job and lives on the streets.
“Why don’t you go to a shelter at night?” I ask him rhetorically. He smiles, knowing I know why, but eyeing my notebook open, with pen ready, and the tape-player nearby, he senses my need to record his courage. “Shelters are fine institutions, but not everyone belongs in an institution,” he chortles. “I tried going a few times but it is such a demeaning process; some staff treat you as public vermin, criminals and sickos, while, others order you about like little children or mental retards.” “I see these guys shuffling along in these prisons of poverty where their manhood, their independence, their very identity is stripped away by the desperation of accepting charity,” he spat out angrily. “They want us to accept our poverty as a personal failure, useless economic machinery in the scheme of things to be discarded, abandoned in some junk yard, like an old Chevy Monza, no spare parts available, with high walls, of course, not to disturb the scenery of others.”
“Look around you!” he pointed up Broadway, toward the ambiance of the Gas Lamp District. “They don’t want us here; they – especially the workers, clerks, cooks, cabdrivers – see us and shudder in fear at how far down the canyon of failure really is, the depths of economic Hell. Then there are all those yuppie couples and retirees who sold their big houses in a good market in far away cities and bought condos and townhouses down here, knowing full-well this area is where the un-housed lived; yet week after week they trudge down to city hall or pay others to go and complain about the presence of human beings in their neighborhoods.”
“They complain about the urine and feces, but never ask that public toilets be built; they talk of panic at seeing a scruffy, smelly, unshaven, dirty clothed person near them on the sidewalk, but never ask the city to open day care centers. They complain about being panhandled, but no one asks the government to provide minimum financial support; grocers complain about stolen shopping carts but no one ask the city to provide storage facilities for the homeless.”
“You know, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, spending cold and hot days in the library, reading the newspapers, using the Internet; the City of San Diego doesn’t want a year-round shelter because the fat cats who own this city know that minimal, scarce charity for each person individualizes the process, makes that person the culprit, the bad guy, separates him not only from himself but from himself in company with others because he has to compete with other homeless to survive” he said sadly. “All poor people must be recipients rather than participants; given something for nothing and in the American way despised for it…made to grovel, then, beg, borrow or steal a bit of dignity.”
“City government can finance charity, pay the junkyard dealers like Father Joe’s or the Rescue Mission to warehouse the poor, to keep them out of sight as much as possible, to create economic parolees with institutional mindsets of meekness and order-ability so that police can shove them around and the merchants can verbally push them along and the public can look down on them, judgmentally, scorning their scarlet lettered dirty clothes.” he almost spat across the table.
“Just like public jobs must be given to corporations to break the power of public unions; homelessness must never be seen as a public responsibility to end because then it creates a persecuted and denied minority that might deserve civil rights and help that others, like women, blacks and Gays get.” He nodded, “most of these groups have simply fought for the ludicrous right to participate in the competitive game of economic dog-eat-dog capitalism so they can buys things and pretend to be somebody.”
“The homeless, especially the chronic ones, have lost the skills to play the game and simply are seeking to survive – something to eat, somewhere safe and warm to sleep, the right to go to the bathroom in privacy and poise, and struggling to maintain a tenuous hold on self and its sanity,” he murmured while staring at an obese man in a dark suit eating with a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other shoveling food into his wide jellied mouth. “I read in the library about a Brazilian teacher who said that all poor people accept, internalize is the word he used, their low opinion of themselves and then, their cheapened self-esteem is then played upon by the rich, dominant class,” he sighed. “So it seems, every encounter between we homeless and others is built upon this dehumanizing quality; the disgusted stares of passing people, the totalitarian actions of police officers, the indifference of society and the cruelty of charity without dignity.”
“There is a place in South America, Caracas is the city, I believe, where homelessness has been abolished. Everyone is required to participate in finding shelter for their neighbors and strangers alike,” he informed me. “Abandoned buildings, unused hotel rooms, under-used warehouses and sheds, even parks are being converted to campgrounds for the poor.”
“It is the place I am going when I get enough money; learn Spanish, earn my acceptance as neighbor not foreigner, and participate as a full human being with dignity and compassion, not only for others but for myself as well.”
“Is that too much to ask of life?” he asked, tears falling into his coffee.