I was at a strip mall in Oildale considering my options for lunch-hour takeout when a thin, sun-ripened man walked past me. He was carrying three very full, 24-ounce cups of water, moving carefully so as not to spill.
I instantly switched from burger mode to reporter mode. "’Scuse me," I said. "Are you homeless?"
That seemed blunt and tactless, I know, but I had been scolded just an hour before by a woman I'd spoken to as she rested in North Beardsley Park beside a shopping cart brimming with cans, bottles, cardboard and old clothes. I asked her three different ways — artfully, I thought — to describe her living situation. She wasn't having it. "Just say 'homeless,'" she snapped. "You can say the word."
So that's how I approached this young man, and it seems to have been the right way to go about it. He looked at me with sad but warm eyes. "Yes," he said.
His said his name was Danny and he was a regular user of heroin and methamphetamine. He had worked in construction and the oil fields but now, at age 35, he relied mostly on the hand-scrawled cardboard sign he brought to city intersections. "Just Hungry," his sign read, because, he said, he almost always was.
We chatted for 10 minutes, just the two of us behind the strip mall, and then I shook his hand and left. I walked 100 feet before I realized I'd forgotten to write down the message phone number he'd offered. I spun around and walked back, spotting him, mostly obscured, behind a huge, freestanding HVAC unit. He had taken off his T-shirt and was giving himself a shower, or at least a half-shower — slowly, judiciously, pouring his limited supply of water over his head, face and shoulders.
He saw me, set down his cup and walked my way.
Might I take your photo?, I asked. I could think of nothing that might better portray his circumstances than the scene playing out before me now. Homelessness had not blunted his self-worth so much that he had abandoned hygiene, even if he had to go to these extremes. No, he said, I don't really want that in the paper.
I felt a little embarrassed for having asked. But I needed a photo. How about a picture with the backpack, empty cups and wet asphalt in the background, behind you?, I asked. No, he said, I don't really want that in the paper, either.
I settled for a simple head-and-torso shot.
And then it dawned on me that Danny didn't merely crave hygiene, didn't merely want to be presentable. He also valued the commodities, elusive in his isolated world, that most of America's homed population take for granted: privacy, self-esteem, respect.
He wanted his dignity. And he deserved it.
You have to wonder how many homeless drug addicts — and the Venn diagram linking those circumstances shows a substantial overlap — would find the will to overcome their situation if dignity were in the equation. Respect given, dignity displayed.
Homeless advocates know all of this already, of course. The rest of us like to think we do, too.
If we really meant it, though, we might consider:
● Public toilets, available 24/7, perhaps similar to the solar-powered, mobile restrooms used in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Side benefit: cleaner sidewalks and parking lots for the rest of us.
● Public showers. Public soap.
● Mobile methadone programs, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has refused to license since 2007. Side benefit: realistic treatment options for addicts in rural communities like the stricken Kern River Valley.
● Additional, suitable housing where services, such as GED and certificate programs, are readily available.
● Continued exploration of the existing funding sources to make it happen. Encourage elected officials to create more.
Dignity promotes motivation, and people like Danny could use a jolt of both.
He grew up in Wasco and attended high school there before transferring to Centennial High. He left in the middle of his junior year, 85 credits short of graduation. Does he ever think about earning his GED? "Not so much," he says.
He says he has been homeless, off and on, for 10 years, due mostly to drug use. He'd walk away from the heroin and meth if he could. "I'll get tired of it and go off but then always go back," he says.
His criminal record contributes to his sense of hopelessness: He spent time in state prison on drug charges. That stretch of time would've been ideal for GED study but instead it's just a blot on job applications.
These days, Danny occasionally hangs around the 99 Cents Only strip mall on Olive Drive near Roberts Lane, where I found him Thursday. He sleeps "wherever," sometimes on a soft patch of ground just off Olive with his brother and his brother's girlfriend.
When he needs to eat, he grabs his "Just Hungry" sign and heads to a busy intersection; the best spot, he says, is near the McDonald's on Rosedale Highway.
"But the homeless have ruined it over there with graffiti," he says. "Makes you not want to be homeless, that's how bad it is."
Makes you not want to be homeless. Yes, that's pretty bad.