My days living homeless in Sacramento

Our writer joins thousands of others for a firsthand look at life on the streets

by Dave Kempa
August 8, 2013
News & Review

Mark Bell knows downtown.

He knows who lives where, and what they do. The medication they’re on, what they wear and when they practice piano. And he really knows the state workers: Their cigarette breaks, their quirks. The empty six-pack of Olde English 800 tallboys thrown into the trash each week at the CalPERS north building, or the empty bottles of vodka outside CalPERS south. Today, he’ll find a pint of vodka spirited into the trash outside of the secretary of state building.

He knows.

Mark spends most his days shuffling about town, scanning bins for aluminum cans and ashtrays for half-smoked cigarettes (“snipes,” he calls them). He says he appreciates when people speak with him. It reminds him they care. When folks share with him a piece of their lives, he remembers. Carries it like a souvenir. He gleans much from Sacramento.

And today, he’s brought me along. I have no wallet, money or keys. No sources of income or sustenance. All I’ve got are some old, dirty clothes; a flashlight; a rickety mountain bike; a cellphone; and, at my homeless friends’ recommendation, a sleeping bag and tent. For the next four days, I’ll be joining Bell and other homeless Sacramentans on the streets.

What is it like to shower with 60 strange men and sleep in a shelter bed? Why is it best to hunt for cans at 3 a.m.? Where can a homeless person spend the afternoon without getting into trouble? And why do they add so much sugar to the coffee at Loaves & Fishes Friendship Park?

This week, I will camp on the American River Parkway with a street family, check in for an evening at the Union Gospel Mission and earn my keep rustling through downtown garbage bins. I’m still a tourist, of course; it’s all manufactured. I can end this game at any moment, go back to my apartment and job.

The people next to me in the food lines and emergency shelters aren’t afforded that luxury.

My campout on the river

Terry wakes and calls out, “Good morning, campers.”

It’s 5:45 a.m. A family’s tents rest under a drooping tree canopy on the American River Parkway. About 100 feet away, Highway 160 rumbles to life. It’s chilly, unusual for late July.

Of the five men and women in this camp, only two are related by blood. But make no mistake: These folks are family.

“You know how they say that there’s safety in numbers? That’s a fact of life out here.” This was perhaps the first thing that Terry, the deep-voiced, imposing patriarch explained after he and his girlfriend, Lisa, agreed to let me camp with them this week.

Life on the streets brings risks, such as theft, physical assault or worse. To combat these dangers, homeless singles form groups. Often, they build a rapport so strong that they begin to refer to one another as family.

“It repeats itself over and over,” says Steve Watters, executive director of Safe Ground Sacramento. “It starts out as a loosely formed group, then it evolves, and they become closer and closer.”

Safe Ground’s objective is to create a legal community space for the area’s indigent. Today, they’re trying to set up Sacramento’s first temporary residential community, complete with solar-powered, single-person shelters, in Councilman Allen Warren’s north Sacramento district. They believe a community like this will provide a modicum of safety for homeless people.

Terry shuffles around, taking stock of the camp. Lisa sits, bleary-eyed, in their tent. Their friend Derick—who’s living with them while his fiancée cares for their newborn daughter at Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home, a shelter for pregnant adult women in south Sacramento—prepares for his workday. The family’s pit bull mixes, Thief and Blossom, race around the camp’s perimeter. They must leave the parkway soon. No one here can afford a citation.

According to Stan Lumsden, chief ranger for the Sacramento County Regional Parks Department, 246 homeless camps along the American River Parkway were cited between February 16 and August 16 of this year. Rangers also posted 285 two-day notices to vacate at empty encampments and cleaned up more than 700 garbage sites.

Camps generally consist of adults. Parents with children almost never sleep near the river, since park rangers and police who find children in a camp contact Child Protective Services. Instead, these families try to remain hidden, sleeping in cars or couch surfing with friends.

The groups and street families by the river have a tough time acquiring housing. Often, people are reluctant to leave their loved ones on the streets when they finally find a home.

“I’m sure that creates challenges for them if they want to stay together,” says Ron Javor, board member for the Sacramento Housing Alliance. For instance, if three men living together on the street decide to pool their resources for an apartment, as sometimes happens, they may run up against approval issues. “They’ve got a number of strikes against them: They’re formerly homeless, they may not have reliable income, perhaps one has a criminal record,” he explained.

Javor met Terry and Lisa through Safe Ground and has since grown close to them. Today, he says, they are particularly anxious to find an apartment, because Terry wants to begin work soon. He recently obtained a commercial driver’s license, but can’t rationalize leaving his family alone on the parkway during the inevitable late-night shifts.

Sacramento’s Union Gospel Mission is an emergency shelter for homeless men. Our writer spent the night there on a recent weekday.

The family sometimes uses shelters, offered by Safe Ground and local churches, but Sacramento’s emergency-shelter options are limited. For security reasons, shelters also often have strict rules. For instance, men and women are not allowed to sleep together.

For now, Terry, Lisa and Derick focus on permanent housing: working toward securing a three-bedroom apartment which will house both of their families. It has been a difficult process—some of them have been on the streets for years—but with Derick finding work and Terry preparing to start driving, they’re hopeful.

Night at the homeless shelter

The Union Gospel Mission is a squat, forgettable, 84-bed men’s shelter (60 for the homeless, 24 for the 90-day drug-and-alcohol program) located just north of downtown. It is surrounded by a 7-foot fence, topped with barbed wire down the sides of the compound. In many respects, including the strict demands of protocol, the place feels like prison.

The consensus in the homeless community is that “the Mission” is a place for men who have run out of options. Many guests are fresh out of jail or off the bus, or are sick and in dire need of a warm meal and safe bed.

When the weather outside is bearable, men sometimes choose to brave the elements rather than spend the night at the Mission. Terry spent one evening there nine years ago, and never came back. He says he’ll never return.

Upon arrival, a guest must provide his Social Security number, date of birth, tuberculosis card and ID to a worker, who is often a graduate from the recovery program. The worker then reads out the Mission’s rules, the breaking of which will result in expulsion: no drinking or drugs, no smoking, no exiting the mandated religious service, no cursing, etc.

The evening’s mandatory Mass begins, delivered by a man named Charlie, dressed for the evening in a Hawaiian shirt. “You can do things your way, or you can do things God’s way,” he begins. “You’ve been doing things your way. How’s that working out for you?”

The congregation concedes the point, shaking their heads, grumbling. “Not so good, Charlie,” says a wiry man.

During his sermon, Charlie reads the Gettysburg Address before preaching about abortion (“We as a nation are responsible for the murder of 56 million children”), the prophet Isaiah and the “forces of darkness.” Near the end, Mission workers pass a donation basket around to the homeless congregation.

“There’s lots of charities out there who don’t give a message at all, who aren’t religious. Our whole mission is Jesus Christ, showing who God is,” says Mission spokeswoman Eileen Trussell. “We don’t want to compromise what we’re all about.”

Sacramento Steps Forward, the private nonprofit working to end homelessness that took over management of $15 million in federal grants from Sacramento County this year, reports that there are only 627 year-round emergency-shelter beds in Sacramento: 376 for individuals and 251 for families.

According to Loaves & Fishes’ Joan Burke, “The shelters simply don’t have enough space for people wanting to stay there.” Demand for beds in Sacramento can fluctuate due to weather and the time of the month, but it almost always exceeds supply. Burke says that The Salvation Army’s waitlist hovers around 80 men and women.

Emergency shelters aren’t about to expand, either. They are expensive, and the city, following the federal government’s strategy, has shifted its focus to growing affordable housing. Private emergency shelters such as the Mission should not be affected.

After a brief but hearty chicken dinner, the men and women who came only for the sermon and meal leave, while those spending the evening head for the showers.

The shower room is a tight fit. Men file into a cramped changing room the size of a small U-Haul trailer, disrobe and take turns in an open room with six shower heads. Some try to keep the tone light—one guy belts out a rendition of Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.” Others are visibly distraught. At least three men shuffle through the motions wearing ankle bracelets. The smell is almost unbearable; sour rot, like fruit left fermenting in a corpse’s armpit, intensifies in the heat and humidity.

Trussell says that the mandatory showers are in place for sanitary reasons, a legitimate concern when dealing with 60 homeless men per night—though guests are not alerted upon arrival of the group showers.

Once dry, the men put on their underwear and form a line to hand their clothes over to a large man behind a window in exchange for pajamas (also mandatory) before heading upstairs to bed. As the men drift off to sleep, sounds and smells of the unwell contaminate the air.

“The night I was there, there were more sneezes, coughs and farts than I’d ever heard in a single room,” says Javor, who spent an evening at the Mission a couple of years back to better understand the place.

Few men enjoy staying here. Some use the term “prison” to describe it. But some nights, it’s better than the alternative.

Dumpster diving for dollars

Mark Bell says he’s got bad knees, that one of his thighs is all but paralyzed. Yet the man speeds through the central city, diving in and out of recycling bins, Dumpsters, peeking under shrubs, crushing and stuffing the aluminum cans he finds in his yellowed plastic bags before shuffling on in his dusty running shoes.

He is 50, a smoker and, today, hungover. The gnarled, bearded Bell defies logic, walking some 18 miles each day from his hidden American River Parkway campsite through downtown (twice), and then back home after recycling bottles and cans. He spends his earnings, often around $7 for a six-hour workday, on food for his six cats, or a bottle of vodka for himself and his friends.

Bell is a writer. Prideful. Independent. Works his ass off for that drink at the end of the day, though that drink may well be the reason he’s been on the streets eight years running. He published a book of poetry, The Hobo Speaks, last year through the Sacramento Public Library’s I Street Press. This summer, he’s embarked on a second book project, The Hobo Won’t Shut Up, shooting short stories out on an email list that includes a number of the state workers he’s met while canning downtown.

The gnarled, bearded Mark Bell defies logic, walking some 18 miles each day from his hidden American River Parkway campsite through downtown.

“I want Kevin Johnson’s email,” he says. “I want to fire my book off to him, show him, ’This is what your homeless are up to. Give ’em a chance!’”

But what sort of chance does Bell need? What would it take to get this former chef under a roof again?

John Foley of Sacramento Self Help Housing, a group dedicated to connecting low-income and homeless Sacramentans with landlords who provide affordable housing, says “single men are certainly the largest demographic” in the homeless community.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 100,000 chronically homeless individuals and 62,600 homeless veterans spent the evening without a home on any given night in America in 2012. The latter shows a steep decline since 2007, though homeless advocates feel there is still work to be done.

Here in Sacramento, housing programs are working. “The Mather Community Campus, for instance, is very successful at getting people in, getting them employment. And Cottage Housing has been doing great work for years,” says Foley.

For their part, Sacramento Self Help Housing maintains a database of the area’s most reasonably priced apartments, which includes particulars on tenant requirements and eviction policies. They also focus on housing veterans and the chronically homeless, often streamlining the process to get them under a roof.

But housing single homeless men often involves a number of moving parts: Do they need counseling? Do they need treatment for substance abuse? Are they willing and able to work?

It would almost seem like too tough a nut to crack—if Sacramento hadn’t already cracked it for homeless women.

Women’s Empowerment is a nonprofit that uses counseling, peer support, classes and career mentoring to help single homeless women off the streets. Since the group’s inception in 2001, some 1,063 women have graduated from the program, with astounding rates of success: Last year, 78 percent of program participants either found work or enrolled in training, while 90 percent gained or maintained their safe housing.

According to Kate Towson of Women’s Empowerment, the group also helps participants find job-interview attire, connects them with possible employers and even provides them with dental care—an important, yet often forgotten, element of hireability.

Homeless advocates regularly cite Women’s Empowerment as one of Sacramento’s biggest wins. Today, advocates are beginning to talk about a sister program, as it were, for men.

Joan Burke at Loaves & Fishes, for one, says that a men’s equivalent to Women’s Empowerment is “an unrealized goal” in Sacramento.

She added that “Loaves & Fishes is interested in strengthening our services for men.”

For someone like Bell, that could make all the difference.

The largest challenge for the area’s homeless and almost-homeless residents is simple: Sacramento must find a way to bridge the gap. Between income and rent. Between need and services.

But then, even after finding work, or getting set up with disability or some other form of assistance, residents continue to find that there are simply not enough reasonably priced places to stay. Today, both the federal government and Sacramento are pushing to create more affordable housing. Unfortunately, this will take time.

“There’s a cure to homelessness,” insists Burke. “It’s called enough housing to go around that people can afford and that fits them.”




The day I get my wallet and apartment back, I treat Bell to lunch at the burger joint on 10th and P streets, across from his office (the bleachers in Roosevelt Park), in part because he’d mentioned that he tends to drink his meals after his food stamps run out at the end of the month.

Eight years ago, Bell was a cook. He did that for decades before ending up on the streets. He’d like to do that for decades to come. But he’s not sure where to go and wouldn’t know the first step toward getting back into the workforce. As with most chronically homeless men, his situation is layered.

As Bell throws out his trash and wipes his table clean, the restaurant manager approaches him with a large white bucket brimming with aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

“I thought you might like these,” he says.

“I would, thank you,” says Bell.

We part ways that afternoon. Bell thanks me for the meal. I thank him for his time. As I leave to catch the light rail back to the office, the sidewalk echoes with the crunch, crunch of aluminum against the pavement.

All in a day’s work.