Faces of the Homeless: Matt

Matt Payne
Matt Payne

Several weeks ago, when Matt Payne showed up at Beard Brook Park with a black eye and a face full of cuts and bruises, word got around that he’d been beaten by the police. Even though few knew why, everyone knew he’d been in jail and only recently gotten out. Matt had been known to use methamphetamine, and most people probably assumed he’d been busted for something associated with drugs.

In fact, the police had held Matt for observation after he was seen walking along the railroad tracks south of Modesto. Matt is easy to notice because he’s in constant motion. Even when trying to stand still, his head tilts, his legs twitch, his arms writhe, and his hands twist.

Despite his involuntary bodily convulsions and inability to hold his head straight, Matt insists he’s not disabled. “I’m not handicapped,” he says emphatically. He doesn’t know why his body moves so much, but will not allow any suggestions he’s in anything but good health.

A few years ago—he’s not sure exactly when—Matt was hit by a car on his way to work at Long’s Drugs* in Gilroy.

“It broke my femur,” he says. “I didn’t get no rehab. I should have got rehab, but I didn’t. I went back to work two days later with a big ole heavy splint.”

Matt says he’s also worked at Banana Republic and in a packing shed stacking “real heavy” pallets.  He says he was walking along the railroad tracks because he was on his way to Merced to see his family and, “It’s not safe to walk on the freeway.”

When asked why the police beat him, he corrects the story. “It wasn’t the police, it was an inmate,” he says. Then he begins laughing hysterically.

“He couldn’t believe it when I didn’t go down. It didn’t even hurt,” he says. “I ain’t no punk; I ain’t no punk,” says Matt, laughing. When he laughs this way his body gyrates even more and it seems he could hurt himself.

Matt says the inmate wanted to trade a sandwich for Matt’s phone privileges. “They’re worth a lot more than a sandwich and I told him so,” says Matt, continuing to laugh. “I wouldn’t trade. I wouldn’t trade.”

Matt spends nights at the Salvation Army Shelter in Modesto. Recently, he’s avoided methamphetamine because, “It really messes me up.”

He loves his mother and tries to visit when he can, but says, “I can’t stay with her because she’s busy taking care of my younger brother. He’s got Huntington’s disease. She has to take care of her sister’s children too. I stay there sometimes but not for too long because she has too much to do.”

Matt says his father is deceased. He can’t remember him ever working. He says his mother told him, “never to back down,” and that’s why he’s so fearless. “She always fought for us too,” he says.

Matt loves his family very much, but says he’s had trouble with his older brother. “He used to beat me up one day, then hug me and tell me he loves me the next,” he says. After a long pause, he adds, “He hung my dog. He hung my dog. I heard my dog screaming at night and I had to run outside and cut him down. It was really bad.”

Matt’s not sure how long he’s been homeless; lately, he has more and more trouble keeping track of time. He says he’s thirty-nine years old and positive about the future. “We can always change,” he says.

*Long’s Drugs was sold to CVS in 2008

Eric Caine
Eric Caine
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.
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  1. Stanislaus county should start a movement toward rehabilitaing the homeless. These people have no way up without our help. We could be doing more. Im happy to volunteer or help in a focus group to come up with ideas we can implement.

  2. Good ideas Kelly. There is a group forming now to assist in the “Focus on Prevention” efforts of the county. We will be doing more to encourage people like you.

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