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.
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.
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