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Gimme shelter

SLO County’s homeless get plenty to eat, and sometimes a place to sleep

BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

If this story was to make any real sense, the colorful Macaw would be perched on Pirate’s shoulder. Instead, Len the bird nibbled contentedly at owner Lee’s left ear and listened attentively as Pirate discussed life, government, and his career–that of bank robber.

Pirate peered from the driver’s window of his home, a van parked on a dark, infrequently traveled road in a somber line of other, similarly occupied vehicles with people trying to grab a few winks before facing the day ahead.

He’s pretty much given up those bank jobs, Pirate noted, but a man’s got to eat.

Pirate’s wry but logical observations, if anyone besides the parrot is listening, could impart to any community this sense: that funding care for the downtrodden is much more than simple charity. It is purely and simply self-defense.

"You aren’t a cop, are you?" Pirate asked as he rolled a joint.

Pirate and his peers parked along the road are part of San Luis Obispo’s homeless, a shadowy citizenry moving between meals and sleeping locales, trying to stay out of the view of law enforcement authorities and get by–just until things work out, you know?

An hour earlier, the people in these vehicles stood in a long line at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, queuing up for dinner and for some, a shot at a cot. That would be one of 49 mattresses available in the small, spic-and-span white buildings where this county’s forgotten gather for the night.

The shelter is the sort of place that keeps Pirate away from banks. Seventy-five people were in line there on a recent Wednesday night, waiting patiently for the doors to open at 7 p.m. They shuffled restlessly while a shelter employee reread the rules of the house, a litany most had heard dozens of times, if not hundreds. And they readily stood aside as families with children entered first. Not a grumble rolled through the people who stood bundled against a chilly wind. They knew what was offered, and many already were expressing their gratitude.

"Bless their souls," said Gil "Guido" Patterson, an articulate, neatly groomed man momentarily occupied with placing a plastic shower cap over the seat of his bicycle.

Patterson, 62, has been sharing in the shelter’s bounty for three months now, he said, "and I appreciate everything."

He was locking up his bike after another day of unsuccessful job hunting, yet he was upbeat.

"For a guy who’s had a job all his life, who’s never had any trouble getting a job, being homeless is a humbling experience. It brings you down to earth, and reality stares you right in the face," said Patterson.

He’s a graduate of Cal State Hayward, a teacher and a chef who, by his own admission, made "a lot of errors." He speaks fluent Thai after a teaching gig there, during the earlier, better, days.

Patterson hears a lot of griping around the shelter about the people who run the facility, but he handily discounts most of it.

"They do good work under difficult circumstances. Sometimes it may seem that they are Draconian in their rules and regulations, but they have to be … because those of us who are in here suffer from prior drug or alcohol abuse, or have emotional problems. There are a lot of older men who are very set in their ways, a lot of cross-cultural situations, people from different states, even, all have attitudes, and there is bound to be friction. Maintaining a lid on all that is not easy."

Patterson took his place in line as people filed into the dining hall. He coughed, and then said, "My age is certainly an inhibiting factor [in job-hunting]. When you are older and homeless, that’s two strikes against you. Everyone wonders why you’re homeless. But I’m pretty up front about it–if I tried to conceal it, it would not be a good thing. I’m truthful. Through circumstances and some of my own errors, here I am. But I’m capable, and I’m willing to work my way back up. I just want a shot at doing that."

Patterson said that when he arrived in San Luis Obispo County, he found that a lot of cooking jobs were going to Cal Poly students.

"Nobody wants to hire an old goat," he laughed. "I’m trying to be patient. But it’s easy to get an attitude when you get in these circumstances."

The "dine-and-dashers" have already entered the shelter’s dining hall; they are there for the meal, and then they will be on their way. Pirate is among this crowd.

Dinner was balanced–a pasta dish, green salad, rolls and butter, and milk or a soft drink. People ate where they could find a place to sit, and conversation was the same as at any other table. Plates and cutlery were plastic.

Gretchen sat on the floor as she ate, her head bowed. A stately but tiny woman dressed in clothing meant to be warm rather than stylish, she only reluctantly talked to a visitor. But soon she was bubbling, talking about her son.

Does your son know you are living like this? she was asked.

"I told him," she said. "I tried living with him. It didn’t work out." Her conversation was completed.

With dinner consumed and beds assigned, those who were not staying began to depart, eyeing a 9 p.m. curfew. After that, if assigned to a bed in the shelter, a person cannot leave and return. It gets quiet early in the dormitory-style sleeping quarters–if snuffling and snoring and sundry sounds of the night can be considered silence.

Usually, the 49 beds at the shelter are filled. Local area churches take turns housing the overflow, so that only in the most extreme instances is anyone turned out into the cold night, said Catherine Manning, director of homeless services for the county’s Economic Opportunity Commission (EOC).

Manning and her sparse crew of employees and volunteers feed and shelter 25,000 people a year.

"I know a lot of the stereotypical concepts of the homeless are a middle-aged male with a drinking problem," she said. "That’s an unfortunate stereotype, because fully a third of the people who come here are families."

Manning recited a list of various government, nonprofit, and private groups that help the homeless, but added, "It takes a whole community to support the needs of the homeless–not just the entities but the people themselves. People need to know that there is a sizable community of homeless people in this county, and that they need help."

She said a new medical van staffed by volunteer medical personnel visits the shelter twice a week, an example of people helping people that Manning said "makes her feel very good."

* * *

Zorro, aka Gerald May, picked his way carefully through tall grass already wearing a coat of dew, and as he approached a small clump of trees, he whistled softly.

"He’s there, but he’s asleep," May whispered, referring to a huddled clump of humanity under the trees. "He said he’d be awake, but he’s not."

May and Brad Anderson are showing a reporter where the night people go to catch a little shuteye. They have traversed a railroad crossing and followed an almost indiscernible trail to where the man slept.

"I guess he could be dead, too," said Anderson, not at all ironically.

The trio trekked back toward the shelter, detouring to see the street lined with the vehicles of the employed homeless. In one late-model sedan, a man watched a small color television plugged into a cigarette lighter. Not all are so fortunate.

This is Pirate’s neighborhood, and he was feeling generous with his opinion.

"They feed us good," he said.

That is true, said May. A person will never starve in San Luis Obispo. There are two meals daily at the Prado Day Care Center, and two more at the homeless shelter.

"If you want to go back and forth," said May, "and a lot of people do, you can eat four squares."

Yes, said Pirate, but there’s a problem.

"If you get kicked out of one of these places," he said, "there’s usually a pretty good reason. But if that happens, because Prado and the shelter exchange information, then you get kicked out of both places. When that happens, you can’t eat. You’re stranded. Now you’ve got one thing to do, and that’s to cause crime. That’s wrong. That should be fixed."

He reminded a visitor that he’s a graduate of the stick-’em-up school of spontaneity.

"You kick people out of both places, what are they going to eat? People do what they do."

There were other places to go and things to do. May and Anderson slipped into the night on a "tramping" mission, in which they searched for specific Dumpsters known to contain cast-off goodies like pies and other pastries. The search was fruitless.

"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t," said May philosophically.

A Cherokee Indian who once was executive director of two tribes, May ended up on the streets after learning that his hepatitis C had drained him of any financial resources. He’s an intelligent man who drives a van and carries a cell phone, and does what he can to improve the lot of his fellow homeless. And in so doing, he has become a bit of a rabble-rouser, a champion of the rights of the oppressed and unfortunate.

He spends much of his days going from one agency to another, trying to make arrangements to help the people he meets every day at the shelter.

"So many of these folks don’t know how to get the things that are available," he said.

As he talked, his troupe walked past a large, comfortable-looking, ranch-style house that looked slightly out of place next to the shelter.

The home was once owned by Maxine Lewis, said May, a woman who took in many homeless and elderly people; founded Grass Roots, a SLO provider of emergency services; and generally made life a little easier for many.

"That’s why they named the center after her," May said.

That part makes sense, May and Anderson agreed. But not much else really does. That was what the man with the nickname Zorro said as he disappeared into the darkness to find his night’s lodging. Æ

News editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com.




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