Saturday, June 13, 2009

Living homeless: Faces and stories from the streets of Sacramento

Living homeless

Faces and stories from the streets of Sacramento

By Ted Cox

A sudden job loss. A debilitating injury. A drug addiction. A death in the family. For many of Sacramento's homeless, years of stability were torn down in a matter of weeks.

Living Homeless is a multi-media collaboration between SN&R and CPR.

On Saturday, May 30, at the second annual Homeless Connect event—modeled after a San Francisco project of the same name—service providers set up shop at Sacramento City College to offer free medical, housing and legal services to 700 indigent people throughout the region. In partnership with Capital Public Radio, SN&R recorded some of their stories. For five hours, we listened to what the homeless had to say.

Several themes appeared throughout the day: lost jobs, drug abuse, mental illness, crippling injuries. But through all the stories runs one long, twisted thread: a tragically broken social support system. These stories cry out for a massive overhaul of our health-care, housing and drug-treatment programs.

Some of the tales you'll read here sound extremely bleak. Othersoffer hope. But the words can't possibly do the experiences justice. The truth is, unless you've been there, none of us know what homelessness is really like.

photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: David Burke

Age: 58

Number of years homeless: 5

Where he sleeps: in "a sleeping bag hidden in the bushes"

What happened?

I got hit by a car in Seattle, Washington. It really screwed up my back. I went through back surgery. After I got put on [Social Security], I went through back surgery again. It did bring back the feeling in my left leg, so it's not numb anymore. I still can't stand any length of time or walk too far. … They told me I'm eligible for Section 8 housing … [but] there's a six- or seven-year waiting list. And I can't afford to pay out half of my income.







photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: LaShondra Robinson

Age: 34

Number of years in Sacramento: 18

Where she sleeps: Salvation Army shelter

First, young LaShondra Robinson's Texas home caught fire. Then her mother lost her job. Before she was 10 years old, she had moved to Oakland with her mother and younger siblings to live with her great aunt. Then one day, without a word, Robinson's mother left home. She never came back.

Today, Robinson recounts years of hiding her tears. She couldn't grieve; she had to stay strong for her siblings.

But every day she prayed, "Please, God, let me see my mom before I leave this Earth." Her prayers were answered twice—one of those times, she briefly saw her mother on a bus.

When things got hard at her great aunt's house, Robinson was transferred to a foster home. There, she was beaten and abused. She was transferred to a new foster home, but the beatings continued. Her tooth was knocked out. She wore long pants to conceal the bruises.

At age 16, Robinson was emancipated from the court. She came to Sacramento, where like her mother, she fell into drug abuse. Her habit landed her on the street. She takes responsibility for her actions, and she's working to get clean.

Robinson now stays at the Salvation Army. She enrolled in addiction-recovery classes. She needs to get clean not just for herself, she said, but for her children: a young son and daughter who live with their father. Tears flow as she talks about her kids.

"I'm working on getting them back. But I'm working on me first," she said.

photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: Wesley White

Age: 38

Number of years HOMELESS: 12

Where he sleeps: overflow shelter at Cal Expo

What's your story?

Nothin', just 12 years on the streets. And in 2001, I started seeing weird shit, like a dollar and 66 cents on cash registers … and $13 bills. Just lots of dates and numbers and facts and figures, like I'm the anti-Christ.

How did you end up homeless?

I got divorced way back in my 20s. And then Mother got ovarian cancer. I made no plans for the future or anything like that. And basically, basically, I don't know. I didn't think my family would just throw me out.

Hear his story on CPR
photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: Steven Wells

Age: 56

Number of years in Sacramento: 8

Where he sleeps: Union Gospel Mission

"Being homeless is probably is one of the best things that ever happened to me," says Steven Wells.

He stands with his back straight, chest out, hands clasped behind his back. His hair is cut short. Sometimes it's easy to spot a military man.

"Out in the world, you don't end up distracted. You learn to put up with certain things," Wells says.

Wells had a good life for many years. Originally from Bakersfield, he lived all over the state working for Mobil Corp. He's worked the volatile, commission-based real-estate and insurance industries for 25 years.

After his divorce in 2001, he needed a change, so he moved to Sacramento. Various circumstances (he didn't want to discuss them) led to him becoming homeless.. He's lived off and on for the past eight years at Union Gospel Mission. Wells refuses to tell his three children that he's homeless. "They have their own life to live," he says.

While he hopes to be out of the mission within the next month, he considers his time on the streets as a period of personal growth.

"It's not sense of freedom, it's a sense of reality.. It's real, it's not finite, it's not the end," he said.

"Some days I can appreciate the heck out of it. Some days it can be frustrating as hell."

photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: Lamar Burleson

Age: 31

Number of years homeless: 15

Where are you staying now?

Loaves & Fishes. Why? You got a place for me to stay?









photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: Nanette Ivey

Age: 45

Number of years in Sacramento: 2

Where she sleeps: Salvation Army shelter

Nanette Ivey lost her job as a social worker in 2007. Shortly after, her husband died. Then, as she looked for work, she learned she had hepatitis C, a consequence of her long-past drug use.

Unable to find work, she lived with her daughter. When her daughter moved to San Francisco, Ivey stayed here. She couch-surfed for a while, and also slept near the American River.

Ivey has stayed at the Salvation Army since May 5. Her priority now is to find employment. She can't receive her husband's Social Security until she turns 50.

"The job market for what I do is very slim to nil," she says through a nervous laugh.

"Once upon a time ago, I had it all. And I also said I would never work at—the old expression—McDonald's," she says.

"Today, it's like, 'Are you hiring? When can I start?'"



photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: Chris Wadley

Age: 24

Number of years homeless: 3

Where he sleeps: "I've been kind of, like, doing the couch-surfing thing"

What happened?

Me and my mom had, like, lost our house. It was sold underneath us. … It happened twice in a row.









photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: Russell Muir

Age: 47

Number of years in Sacramento: 21

Where he sleeps: a van in a restaurant parking lot

Russell Muir may live out of his van, but that hasn't stopped him from dedicating his life to helping others.

He's chaired a blood drive at his gym every eight weeks for the past five years. He's an intern with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. He even came to Homeless Connect as a volunteer.

Muir knows all too well the effects of drug abuse. Because of his own addiction, he couldn't pay his rent. All the traffic going in and out of his apartment caused problems as well.

"I bounced back a couple of times. Got a place, lost it, got a place, lost it," he said.

A year and a half ago, he found out he was diabetic. He's taking medication, but the disease has affected his eyesight. The vision trailer at Homeless Connect provided him with new reading glasses.

At night, he parks his van in a restaurant parking lot. "They know me," he said. He's been there since August.

Muir has been clean for five years. In July he'll complete an addiction-counselor program. He hopes to find work soon, and then permanent housing.

"But with these budget cuts, who knows?" he says. "I may have wasted my time."

Hear her story on CPR
photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: Valera Federman Beiham

Number of years in Sacramento: less than 1

Where she sleeps: Salvation Army shelter

Valera Beiham has fond memories of her husband.

"He took very good care of me. He made me French toast in bed every morning. He loved me unconditionally," she says, her voice wavering with emotion.

He died suddenly on February 3, 2008. She was in shock at first. "I just didn't believe he wasn't coming home."

Beiham tried to find work in her small, two-lane town of Buckhorn in Southern California. But she couldn't make the mortgage payments and lost her home. She camped out there until the authorities told her she would have to leave. They suggested she come to Sacramento.

Her first week in Sacramento, she was lost among the dizzying high-rises. A man showed her how to dig a sleeping tunnel. The surrounding bushes were prickly, but she stayed there for a weekend.

Her deceased husband's 22 years in the army entitled her to annuity benefits, but there was no guarantee when those checks would arrive. That also meant that in the meantime, she didn't qualify for housing or any other services—her yet-to-arrive income was too high.

She went hungry. She was raped near the river. She debated suicide while standing on the edge of a bridge.

She says workers at the overflow shelter took away her food and water. Before she eventually found her way to Salvation Army, she had a difficult time adjusting to conditions at another overflow shelter.

"The people just aren't very nice to you. They don't understand. They think everybody did this to themselves or whatever."

At the time she shared her story, she expected to receive the first annuity payment June 1. Until then, she would just have to wait.

"I don't know where to go. I don't know what to do. And I don't have the answers, but I've gotten closer to it."

"I just want to find my place."

Hear their story on CPR
photo by Louise Mitchell

Names: Rodney Frazier and Demarius

Ages: 42, 15 months

Where they sleep: overflow shelter at Cal Expo

Rodney Frazier took custody of his son, Demarius, on May 8. Since then, they've bounced around from a voucher-paid motel, to the overflow shelter at Cal Expo, to emergency housing, and then back to the overflow.

Frazier left emergency housing when he couldn't get food for his son. Emergency housing puts tenants on a strict budget; they can be kicked out if they spend their food-stamp money or cash without authorization.

"Come Saturday at 9 [a.m.] they had breakfast, 3 [p.m.] they had lunch. Nothing else was served for my son to eat until 9 a.m. the next morning," said Frazier.

"Finally, at 1:30 in the morning I got up, knocked on the door. I said, 'Ma'am, my son is crying, he is hungry.'" The woman there finally gave Demarius something to eat.

The structure was too much for Frazier. He and Demarius headed back to the overflow shelter.

While Frazier tells his story, Demarius squeals happily. He's too young to understand the gravity of the situation.

Frazier worked a union job as a bricklayer until he fell off the side of a building in 1998. Without insurance, he couldn't get treatment. He's been homeless for almost five years.

"It's been a mental roller coaster. It takes the best out of a man," he said.

But having Demarius gives him the extra kick to keep going. "It gives me something to fight for," he said. He's trying to get Demarius enrolled in the Head Start program. At Homeless Connect, he got the news that a spot has opened for him in a transitional-housing program.

"That was my goal. Get me in there, give me the opportunity," he said. "I can come back."

photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: Phil Callery

Age: 62

Number of years in Sacramento: 7

Where he sleeps: "I find a spot to crash every night"

Phil Callery came out to California for the weather. Massachusetts winters were unbearable.

He's been in Sacramento for seven years, homeless for five of those.

Several accidents left Callery disabled. While working as a carnival-ride operator, he took a half-dozen falls. After he was unable to work, he applied for disability benefits. It took three years to approve his application. In the meantime, he ran out of money, so he took to the streets.

Callery is soft-spoken, almost gentle, even while describing being robbed.

"I had a campsite until a little over a week ago," he said. "I had all my stuff taken." He had left camp for a little while. When he returned, his tent, food, cooking stove, sleeping bag and cot were gone. All he has now is a blanket. "I just find a spot to crash every night."

Callery tried to get in at one shelter. He said that not only was the waiting list too long, but stays are limited to 30 days. "Thirty days isn't much time to get much of anything done."

He's also looked at places to rent, but they would eat up his entire disability paycheck and not leave him money for food or transportation. "It didn't seem worth just having a roof over my head with no food or anything else," he says. So instead, he sleeps wherever he can lay his head.

Up until now, he's tried getting off the streets on his own. He hasn't had much luck.

"It's like beating your head up against a rock. Of course, the rock's gonna win."

photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: John Braddy

Age: 60

Number of years homeless: 1

What happened?

Oh, just went broke.

Where are you staying now?

Temporarily in the backyard of a friend's house … but my welcome's wearing out. You really don't want a homeless guy in the backyard.









photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: Charles Figueroa

Age: 38

Number of months homeless: 1

How did you end up homeless?

I lost my job three years ago. Everything started going downhill from that point. … I couldn't find a new job, I got depressed, started doing things I shouldn't have done. The people I lived with kicked me out.











photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: James "The Captain" Little

Age: 48

Number of years homeless: "In the double-digit years"

Where do you stay?

A rickshaw. It's a trailer I built behind my bike. … It's about 18 feet to 20 feet long, about 4 to 5 feet wide.

How did you end up homeless?

[Lack of] work, and a lot of things that didn't unfold the way I planned it. But that's OK, though. I've been surviving. I've been making it.









Photo by Louise Mitchell

Name: Norman Nelson

Age: 58

Number of years in Sacramento: 10

Where he sleeps: comes and goes from an apartment

How did you end up homeless?

I was hit in the face with a backhoe in the Air Force—I worked as a civil engineer—and it crushed my bottom jaw, caused me a lot of problems. As I got older it got worse. I was having blackouts, breathing problems, infections of the gums and stuff like that.

… And so, in the end, I went to [Veterans Affairs] hospital in Fort Miley, San Francisco. They took out the nerve in my face, nerve that runs from here all the way down, to relieve some of the pain and pressure. Took out all my teeth so that all the infections and stuff would go away and stuff.

[In 1999] they cut my pension.. I'm out here [in Sacramento], so I say, "OK, I'll just take to the streets."

Where are you staying now?

I'm staying with a person, another person.

In a house somewhere?

It's an apartment.. They let me come and go as I please. I'm usually there at night, during the day I'm gone.

Photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: Robert Teague

Age: unknown

Numbers of years homeless: 14

Where are you staying now?

Right now I got a two-bedroom apartment. It's difficult to keep the lights on, the electric on, the gas on … I have to go out here and get all the food, because I don't have money to get the food with. I have to go out there and gather this food in the garbage. …

I got five or six people [there].

What happened?

One thing after another. See, I'm a mountain man myself, and I'm living on the river. … I [was homeless] the last 14 years. It's a change for me. I still like to go out, camp out, do all this … now they want me to stay home. It's kind of hard for me to do that. I have to do it now because [my wife's] diabetic now. She's been in and out of comas.





Photo by Kevin Fiscus

Name: David "Kn000dles" Berry

Age: 38

How did you end up homeless?

Not having three or four times the rent. That's the only reason now.

Where are you staying now?

Luckily I have family, my cousin. … She married some guy and he owns property. So that's where I'm at now.













Special thanks to Paul Estabrook, Sacramento City College photography department chairman.

Also, thanks to the Homeless Connect volunteers who provided crucial assistance in helping gather the stories presented here: Jessie Begert, Paula McClarin, Nicole Meany, Steve O'Camb and April Tally.

Capital Public Radio, which collaborated with SN&R on this project, aired a four-part series of interviews with homeless Sacramentans this past week at KXJZ 90.9 FM. Find this audio component of "Living homeless" at

Comment: I appreciate the good coverage by the Sacra News & Review, though they could of put in at least one Chicano token! The homeless are the like the canary in the mind, warning us of the tragic turmoil of these times and the need for addressing it before the whole situation deteriorates further into mass chaos and mayhem.

Education for Liberation!

Peter S. Lopez ~aka: Peta
Sacramento, California, Aztlan
Yahoo Email:

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