• Fenced off in another world

    by Erika Fiske

    pictures 253SALINAS— I was lost and driving past when I saw the strange sight. It was an area near freeways and power lines, surrounded by a high, prison-like fence. There were small tents erected behind a brick building, shopping carts with belongings everywhere, trash. It looked like a scene from a Third World country, but this was Monterey County, home to some of the richest and most powerful people in the country.

    After an interview on the food bank, I backtracked with my car to that squalid area, at the intersection of California and Market. The scene reminded me of a movie a friend took me to more than a year ago at the Osio Cinemas in Monterey—a film about Ayn Rand, the Russian philosopher said to have influenced conservatives in the Republican party. The film depicted an America of stark contrasts, utter poverty and decay versus wealth and beauty, the haves versus the have-nots. It was the scene before me right now in Salinas, the America we are becoming.

    Although my friend loved the film, I found it haunting and disturbing—just as I found this scene in Salinas. I stopped my car and asked a ragged man, “What is this place?” A place for the homeless, he said. Down the street was a mission, and across from that Dorothy’s Place.

    I sat in disbelief for a moment. Months ago I wrote about a 77-year-old, toothless, homeless woman who was placed here more than once. When I came across her recently, in a Motel 6 in Marina and about to be on the streets again, I asked her, “Why won’t you go to Dorothy’s Place? I don’t understand, it’s a shelter. It’s there to help you.”

    When I said those words, I had never been to Dorothy’s Place. I only remembered shelters in other parts of the country—always neat and clean and in decent areas. Safe places to be.

    “I got pneumonia the last time I was there,” she mumbled, barely able to say the words with her toothless mouth. “There are too many sick people in there.”

    I finally understood what Susan was saying. Although I didn’t enter Dorothy’s Place this day, the area around it was enough. I understood. She was right. This was not the place for a retired teacher and social worker. It was not the place for anyone, really.

    I put my Jeep into drive and continued on, parking across the street from a Buddhist temple with a quiet, beautiful yard—fenced in, devoid of people. It was another stark contrast to everything else around me.

    California is a short street, lined with old, ramshackle buildings, overflowing dumpsters, tents and rusty old motor homes. I stepped from my car and passed a line of shopping carts filled with the meager belongings of the homeless. Farther on, I saw other groupings of blankets, clothes and hopeless people, hunched over, looking at me with lifeless eyes. At the end of the street was a high chain-link fence. It seemed to be a wall separating our society of neat, clean churches, schools, businesses and homes from this—a place of death and dying, drugs and alcohol, sadness and tragedy. A place of wasted lives.

    “Don’t take my picture,” one man said from his perch on a pile of blankets. I promised not to and walked on. Below a large cross, someone placed a bed with belongings on it, ready for when the sun sets. Farther on, more silent faces poking out from among the piles, watching. I tried to open the door to the mission, but it was locked. A man sitting toward the back of the room came and opened the door. He offered to show me around.

    “Do they sleep on these pews?” I asked, standing in the midst of several rows of old, wooden pews.

    “No, they sleep in here,” he said, pointing to the next room, where every space was filled with narrow bunks. All were empty during the day. There was nothing cheerful about this place. It felt like the end of the road, long after hope and happiness had died away.

    The thin man mumbled something about being able to stay inside these days, and smiled. Apparently he’s one of the lucky ones who helps out around the place and no longer has to go out during the day, among the shopping carts.

    I thanked him for the tour and left, turning toward the end of the street, where more people and carts stood by the chain-link fence. Cars passed quickly on a nearby road, the road I traveled earlier. But the drivers seemed oblivious to this other world, right next to them. Turning the corner, just past an over-flowing dumpster, I spotted a teddy bear in the dirt, looking up at me. I could almost hear it pleading to be picked up and carried away to a safe, warm home.

    “But how could I take you, and leave everyone else?” I thought, putting away my camera and stepping toward yet another messy area and another chain-link fence. Inside were several small tents in the high grass. Another place for the homeless to sleep.

    As I turned and headed toward my car, a homeless man stopped me. “They don’t bother us here,” he said. “The police don’t bother us. They want us all in one spot.”

    For me, that explained a large sign in a nearby window, asking that no one use drugs around the doorway.

    But he wasn’t finished. He went on to explain that an ordinance had been passed to limit shelters for the homeless, by limiting the number of people they can help. His tired eyes told all. He and the others might be old and sick and numbed by alcohol and drugs, but they knew what society thought of them. How could they not?

    pictures 258Almost immediately I saw her, a skinny, wrinkled, white-haired woman seated by lots of blankets and carts. I asked if I might take a picture, and she smiled. “Let me pose,” she said, and a like a model, she struck several poses. I tried to find out more about her, but couldn’t understand what she was saying. Finally I asked how old she was. “Sixty-eight,” she said. I would have guessed 100.

    The old woman was still smiling as I walked away. I was glad to reach my car and close the door to such a sad place. As I started the engine, a woman shuffled past with bulging red eyes and what appeared to be tears on her face. Her movements were stiff, her face a mask. It was covered with large pimples. I doubted the woman would be alive another year. She was probably in her thirties or forties.

    As I pulled away, I felt such relief heading home to my beautiful Pacific Grove. An hour later I was parked by the ocean, breathing in the cool air with closed eyes, listening to the waves. I decided I would never again tell a homeless person to seek help at a shelter. From now on, I’ll tell them to go out into nature and watch the seagulls sail by and the otters play. Smell the flowers. Go barefoot in the sand. Stand in the waves.

    Our society is broken. For so many today, nature is all that is left.

    pictures 257

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 12, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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