The ground of my second-floor room trembled as trains rumbled over the tracks and horned their approach at every minute. Dogs barked continuously from someplace in a distance and what sounded like a series of rapid gunshots went off. All within the first five minutes of my arrival.
It was impossible for me to forget that the room I had just moved into at the Bay Area Rescue Mission women and children’s shelter was at the heart of the infamous Iron Triangle neighborhood in Richmond.
Yet in the rooms around mine, 53 women and children rested for the night. One of them called it “one of the safest places on Earth.”
Before coming to the United States from Singapore in August, I worked as a crime and court reporter, and shelters like this one don’t exist. Back home it is almost illegal to be homeless. People idling in public places can be taken by policemen and placed in welfare homes, while awaiting questioning if they look like they are unable to support themselves or prove they have a home. Leave a welfare home you have been assigned to and you can be jailed for six months. And campers need to apply and receive a permit the day before they can pitch tents in selected areas in parks.
I was thinking about this while cycling around Richmond one day, when I stumbled upon the Bay Area Rescue Mission. That there had been an increase in the number of people seeking shelter quickly came up during conversation with staff members. Winter was approaching and there was insufficient space to accommodate everyone. The cold added one more element of unfamiliarity, one more thing different from home. Located near the Equator, my island-country is hot and humid all year around.
While I continued to report in Richmond, I began to look for homeless people instead of avoiding their eyes. It soon became clear how many there were, and I quickly became interested in the stories behind how they ended up homeless and how they were surviving. They couldn’t want to be there, I thought. Where could these people go from there and what were the cracks they were falling through?
I decided there was no better way to start deciphering the homeless situation in America than to live for a few days as they would.
Things fell into place when I called Debra Anderson, vice-president of community relations at the rescue mission, a few days later to find out if she could speak with me about her experiences in working with the homeless. Though keen on helping me stay at the shelter, Anderson told me there might not be space at the shelter as they were usually full. I quickly said I could bring a sleeping bag.
After listening to everything I had to say, Anderson, who is also the wife of Rev. John M. Anderson, the president of the Bay Area Rescue Mission, told me she would call me back in 10 minutes. Two phone calls later, I had permission. And I didn’t need to bring a sleeping bag.
Cycling to the Bay Area Rescue Mission at 10 p.m., I passed shadows by the roadside that called out and wolf-whistled at me on my cream white vintage Raleigh. I could not have pedaled faster.
The shelter was dimly lit and quiet when I arrived. Everyone but staff member Maxine Mars had gone to bed and after taking some sheets and towels from a laundry room on the ground floor, she showed me to my room. We exited the living room through a back door, reentered the building through another door, climbed two flights of stairs, went through two more doors and made three turns before arriving. I wondered to myself how I was going to find my room in that maze over the next four days.
My room, a typical one for a mother with young children living at the shelter, was more spacious than I had expected. It had a twin bed under a window on one side and a bunk bed against a wall on another. There were also two mismatched shelving units and a study table. Mars later showed me the common bathroom and shower stalls just outside my room, which was shared by all residents in the wing.
After she had left, I washed up and put a set of donated red sheets on the twin-sized bed. When I tried to close the window as it was getting chilly, I found out that it was broken but decided to just roll up tighter in my blankets. After all, it wasn’t the cold that was going to keep me up. I continued staring at the ceiling while the trains continued pulling in one after the other and the dogs went on barking.
The only other occupant in my wing was Bernita Medlock, 44. Medlock, who had been informed of my arrival, shared a room with her two-year-old daughter, but I did not see either of them on my first night at the shelter.
The next morning, we met outside her room, two doors away from mine, while I was waiting for the wake-up call Mars had told me about the night before to come on over the intercom. “Rise and shine everyone, it is now 13 minutes past 6 a.m. Rise and shine, it is now 6.13 a.m. …” By 7:30 a.m., all of the women and children had gathered in the living room and we walked over to the dining hall in the next building for breakfast.
At breakfast, I took a seat with Medlock and her daughter, a curly-haired dark-skinned girl with full cheeks. Halfway through the meal, Medlock handed me an envelope. “My graduation speech,” she said.
Medlock is into her 19th month of a two-year recovery program at the shelter. While the program was shortened to a year earlier this year, Medlock decided to stay on the program she signed up for. “I need to show myself I can do this,” she told me.
The Bay Area Rescue Mission Recovery Program is a residential program with six areas of recovery focus – the individual’s job readiness, stability, fitness (both physical and emotional), financial, academic and spiritual development.
People can also stay at the rescue mission if they need emergency shelter, but most of the occupants on any given night are participating in the recovery program.
Upon completion of the recovery program, participants tell the story of their journey at a graduation ceremony.
I opened the letter from Medlock after breakfast and in the first paragraph of her speech, she thanked her mother for her prayers, and God for deliverance from “jails, institutions, suicide and death.”
The two-page speech is a summary of 20 years of Medlock’s life as a drug and alcohol addict. While everyone was waiting for the lunch walk to the dining hall one day, I asked if she could tell me more about her story.
“Homeless, hopeless, I’ve been there. It’s a deep, dark hole,” she said. “I’ve worked in all the fast food restaurants you can think of. But every penny I made, I spent on drugs. I didn’t see sense in paying for a room because I was constantly chasing my high, and when I was high, I just ran up and down the blocks.”
Medlock told me that she cut herself off from her family in Richmond in her early 20s because she was ashamed but unwilling to quit her addiction. She then took to the streets of San Francisco to reduce the possibility of running into family members. There she created a new family for herself from friendships forged on the street. But all of them, like her, were hooked on crack cocaine, and they encouraged each other’s addictions.
After being released from jail in 2010 for possession of multiple kinds of drugs, she soon found herself as a single mother without a cent. It was her mother who brought her to the shelter last year to join a recovery program and “learn to be an adult.”
Medlock’s success in the program has been recognized and she now has a logistical leadership role at the shelter.
As she spoke about her past, her daughter, oblivious to the gravity of the story being told, alternated between spinning in circles in the middle of the living room and running over to climb onto her mother’s lap. After being interrupted mid-sentence several times, Medlock raised her voice and told the girl to stop playing. The two-year-old stopped in her tracks, tilted her face slightly downwards and pouted her lips while her wide eyes looked up to watch Medlock. It wasn’t long before both of them started laughing and the girl ran over to climb back into her mother’s lap. This time she stayed there.
“Being homeless means having to take any available sidewalk as my bed. On the streets, everything sounds and feels ten times louder,” Medlock said. “Now, I’m thankful to be here with my baby girl.”
According to Contra Costa County’s 2012 Homeless Continuum of Care survey, there are about 2,300 homeless people in Richmond, a 30 percent increase from 2009. The survey was published in September this year, and shelter staff said the number of homeless people seeking shelter is likely to continue increasing in the coming months as winter approaches.
“It’s easier to be homeless when it isn’t raining and the weather is warm,” said Tim Hammack, program director for Bay Area Rescue Mission.
The shelter won’t be able to accommodate everyone when it gets cold.
While the rescue mission is always running at full capacity of approximately 240, Hammack, who has worked with homeless people for over a decade, said that the number of people who approach them for food or shelter varies with the time of month and time of year.
At the beginning of each month, fewer meals are served and those in the recovery program sometimes return to old habits as government assistance funds and other checks fill up bank accounts and people rush out to spend.
“Give them 10 days and the money will be gone and they will be back for food at the shelter,” Hammack said.
Program directors, counselors and staff members of other shelters and organizations that work with the homeless seeking help in Richmond such as Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, Men and Women of Purpose, Knowledge 4us Fellowship and Anka Behavioral Health, reported the same increase in demand, and the same resource limitations.
One of the first things I noticed about the Bay Area Rescue Mission was the number of homeless people hanging out around outside the facility. Many stayed in the same spot day and night and rescue mission staff members told me most of them were familiar faces.
While considering the homeless in Richmond, I realized that they had the option of being able to sleep on benches and chairs at parks, bus stops and playground. The same occurrence back home could be considered a public nuisance.
Majority of the homeless people in Singapore stay in tents pitched in parks or on cardboard under bridges and highways away from the public eye. Flat benches in parks and playgrounds in Singapore have gradually been replaced with benches that have armrests separating the seats. People speculate that the move is intended to make it more difficult to sleep in public. Most bus stops now have sloping benches about 12 inches wide and I have never seen anyone sleep on those.
On top of the growing number of people sleeping on the streets of Richmond, Roberto Reyes, who assesses the suitability of each family seeking shelter at GRIP, said that more people are also approaching them for help.
About a year ago, Reyes turned away 10 families a week. Nowadays, he finds himself saying no to about 35 families weekly just over the phone – and that doesn’t include those who walk in looking for shelter.
GRIP provides food, shelter and supportive services to homeless individuals and families to help them eventually become self-sufficient. Those who enter the shelter receive help with job applications, advice on wealth management and are encouraged to enroll children in schools.
“Our waiting list now is longer than ever with 60 people waiting for a place,” Reyes said. “We have 75 beds and can reconfigure the rooms to take in as many families as we can but there’s just too many.”
Between July last year and June this year, 7,165 individuals made use of homeless services in Contra Costa County. Children and youth make up 43 percent of the homeless population — more than 3,000 young persons without permanent roofs over their heads.
Reyes said that he has noticed more fathers with children seeking help. As of September, there were four fathers with children at GRIP. In previous years, they saw only about one such case a year.
Kiev Harris, a GRIP case manager, said they try not to turn away anyone sincerely seeking to better their life. Harris shared the success story of a single father who entered GRIP late last year with three sons, all under the age of ten, after winning their custody from their abusive mother. He had just been released from prison after nine years, during which he attained a master’s degree.
“He came in here and used all the resources we provided him, got his children enrolled in school, got a job with Chevron earning $26 an hour and in six months, he was out of here with a home for him and his boys,” Harris said. “He was so proud to be paying regular rent without assistance.”
The other trend Reyes has noticed is an increase in the number of young mothers with children seeking shelter at GRIP over the last six months.
To accommodate the high influx of young children, one of the rooms at GRIP was recently converted into a nursery. They are currently housing 17 children under the age of five, several of whom are newborns, and 15 children between the ages of 6-17.
At the Bay Area Rescue Mission, I met Demetrius Davis, 37, who lived at the rescue mission with her three sons.
Other than her sons, aged ten, eight and seven, Davis also has an 18-year-old daughter who’s a freshman at UC Berkeley. Davis has never married.
“I was physically and verbally abused by the men I dated so I drank because I didn’t want to hear or feel anything,” Davis told me. “I used alcohol, became reliant on it and desired it.”
She joined the rescue mission’s recovery program in February this year to cope with her alcoholism and give her sons a home. She told me that she lost her Section 8 voucher after her landlord accused her family of “ruining the house,” but that the place had been rodent infested. So far, she says her sons have been coping well with their suddenly large family and that everyone at the shelter gets along well.
On most Sundays, Davis and her children attend church service across the street in the morning then spend some time watching Christian videos with her sons before heading out for a bit. Having displayed her commitment to the program over the past eight months, Davis is allowed to leave for six hours on Sundays.
“I love my boys and they make me want to better myself. That’s why I’m here,” she said. “I tell my boys to stay in school, dream big and stay out of trouble because it’s not worth it.”
During my stay at the rescue mission, I was given a tour of the men’s shelter, a place prohibited to residents of the women and children’s shelter. Unnecessary interaction with a member of the opposite sex in the dining hall, which is located on the ground floor of the men’s shelter building, can lead to immediate dismissal from the Bay Area Rescue Mission.
Before I was brought through the grounds, my guide shouted “female on the floor” and waited a minute before proceeding. I was shown the day room, where a few men sat watching a TV program in silence. When I entered the room, they watched me instead. Programming is limited to mostly sports and non-violent shows and shelves on one side of the day room are filled with hundreds of donated movie tapes and books.
Next, I was brought to a 14-man dormitory. The first thing I noticed were the personal effects on each man’s allocated bed space and chest of drawers. There were photographs of laughing children, little girls in party dresses, boys in soccer team uniforms, smiling couples and framed crayon drawings.
Looking around the room, my eyes stopped at a stack of books on the top of a set of drawers. There were three books on Christian living, two Bibles and a book about life inside Leavenworth prison.
Just as I was wondering what the owner of those books would be like, 49-year-old Kelly Ferreira walked to his bed in search of something. When he noticed me standing in a corner, his expression grew slightly puzzled as to why there was a female in the room. I immediately introduced myself and explained my work to him before asking him how he had come to be at the shelter.
“They took my house, so I broke in, four times,” Ferreira said with a grin.
Ferreira went to jail four times for trespassing on his foreclosed Martinez home, which he lost in 2010.
“It’s mine,” he said. “The bank couldn’t sell my house because they’d be showing the place and I’d be there.”
He said that he stopped breaking in to his house after his fourth arrest because he was tired of losing all his possessions. Each time he was arrested by the police, he left behind all his clothes, cash, cellphone and other valuables that he never got back. Instead, he began breaking into other emptied-out houses.
While homelessness is on the rise, the number of vacant homes in Richmond is also increasing. In 2010, there were 4,000 vacant housing units. This number increased to 4,920 in 2011.
With a sheepish face, the broad-shouldered man told me he would find out the names of the previous homeowners, draft a lease and pretend to be renting the place. As part of the cash for keys program, he said banks would then pay him about $5,000 to move out.
Ferreira moved into the men’s shelter at the rescue mission in January this year. With only two months more to completing the recovery program, he beamed as he told me about plans to marry his girlfriend of two years.
“At that time, I was full of anger. Someone took my home. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t use someone else’s home,” he said. “But I eventually felt there was no use being mad. There’re a lot of empty houses around here and it’s a shame.”
Leaving the shelter, I began to have an idea of a split in the homeless population between the willingly homeless and those forced by circumstance. Those who chose to walk out of the houses they had grown up in had usually been addicted to one substance or another. And what had often started as experimentation with a coping method for some soon took over their lives — a situation that strict drug laws in Singapore seem to help manage.
As I spoke to the women in the Bay Area Rescue Mission recovery program and listened to their dreams of someday having a house to call their own, I was constantly reminded that I had the privilege of returning to not one, but two homes, in Berkeley and in Singapore. Just having the options eliminated and reduced the intensity of any fear I tried to share with the men and women at the shelter.
The experience also made it obvious that those at the shelter had received and taken advantage of the opportunities available to help them walk out of homelessness. With the roof came a schedule that took some of the decision-making powers out of their hands and therefore freed their minds to worry about things that could help them advance in life – jobs, education, homes and the future. The truly homeless were out on the streets, not in shelters.
While I toyed with the idea of moving onto the streets for a couple of nights, the suggestion was met with shock and then disapproval by everyone I spoke to including volunteers, shelter residents and the actually homeless. I was told: “The first time I saw you, I wondered who you were, coming here all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. You stick out like a sore thumb.”
But I was still curious about how one went from roof to no roof.
In Richmond alone, an estimated 854 people became homeless over the last year, according to Contra Costa County’s 2012 Homeless Continuum of Care survey. In 2010, it was almost 1,000. And in 2009, the number was about 500.
Census Bureau statistics state that 20 percent of Richmond residents live below the poverty level and one in three people are unemployed.
“Imagine a mother with a two-year-old and a baby, how can she go out and look for a job?” asked Reyes, the GRIP family housing program manager.
“We have degree holders living here who apply to work at JCPenney and McDonalds, and they get rejected because they’re overqualified,” Harris said.
And when they are repeatedly turned down, Harris says he often sees shelter residents become despondent and return to what they know best – drugs and alcohol.
Antwon Cloird, the program director at Men and Women of Purpose, says that newly homeless people need to be helped out of their situations soon before they become comfortable. “If you stay long enough in an environment, you’ll become part of the environment,” he said.
Cloird has been working with homeless people for decades. He told me he was once a drug addict who started smoking weed when he was nine and quickly moved on to crack cocaine. Curious, I asked him how he got started. He said that he had “taken up the environment” as his brother was always smoking weed.
When he was 24, he left to “go get loaded” because his mother strongly disapproved of his drug habit.
I told him that where I came from, people could be jailed up to 10 years for consuming weed and sentenced to death for bringing more than 500 grams into the country, and Cloird burst out laughing.
Calling out to two of his other colleagues, he asked: “Did you hear that? Where she comes from, people die because of weed!”
I also told Cloird that if a person was caught with more than 30 grams of cocaine on him, he could be hung. His expression of amazement continued.
“I needed crack everyday,” Cloird said. “I was caught in its grip.”
After six attempts at completing a recovery program, he managed to turn his life around. Cloird founded Men and Women of Purpose to offer programs aimed at reducing drug abuse, homelessness and chronic unemployment. However, he acknowledged that many homeless people remain undocumented as they chose the lifestyle.
“The figures are only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There are many more people living outside the numbers and they don’t exist in the system.”
A staff member at the Bay Area Rescue Mission, which is entirely privately funded, said that they are currently in discussion with the county to participate in the next survey. And when they do, the number of documented homeless people will increase considerably.
During one of my conversations with Cloird, he mentioned a friend named Christopher, who lived in a “hooch hidden by weeds.” My mind immediately picked up and latched onto those words and waited for an opportunity to ask for an introduction. Surely a man living in something I did not know among weeds would be interesting to speak to, I thought. When I asked Cloird later on if he could arrange for us to meet, he laughed and told me that the man showed up at the GRIP Souper Center every day for lunch. Of course we could meet.
The next day at 2 p.m. outside the Souper Center, Cloird introduced me to Christopher Bowman, a fair-skinned slim-built man with white facial hair and bright blue eyes. He looked every bit like a hiker with his sun-reddened skin, wide-brim khaki-colored sun hat and round-collared tee under a double-breasted khaki shirt rolled up to his forearms, backpack, belted light-blue jeans and lace-up hiking boots. And I soon found out why.
We got into Cloird’s car with Christopher seated in front to give directions to the road closest to his “hooch” — a bit of military-slang to describe his makeshift home.
In the car, he turned back to look at me and I could sense him sizing me up. “I’m Christopher Wayne Bowman, former U.S. Army Sergeant first-class and Le Cordon Blue certified professional chef,” he said. “I’m OK showing you my hooch but I can’t have people knowing where it is OK?”
It took 10 minutes for us to drive from the Souper Center on 22nd street to an open gate. We then left the car and Cloird turned to warn me that we had some hiking to do. Christopher took off ahead of us but soon strayed off the road onto the grass and deftly climbed down some rocks to go around a fence. I tentatively placed one foot on the sandy rocks and held on tight to the fence to repeat the feat Bowman had made seem so easy. A slip of the foot and I would have ended up in the creek. Cloird, in his dark blue suit and shiny, black dress shoes, followed. It was only with considerable difficulty that both of us made it without embarrassing ourselves while Bowman stood watching us.
As we trekked, it became obvious how fit Bowman was despite his age. He jumped, dodged and maneuvered through the obstacle course with ease, all the while telling me about his adventures in the Army. When I commented on how deceptively easy he made the trail seem, he laughed and said: “I was in the U.S. Army. I lived in jungles and have been to five continents and 31 countries.” He pointed at his Ozark Trail hiking shoes, which he bought for $190, and said, “The Army taught me to take care of my feet because they’ll take care of me.”
When we passed a small tunnel, created by an overhead road, with the creek we passed earlier running through it, Bowman walked closer to the shelter and pointed to the right side. “That’s where I slept last winter. I had a friend and he slept there,” he said, pointing to the opposite side of the creek. It was poorly lit and I had to squint before I could see the small platforms he was pointing at. They had moved in to get out of the rain, and by March, they had moved back out into the sunlight.
We continued on our way, with Bowman in front, pushing aside ferns as tall as his six-foot frame, walking so quickly I had to run to keep up. This was clearly his territory.
Five minutes later, he turned suddenly and pointed to the right. “There’s my friend’s hooch right there,” he said. I looked but could see nothing and he laughed. I was beginning to get used to the sound of his laughter as he showed me his world. He told me to take a step left and this time, when I tiptoed and looked between some ferns, I saw a small orange-and-green tent, a couple of box containers and a pill bottle strewn on a white mat laid on the ground.
It was another five-minutes of pushing through the jungle of plants that sunk their tiny hooks into my jacket and hands before we arrived at his space. Once there, Bowman lit a cigarette while I stood by the side, unsure of how much of his personal space I should try to invade. When he finished his cigarette, he stooped over and slid open the door to his box-home. On his fours, he climbed in and emerged a few seconds later with a can of beer in hand, cracked it open and sat down with his back against his house, legs bent at the knees. “Go on, go in and take a look,” he said.
I bent over to climb in and promptly fell over. I had forgotten about my backpack and it had hit the “doorframe.” He laughed while I sheepishly crawled into the small space on my hands and knees like he had done.
Inside it, there was a single-sized bed with covers laid over it, a bedside table made out of old wooden crates and a two-story plastic crate shelf filled with some books, cans of beer and ready-to-eat snacks. Two United States of America flags hung around the small room. Another was laid out upside down on his bedside table. A drawing of a ship on water filled a small cloth panel on one side and on the other was a picture of a woman in a bikini posing with a motorcycle. Overhead, books, marker pens and torchlight were jammed between some wooden beams.
Sitting on the ground with him outside his box house, I asked him why he didn’t try to get a job. He told me that his case officer has told him not to even try as he had applied to the Supplemental Security Income disability program. He told me he had been shot two times and stabbed three times while serving in the U.S. Army.
Unlike in the United States, welfare is handed out sparingly in Singapore. Disability care goes mostly to those who need help getting around to earn a living, cannot afford an assistive device necessary for survival, or display talent in a specific area. Low-income families can apply for financial assistance and family care schemes with food vouchers. But eligibility requirements are high and not many qualify. The country also does not give out unemployment benefits, as people are expected to help themselves. Instead of money, those who are laid off are offered retraining opportunities to gain new skills and reenter the workforce.
In addition to strict drug laws that ensure that any drug-related activity remains underground and behind closed doors, the Singaporean government only helps those who help themselves. A compulsory savings plan for all Singaporeans and permanent residents in Singapore funds healthcare, retirement and housing. Both employee and employer contribute a sum of money, depending on factors such as monthly income, age group and employment sector. The majority of the money can be withdrawn at age 55 but a minimum sum must be left behind for monthly withdrawals beginning when the person turns 62.
Despite strong Western influence, the Singaporean society remains essentially Asian. Filial piety is expected and when it is not done, the government offers to step in. People over age 60 can sue their children for not supporting them if the children are capable of doing so. Because families in Singapore remain closely knit, a person who chooses to leave home has “run away” and is considered a “missing person” rather than homeless. It is acceptable and common for 25-year-olds to live with their parents, and teens think twice before running away since they are likely to be picked up by police officers and returned to their parents.
With both cultural norms and governmental intervention working to ensure its people are capable of caring for themselves throughout their lives, homelessness is not an option in Singapore. And underlying all the programs is the Asian concept of “face” — the Western equivalent of reputation — where self-sufficiency is fundamental to holding your head high.
As I continued spending time with Christopher over the next month, he continued to surprise me with the pride with which he carries himself. He would pull out my chair for me when we had lunch at GRIP and insist that I sit on his sun-hat to protect my clothes when we rested on a concrete ledge. And when I asked him why, he would always thump his left chest with a fist and say “I’m Indian.” — a proud nod to his Cherokee Indian heritage.
As he began to open up more, I learnt that he had attended Navy schools, decided to join the U.S. Army, and after debriefing in 1987, worked as a chef in Monterey and Seattle. He designed and blueprinted million-dollar kitchens for more than a decade and has done all sorts of woodwork. And he isn’t without family. His sister lives in Kansas City with her family, and in her garage are thousand-dollar suits that Christopher used to wear and motorcycles he used to ride.
“I can get out of this any time,” he said.
On a day he received his monthly government payout, Christopher went straight to a smoke shop to buy a packet of tobacco and three packs of cigarette paper. At the counter, he told the man that he would like to pay for the two packs of cigarette paper he owed. He returned between $5 and $40 to some friends, then made plans to meet with others who owed him as much as $100. He knew the dates each of them would have money in their bank accounts again.
“Sometimes, the enemy is friend,” he said. “Sometimes, friend is enemy. What are you?”
I realized that the homeless survived often by depending on one another. For those who had been cast out or had chosen to step out of socially accepted ways of living, they formed relationships with others like themselves, whether they were united by their addictions or the mere lack of a roof. They shared a mutual understanding and money moved freely, based on trust and the knowledge that they would be able to reclaim their loans at the start of the next month.
I turned to Christopher one afternoon as we were sitting on a bench at the marina in Richmond, where he hangs out often. “Why do you choose to live this way?” I asked. It was quiet for a while as he looked away and took a long drag on his cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke. When he returned my gaze, his usually light blue eyes were dark and seemed to contain a tempered anger. “I have things I’m trying to figure out,” he said.
Christopher found out about the place where his box home now stands through a friend he met at GRIP. His friend, the owner of the orange-and-green tent, has been living in the area for about six years. Christopher said his “hooch” is 200 yards from his friend’s. And the wiry man is evidently proud of it. “I built it with my own hands and I have a million-dollar view,” he said.
As Christopher sent me back to civilization from the wilderness surrounding his home, we paused as he sat for a minute on a roadside wall. Taking a mouthful of beer, he said, “Sometimes, my friends and I come out here, drink our beer and watch the sunset. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The place, surrounded by tall grass and tiny white and yellow wildflowers, had a creek that curved gently into the light and joined with the twinkling sea. In a distance, I could make out the Golden Gate Bridge and for a moment, I forgot I was in Richmond. There were no sounds of traffic, approaching trains, or dogs. Lit by the afternoon sun with the bright blue sky as its backdrop, I could have been looking out the window of a pricey downtown waterfront apartment.
“It’s purgatory,” he added, before taking another swig of beer. “It’s neither heaven nor hell because I don’t hear police sirens or trains horn from here. I have peace. But someday, I’d like to come home and be able to flick on a light switch instead of turning on a torch.”