Ask Chester “Utah” Hamby how long he’s been homeless, and he’ll say, “I’m not homeless, I’ve got a house and a home right here,” as he points to his “Hillbilly Hotel,” a rolling shelter of his own design. “My nickname’s, ‘Utah,’ he adds, “because that’s where I’m from.”
Hamby says he has two other designs, “the Hobo Hut,” and the, “Haul-a-House.” He’s still applying siding to the Hillbilly Hotel, and expects to finish in a day or two.
“Everything’s from dumpsters except the wheels,” he says. “I got the wheels in a trade, so to speak. I made a man I know a pair of fighting scorpions out of some copper and he liked them so much he bought me these wheels because the ones I had before were too small and my house kept dragging on the ground. Now, all I need is place to keep it.”
Hamby says he hit the road after his carpentry business failed, some three and a half years ago. But at age forty-nine, he’s starting to expect there’s a plan for his life after all.
“This must be what I was meant to do,” he says. “It’s amazing how things have worked out, almost in sequence. Like this house I have now, everything just came together in order, and so many people have helped along the way. Just the other day a very nice lady came by and said she’d see if she could help me. She said her name was Jenny Kenoyer.”
Jenny Kenoyer, of course, is one of Modesto’s City Councilmembers; she’s long been an advocate for Modesto’s homeless people. Like her fellow councilmember Kristi Ah You, Kenoyer thinks the city should have more facilities available in the way of public restrooms and places to shower, not just for homeless people, but for the public in general.
Hamby says that before he lost his business, he was a, “germophobe,” and “overly analytical.”
“In many ways, I’m more creative now. I’ve got my home designs and I’ve written a 403 page book, Seeds of Immortality. It’s been through two revisions and it’s just about ready for a final proofreading.”
Hamby thinks public officials are overlooking simple solutions to homelessness, including his own ideas for simple, moveable shelter. “I’ve got other designs and could come up with more,” he says. “Why aren’t people thinking in terms of the most inexpensive and quickest solutions?”
Hamby is able to pull his shelter from place-to-place with a bicycle, and almost certainly will have to keep rolling until authorities manage to come up with a homeless policy other than the current, “move along,” strategy. Lately, most likely because they’ve been chased from their usual locations along the rivers and in the parks, more and more homeless people have been congregating downtown, Hamby included.
“I’m really embarrassed right now,” says Hamby, when people look at his unfinished home. “It’s going to look a lot better when I get the siding on.”
For many, Hamby’s ingenuity and optimism would be anything but embarrassing. Like many homeless people, he’s remarkably able and tough. Nonetheless, he’s almost certain to be moved along soon—just another wasted resource in the unending struggle to find shelter, even when it’s right in front of us.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.