Homeless in Richmond: The story of one man who must leave the street he calls home

on October 12, 2011

For almost 20 years, Ized Stewart has lived outside on the corner of 24th Street and Barrett Avenue.

He’s a familiar presence, known to a generation of locals for surrounding himself with mounds of bags containing anything from garbage to stuffed animals. He’s often seen feeding the local birds, reading the newspaper or listening to his small radio.

Some know him as George, some simply as “the bag man.”

No one is quite sure how he ended up homeless in Richmond. In fact, no one really seems to know him well at all.

“He’s unlike most homeless people on the street,” said Judy Lee who works at Wilson and Kratzer Mortuary on Barrett Ave.

Stewart looks out toward the Civic Center. He is without his usual piles of bags, which were taken by the police when he was arrested. Stewart could have obtained his belongings upon release, but seems to have chosen not to. Lt. Bisa French said he had over $200 in cash among his belongings. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

She has been there for 10 years and sees Stewart every day. “Most people cause trouble, they’re doped up, they’re in your face, they’re aggressive, they’re all over the place. George is just a solitary soul who sleeps on the sidewalk.”

Two weeks ago, Stewart was arrested and briefly removed from the 100 yards of pavement he has called home for two decades. Now, although he may return from time to time, it is unlikely that he will be a permanent fixture on that little stretch of road.

Stewart is not hard to spot. A few days after his release, I found him sitting on the curb outside the Wat Lao Rattanaram Buddhist temple with his characteristic plastic bag securely tied over his thin dreads. He was without his piles of belongings, but had a large foam poster of a rose on the ground beside him.

“Are you Mr. Stewart?” I asked. He gave a slow nod.

It was a sunny day, but Stewart seemed comfortable on the side of the road in a puffy black jacket and thick white tube socks. Over the next half hour, we talked—or, rather, I asked questions. Stewart responded with inaudible muttering to some and silence to others, but a few of his answers filled in the gaps.

Stewart’s situation may not seem to be particularly different from that of many others. He is a product of the Vietnam War-era, like many of the men and women who roam the streets of the Bay Area. What makes Stewart remarkable is that he has been at the same spot through an incredible amount of development and change. He has seen the streets in a way that no one else has – even if he won’t share his observations.

When asked how Richmond has morphed through the years, Stewart smiled coyly. “Not much,” he said.

 

On September 27, Stewart was picked up by the police and charged with camping in a public space. The cops know and like Stewart, said Lt. Bisa French, who grew up in Richmond and said she has seen Stewart since she was a girl. But in recent years there have been complaints about him blocking the sidewalk and living outside on a main roadway. His usual location, after all, is within eyesight of the Civic Center, which includes City Hall and underwent a multi-million dollar renovation just a couple of years ago.

For the past six months, French and a team of officers have offered alternative options to Stewart — they brought out a social worker from Veteran’s Services, who could have put Stewart in a hotel room immediately and given him access to special veteran’s funds. They tried to give Stewart information about Operation Dignity, a group that helps homeless veterans. They cited Stewart three times for camping in public, giving him warnings that he had to leave the vicinity. Stewart even appeared in court to plead his case, “which surprised us all,” said French.

Stewart responded to all the judge’s questions. But when the city attorney said they would drop all charges against him if he did not return to his spot on Barrett Avenue, Stewart went silent.

Arresting him was their last resort.

Stewart is a quiet man. Most people say he has never responded to them at all. Sometimes, said French, he will start saying nonsensical things if he wants someone to leave him alone.

“I offer him food and he’ll say, ‘Thank you,’” said Meyain Saeturn, project manager at Grace Lutheran on Barrett Ave. “But one time he was talking to himself and asked, ‘Oh, you’re the dancing queen?’”

She laughed. Stewart is harmless and, considering how much he reads, seems to be pretty intelligent, she said.

He doesn’t seem interested in communicating with other people, but sometimes he’ll surprise you. When I asked Stewart if I could take his photograph, he asked me about my camera.

“What’s the range of your lens?”

I showed him a bit about the Canon I was using for the day, telling him about the intricacies of zooming. He asked a few other questions and nodded in appreciation. Finally, I readied my camera and he looked straight at me, undaunted.

Stewart was released from prison last week almost as swiftly as he was picked up. Larry Wilson, housing counselor for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, saw Stewart in Pinole on Wednesday, just the day after the arrest. Stewart had hoisted a stick with a bag over his shoulder as he walked along the road.

“You’re the guy who works for the housing program,” Stewart said when Wilson stopped to talk to him.

Wilson, surprised that Stewart knew who he was, asked if he could give him a lift in his car back to Barrett Avenue.

“No, I’m out for my constitution,” Stewart responded before pointing to a passing bike rider. “He’s out for his constitution, too.”

Wilson gave Stewart a bottle of water before leaving and, the next day, Stewart was back to his regular perch.

“Did you walk all the way back here?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yes, I walked — slowly.”

Stewart is known for avoiding typical assistance that many homeless people accept. The nearby Grace Lutheran Church holds food drives twice a week, but none of the employees have ever seen Stewart there. The only service Stewart accepts is water from the church’s outdoor tap and sandwiches from passing strangers.

Stewart has a clear attachment to Barrett Avenue. The day I visited, he said he had literally sat in the same spot for nearly eight hours.

“Why do you like it here?” I asked.

“Look around,” he said. “What do you see?”

The farmers’ market in the Civic Center parking lot was coming to a close and people milled around, packing produce in cardboard boxes and breaking down large white tents. Seagulls and pigeons swooped from the sky to pick up leftover bits of food, cars zipped past along the busy road, people walked in and out of buildings, but nothing was loud or disorderly. Things moved with a steady, constant beat.

Stewart scanned the scene in front of him and, for a moment, we sat together on the sidewalk, just watching the world move by on Barrett Avenue.

If Stewart continues to live on that block, the police will arrest him every week until he leaves, French said. He is more difficult to find now, but he doesn’t seem to stray too far from Barrett Avenue.

The last time I saw him, he was outside a Civic Center meeting room reading Roosevelt in Retrospect, a biography about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by John Gunther. He had collected more things since our last meeting, but did not seem interested in talking. He showed me his book before ignoring me.

No more questions.

15 Comments

  1. grace on October 12, 2011 at 11:22 am

    I grew up here. I’ve seen him for years. If someone is complaining that he’s an eye sore, the police have to move him. He is one person, not bothering anyone. I think it is sad. Why uproot him now? Oh, well. Guess that’s the way things are now.



  2. nojustice on October 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    This is bullshit! really! what has he ever done to anybody people are really ignorant he has done nothing to no one. Can’t he have that lil bit of piece and respect. I would often times share my farmers market fruits with him I was wondering why I haven’t seen him lately. 2 the police is it really that hard to turn the other cheek or give a blind eye how ever you say it. To take away the last and only bit of joy he has left because of what some foolish person feels is senseless that man doesn’t deserve that he’s been there since I was a kid and years before show some respect.



  3. suburbanjoe on October 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    What, exactly, is ignorant about not wanting bums sleeping on the street corner? This is a health code issue–his as wells as the publics. Your view is what’s wrong with Richmond and why people are leaving by the droves.



    • Judy Miranda on October 13, 2011 at 1:11 pm

      While it is not wrong to want to clean up the streets of problems-it should be more that one soul. there are a lot of violent people that live out there-people know Ike/Ized. I have in the 30 years I have known him never seen him drunk or disorderly. Never feared him. Never had him offer drugs to my children-nor seen him selling young women. Go set on 23rd street -any where from Reem to Mac Donald same on 22nd and watch-see the dudes on bikes with the back packs that follow the hookers..most carry hand guns-most are street bosses most belong in prison! Watch the way the cops go by…ya lets get rid of the eye sore after all we have an ordinence against him..But no one leaves Richmond for the increased levels of crime or the hookers or the dope deals…God forbide a man that bothers no-one sits and waits..



    • Tracy on October 14, 2011 at 1:16 am

      Sadly, people are leaving this neighborhood in droves because their houses are being foreclosed on… Not one person has left here because of the bag dude. While he is a shock to the eyes for the 1st minute you see him, you settle into his peaceful nature almost immediately.. As for the health issues, I have never heard of him doing anything nasty. I do not think he or anybody who gives him sympathy is what is “wrong with Richmond” quite the opposite. How long have you lived here? SuburbanJoe?



    • loverichmond on October 14, 2011 at 9:17 am

      I have lived in Richmond since I was 3 and “George” has been there for quite sometime. I would always see him when I walked home from school and never felt strange around him. People are not leaving Richmond because of George they leave because of the violence, drugs, prostitution and the fact that it seems to be getting worse. Suburbanjoe I think your vision of George is wrong I would rather keep him on Barrett and get rid of the pimps, dealers and hoes on 23rd.



  4. Judy Miranda on October 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    It is amazing that the pimps and prostitutes that fill 23rd and 22nd streets are invisable. Police go by without a look. The whole world can ignore them as they over-run the streets. Drug deals are witnessed through out the MAIN STREETS-no problem..But Ized is an eyesore so lets get rid of him…My family has long given food and clothing to Ike as we have always called him. During a very cold wet winter he once took refuge in an abandoned garage years ago and left it no worse than he found it. Instead of messing with someone that is no real issue why dosen’t the city put some effort into enforcing the trafficing of women and children..arresting drugies and putting pimps and child molesters away forever. forgive me I forgot those are a lot less important than protecting the view from city hall. a family I know reported many times the going ons of Richmond pimps as they worked their trade out of a house that was abandoned on 22nd street-alas they were told nothing could be done as when the invaders were asked to leave they did-right for 10 mins–Where is the LAW?????



  5. Edwin on October 14, 2011 at 5:22 am

    MR.Stewart deserves some respect; he is the patriarch of homelessness in Richmond. In this situation, we have an opportunity to become a Good Samaritan. Ask him once more, is it any way we can help to move you into a facility or the city council could grants him a one-time special circumstance permit to live on the street (freedom). Let the wise make the decision, not the intellectuals, but keep it in realm of human dignity. I just heard on the news, in San Francisco some people wants to hold an artist feet to the fire for killing a dog… a DOG some twenty or thirty years ago. Please don’t let us fall into the slippery slope of treating or caring more about animals than people. It’s all down hill.



  6. ***** on October 14, 2011 at 10:36 am

    THATS SOME STRAIGHT BULLSHIT!!!! HE BEEN THERE SO LONG DOING NOTHING TO HARM ANYBODY OR ANYTHING….. PUNK POLICE BLIND TO ALL THE THE PROSTITUTION GOING AROUND 23rd AND ALL THESE OTHER STREETS.I SEE HOES WALKING RIGHT NEXT TO CHILDREN WHEN THEY GET OFF SCHOOL HALF NAKED POLICE DON’T DO NOTHING BOUT THAT SMH!! BUT THEY TRIPPIN OFF SOMEBODY THAT IS JUST THERE DOING NOTHING



  7. anonymous on October 14, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Its not the police at fault here. It was a decision made by someone on the Richmond CITY COUNCIL. That person decided that Ized was an eyesore and shouldn’t be so near the “new improved” city hall. Moving him doesn’t make city hall look any better!!!!
    They even made the police arrest him in the middle of the night so no one would see. Its complete BS, especially since he has not hurt one soul, bothered anyone, or even is a threat to the community. He minds his own business, appreciates his surroundings, and keeps to himself. They should leave him alone! Instead one jerk on city council is worried about IMAGE versus worried about human beings.



  8. Jamielu Albania on October 14, 2011 at 10:50 am

    My grandparents knew this man since 1975 & I knew him since I was born. 20 YEARS. Leave this man alone. He brings no harm to the streets or the environment. The only man who really has no problem with his lifestyle and don’t have to lie about it to get money cause the man don’t ever ask! Some people have nothing to do but complain. He don’t deserve this. WHY NOW. It’s been more than 20 years already. Let him be.



  9. Dj on October 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Ive seen this man for years! I remember him from my childhood and most my friends do as well… Jokingly we say “you know you’re from richmond if you know the bag man.” This man is completely harmless if people complain that he may be an eye sore, I think they look around because in Richmond they’re are far worse problems and I think most of us can agree with that. I’ve never seen him asking for money but I do remember once being in high school and a few friends and I were getting on the bus when one of my friends jokingly asked him for money for the bus fare and he reached into his pocket to pull out some change, my friend of course did not accept but how amazing is it that a man that seemingly has nothing is willing to share some change for a strange kid that was being obnoxious????



  10. Shiloh on October 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    According to people that know him Mr. Stewart has family that wishes he would come home. They live in a very nice home in a comfortable part of Richmond. It’s a choice Mr. Stewart has made to live out there. It’s also our failure with mental health care. We are now a system that will not invest in the mental health of those who cannot afford it. Why do mental hospitals/clinics etc., drop off patients in front of shelters or put them in a bus/taxi sending them to shelters? Some patients have been left in the middle of the streets wandering even in the hospital gowns. Mr. Stewart is a very nice person but no, he shouldn’t be allowed to live on the sidewalk in the middle of Richmond. He should be helped. He is a very bright man and have become accustomed to his living condition. Arresting him doesn’t help. Helping him will.



  11. richmond_native on October 14, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    This man is Richmond! I have seen him around the Barrett area since I waS a little girl….I thought his name was Isaac….he is harmless, doesn’t beg or bother anyone…whoever directed the police to arrest him should be ashamed…try finding his family to see if they can covince him to accept some help….jail is not the answer for this man! May God continue to bless and keep him.



  12. humble subject on October 24, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    One hundred years ago San Francisco had its own Emperor Norton, a homeless man everyone came to accept and love. I would like to proclaim for Richmond our own Emperor Stewart, the kind, benevolent all knowing poobah of Barrett Ave. All hail the Emperor and for chrissakes leave the man alone.



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