Every city and town had them. They were the old men on small pensions nodding on park benches or leaning up against buildings with their hands clutching small bottles of Night Train, Thunderbird, or rotgut whiskey wrapped in brown paper sacks.
The boarding houses and cheap hotels they inhabited were called “flophouses” or “rat traps.” The elevators and stairwells smelled of urine and Lysol.
Some, like Louis X (not his real name), were disabled; they got around on crutches or in wheelchairs. They didn’t need much in the way of transportation because they seldom went anywhere.
Those who could afford to drank in dive bars near their rooms. They wobbled home in the late afternoon or early evening. They went to bed early.
Like Louis X, many were veterans. They may have suffered from “battle fatigue” or “shell shock,” but never from “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” (PTSD), but only because PTSD hadn’t been researched and named yet.
Generally soused and sometimes soiled by their own waste, they benefitted from the company of men like themselves and from the security of a place to lay their heads. If they got sick or injured themselves in a fall — not an uncommon occurrence as they aged — they got to the hospital and back home because people in better circumstances watched out for them.
Oftentimes argumentative, profane, and almost impossible to live with, many were loners who had trouble following rules. The bond they had with others was fortified by booze and shared circumstances.
Today, the boarding houses and cheap hotels where men like Louis X once rented rooms are gone. Especially on the west coast, but also in many cities across the nation, gentrification has done away with them. Even dive bars have disappeared or gone upscale. Instead of cheap wine and rotgut whiskey, today’s popular bars serve rare vintages and exclusive bottlings with stratospheric price tags.
Men like Louis X didn’t disappear amidst these changes. Instead, they stayed on the streets. One day, when night fell, there was nowhere else to go.
Confined to a wheelchair and unwilling to live in a for-profit board and care home where he might have to share a room with two or three other querulous and crabby old men, Louis X has spent the last few months in a park in Modesto, where another thousand or so homeless people are scattered throughout the city.
Given a choice between giving up his bottle so he can occupy a barracks-like shelter full of coughing and snoring occupants, Louis X will keep the bottle every time. He also worries about the welfare of his dog, a constant companion. Fortunately for Louis, Modesto’s new Homeless Engagement and Response Team (HEART) has been keeping watch over people like him.
When team members learned Louis X had been diagnosed with cellulitis after a recent hospital visit, they became even more committed to getting him help.
Naturally suspicious of authority and wary of confinement, people like Louis refuse help by reflex. It takes time and experienced people to build trust and rapport.
Modesto Police Sargent and HEART Team Leader Mike Hammond has had years of one-on-one encounters with homeless people, many of whom know and trust him. Last week, he was able to get Louis X to consent to a trip to the hospital for evaluation.
“I told him I had family members in the military and that I appreciated his service to the country,” said Hammond, after Louis had been taken away by ambulance. “I told him no matter how long it took, I wasn’t going to leave him behind. That’s when he started to listen.”
Initially classifying Louis X as “gravely disabled,” Hammond and his fellow team members hope Louis will get the help he needs.’
“We checked all the boxes,” said Hammond, “but that’s not always enough.”
Over the years, close observers have learned that the needs of homeless people, even those of disabled veterans, aren’t always met by our overwhelmed systems of care. Structural upheavals in housing have reverberated along all our social safety systems, from hospitals to care homes to mental institutions. Covid has made things worse.
Many who are familiar with the predictable routines of homeless people in need of help expect to see Louis X back in his favored park any day now. If he does show up, at least Sargent Hammond and his team will be watching. And some day, maybe, Louis X will have a place to rest his head.
Richard Anderson says
Your pieces are always so educational!
I clicked on your red Night Train link and read the WIKI on Flavored fortified wines. The article credits our own Ernest Gallo recounting, “…a story in which he encountered a wino drinking on a sidewalk in Atlanta and upon asking him “What’s the word?”, the man shouted “Thunderbird!” after which both laughed.
Steve Ringhoff says
Daniel Lempenau says
Lewis cannot take care of himself but is terrified of being trapped inside an institution. He is stubborn and rude and requires shifts of caregivers, whether volunteers or paid. He has been a pow and tortured. He is very much worth the effort to be cared for although the effort must be exceptional. He has given to this nation way above what most of us have given; I can only hope somehow he can receive the same in return.
Eric Caine says
We don’t know much about Louis’s military service. It’s not unusual, however, for people of all kinds to dislike congregate living. There was time when men like Louis could have a room of their own, however humble. That time has passed. Perhaps we should be thinking about how to bring back rooms people can afford.
dragon slayer says
Our mindset seems to be stuck in bigger is better thus the only thing the monied folks want to build are bigger and permanent housing. Of course the profit-margins are far greater here too.
There isn’t much interest [read profits] in low-end housing plus the government isn’t much help as they continue to fund emergency shelters in the hopes it will all just go away or the ‘free market’ will take care of it.
Even if there was interest, NIMBYism would surely kill any attempt to provide dignified shelter for the least of us.
Whenever housing became an investment and not just a place to live the monster was born. Can it be tamed and/or managed such that at least it’s a human right for all?
Lou Valero says
Dragon slayer, I immensely enjoyed your thoughts…
YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) Movement adherents has made some inroads in the cold war between Small v. large, selfish and Sharing types. However, I would like to be proven wrong, I have difficulty envisioning many of those smaller builds being rented to houseless PEOPLE anytime soon. For those cities who have voted to pass such housing, congratulations, for your opening your minds to see the need.
My diffuculty is NOT because houseless PEOPLE do not warrrant such housing, but because houseless PEOPLE have been denied PROPER LEADING EDGE mental health and drug TREATMENT, to those who need such, and because such NASTY MINDED GROUPTHINK exists, HIGHLY RESPONSIBLE FOR CREATING and continuing to SUPPORT such an uncalled for UNWARRANTED PERCEPTION of GOD’S CHILDREN and THE NEIGHBORS WE ARE TO TREAT AS WE WOULD WANT TO BE TREATED and THE STRANGER(S) AMONGST US.
However, YIMBYs are a start in the correct direction. NO ONE has the right to decide for all of us, where urgently necessary housing can be built: in my earnest heart felt vision. Property owners can decide for their property, ONLY, and keep their noses out of and hands off of HOW ALL OTHER PROPERTY GETS UTILIZED residentially.
Personally, I HEREBY ANNOUNCE: A STATE OF EMERGENCY that DOES NOW OVERRIDE selfish property owners from BLOCKING THE WHERABOUTS OF HOUSING FOR LOW OR NO INCOME PEOPLE.
AS I SEE THE PROBLEM: THE PROBLEM WOULD NOT EXIST IF IT WERE NOT FOR CERTAIN PEOPLE RED-LINING WHO CAN MOVE INTO SPACES NEXT DOOR or ON THE BLOCK or DOWN THE STREET or IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, in order to CONTROL THE UNJUST INFLATED UNFAIR MARKET VALUE OF THEIR PROPERTY which ALLOWS ONLY FOR WELL MONIED HYPOCRITS TO PURCHASE SUCH. Who else would choose to pay so much for living quarters that do cost far less in other areas.
The BIBLE warns about induging in SHOWY DISPLAY OF ONES’ MEANS.
STRONG PEJORATIVE LANGUAGE? I MEAN FOR IT TO BE. SOMEONE HAS TO SPEAK UP AND EXPOSE SOME PEOPLE FOR WHAT THEY DO.
Exposure to the light enhances healing.
MY ERNEST QUESTION TO THOSE GREEDY PEOPLE: HOW DARE YOU…?
Lou Valero says
“How ever humble”, HUMBLE is a word seldom heard, gone out of style in modernity, woefully.
As for “thinking about how to bring back rooms people can afford”, that is all I dwell on these days of gentrification.
Sure, some buildings have not been kept up well, maintenance wise. But, I heard, as long as a renovator keeps two, possibly only one, original corner brace board(s) up in place when gutting, the rebuild may not fall under as much red tape issue from authorities, cutting costs . Perhaps that depends on locale. Worth checking out if grandfathering in is applicable, so that these older houses can continue using the same footprint. Smaller is humbler.
I am tired of this throw away society we stood by and let be created. For the most part, only the greedy designers of the future best for their deep pockets saw today’s troubles coming.
Enough of us need to gather the moxie to demand smaller housing, and, that costs be kept way down. Humble bidders need only apply. Modesto, Stan Co, can change zoning, EIRs, WHATSOEVER else could and SHOULD BE DONE, IN ORDER to make this happen. NIMBYs be SILENCED and INVISIBLE like the houseless PEOPLE have been tossed aside. I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOU!
Costs of everything are steadily rising, a good dose of downsizing and sharing with those in need, is appropriate. “Why sit” we “here til we die?”, before we fit into smaller spaces?
Market DEMAND. Valley Citizen DEMAND! Houseless DEMAND. Not too late.
Remarkable article Eric Caine, as always. Thank you for keeping the faith.
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT HEARD:
Yesterday, Thursday, alledgely Govenor Newsom, signed SB 9 and SB 10, that will allow more than one build on a lot zoned for a single family, and, will allow denser housing to be built along bus routes and other transportation routes.
PLEASE do not take my word for this information. Research for yourself. I may have misunderstood some details and/or left details out.
Some things had to give…more HUMAN BEINGS needing housing, MEANT easing of zoning regulations…
Lou Valero says
As I understand it, YIMBYs exerted enough pressure…