Homelessness has become a thorny issue with some folks these days right here in good old Susanville. At last count nearly two-dozen homeless people have made their camps along the Susan River, extracting different reactions from different people. On one side are those who feel threatened by the homeless, who believe they are criminals, drug addicts or worse who choose this lifestyle and are unworthy of our concern or our respect. On the other side are those who feel compassion and believe we need to offer sympathy and programs to help these unfortunate folks turn their lives around. And there are folks whose opinions are somewhere between these two poles.
According to the Susanville Police Department, most of the homeless in Susanville are not from out of the area, (contrary to what you always hear about a local faith-based operation attracting them), and a recent sweep along the river revealed not one of these homeless people had a warrant out for their arrest.
My intention is not to take sides in this argument (although I guess I fall closer to the sympathy side of the tree). Instead, I just want to tell you about my homeless experience. Yep, that’s right. Once upon a time many years ago, I was a homeless person. And it happened so easily.
I was living in Fresno, and I had a dispute with my employer. I quit, and I was absolutely sure I would get unemployment because they had treated me unfairly. But it didn’t work out that way. The unemployment worker sided with my employer, and when I protested they were lying, she said I could force them to make those statements under oath at a hearing. I responded, do you really think a liar will tell the truth simply because you put them under oath? Please.
I wasn’t a rich guy. I was living paycheck to paycheck and renting a house from a friend when I lost my unemployment case. I guess I could have stayed at his house for a few months and made him evict me and put us both through all that unpleasantness, but that didn’t seem like a very friendly course of action. So instead I put my things in storage and took the first job I could find. In another town. At minimum wage.
Obviously I didn’t have the money for first and last month’s rent and a deposit and all of that, so renting a new house was way beyond my means. Luckily I had an old pickup truck with a camper shell.
At first, every few days I’d rent a motel room and enjoy some real luxuries like a hot shower, TV and a soft bed. Then I discovered a nearby campground with showers, and I spent more than a few nights there with a stuttering owl in the trees. Hu-hu-hu-hu-whoooo, he cried all night long. Really.
Sometimes I’d stay at a rest stop along the highway with all the big rigs making an awful racket. One night a worker said he’d noticed me staying there before. He told me this was a rest stop, not a campground, and he threatened to turn me in to the highway patrol. I told him to do whatever he had to do and climbed into the back of my pickup. I never stayed there again.
After 90 homeless days and nights at my new job, the boss told me the company couldn’t afford to give me a raise despite a glowing review from my supervisor. The boss also wouldn’t allow me to accept an offer to transfer to another company shop in a bigger city where I would make more money because the big cities couldn’t steal talent from the smaller ones all the time.
I was stuck with no way out, so I gave two week’s notice. As fate would have it, on my very last day in town, I got another job offer, and I negotiated lodging at a local motel as part of my pay. Then I got offered a second job. Before too long I had a little money in the bank, had traded my old pickup for a newer vehicle, and I finally clawed my way back into the everyday real world.
Now maybe I was a little different than most — I was very motivated and absolutely determined this homeless thing would not be my life. Then again, it was probably easier for me because I wasn’t drinking or using drugs. I was mobile, and I had a place to stay — the back of my truck — and really, that’s probably what saved me.
I never had to camp by the river, and I doubt I would have been able to keep my new job had I been forced to live that way. Let me say I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. It’s simply my homeless story. It happened to me. I lived it. I survived it. So I know how hard it can be to recover from some simple turn of bad luck.
Before I sold my truck, I gave the camper shell to another homeless guy I’d met who put pallets under it and used it for shelter in an empty lot next to a dirty alley. He covered it with leaves and branches so it looked like a big brush pile. He hoped the cops wouldn’t roust him. I hoped it wouldn’t catch fire.
Here’s what I learned. Before you judge the homeless too brutally, just imagine how quickly your life would unravel if your paycheck suddenly stopped. And are you lucky enough to have an old truck with a camper shell to hide in?
The homeless in Las Vegas, Nevada now face six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. I hope we can find a better, more humane solution here in Lassen County than making homelessness a crime and locking people up.