Don’t talk about it, be about it

Story Highlights:

  • Perspective from a transient group of homeless people
  • Input from store owners in the community

There are two sides to every story, and the homelessness situation in San Luis Obispo is no exception. After growing up in the suburbs surrounded by negative feelings toward the homeless population, I spent the past couple of weeks hearing the stories and perspectives from some of these transient individuals.

Just Passing Through
Patrick, Tori and Ernesto spent a warm Tuesday morning on Higuera Street, trying to gather enough funds to hitch out of town. While they waited, each of them told me about their experiences.

Patrick (Left), Tori (Middle), Ernesto (Right) and Rico the dog all met while on a train ride in Tucson. In addition to two other members of their group, Steve-o and Emily (not pictured), they travel and share everything together.

Patrick (Left), Tori (Middle), Ernesto (Right) and Rico the dog all met while on a train ride in Tucson. In addition to two other members of their group, Steve-o and Emily (not pictured), they travel and share everything together.

Patrick is a 24 year old from Miami, Florida. Because he spends 75% of his time traveling alone, he has been to over forty-five states and even some neighboring countries. He earned his associate’s degree in Orlando at a community college, and tried to pursue a degree in film before dropping out. In regards to homelessness in San Luis Obispo, Patrick said the amount of aggression between the homeless and the police is about average compared to other cities.

“It depends on the amount of interaction. The police treat us badly, but they are people also. Cops are educated and smart, so it is all a matter of interaction. I am a citizen at the end of the day and I try to act accordingly.”

Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Tori is the youngest of the group. She has been in and out of jail five times since she was 15, and blames the bad reputation that homelessness gets.“There are too many people in this lifestyle. It ruins it for the rest of us who are struggling to make ends meet. Now, homeless people are actually targeted by police officers,” said Tori.

She recalls a time when she was approached by a police officer. “I was told I was intoxicated, even when I was completely sober,” said Tori. When she tried to talk with the police officer, he simply flipped all one hundred pounds of her onto her front and arrested her for resistance. She was refused a Breathalyzer and was not read her Miranda Rights before being unfairly arrested. When she reached the police station, another officer took one look at her and asked, “You’re drunk?”

Ernesto, a 26-year-old from Tennessee, went to college at Cleveland State University. He estimates he has been in and out of jail over 30 times, not including the times he has been arrested and then released immediately afterwards. Ernesto said that the trick to being let go is to make sure he is not alone when arrested. “If you have at least one witness, there is more credibility,” said Ernesto.

Ernesto and Tori have known each other for almost three months. After meeting on the road, they have stuck together ever since.

Ernesto and Tori have known each other for almost three months. After meeting on the road, they have stuck together ever since.

Like Anybody Else
During my time with them, hardly any one stopped to give them money. “We are just people. Most of society does not pay attention to us, but the ones that do are really nice to us,” said Tori. I quickly learned that they stay together no matter what, even if that means it is more difficult to get help.

“It’s different between a group. When we are by ourselves, we tend to get more money. Right now we need supplies,” said Patrick.

Ernesto, Patrick, Tori, Emily and Steve-o have traveled cross-country together and are currently headed to Oakland where they hope to settle down with some friends.

Community Interactions
On the other side of the spectrum, many downtown business owners are unhappy with the rise of homelessness in the area. “My main concern with homelessness in San Luis Obispo is how so few are actually from here. Many migrate here because of the infrastructure,” said Jack McKeen, a downtown store employee, “and every so often there are spurts of new people that show up. Some of them are genuinely good people, but it is more important to take care of our own first.”

The major day-to-day problems that many employees face with the homeless in downtown include stealing and aggressive panhandling. “They get in customer’s faces, and it hurts business,” said Carlos Macias, another downtown store employee.

McKeen and Macias used to spend their lunch hours outside near the creek in downtown, before the interactions with the homeless made them more cautious. “I’ve been offered drugs and even overheard conversations about drug exchanges,” said Macias.

According to Macias, many homeless individuals that he has interacted with show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental disabilities.

“Most of them are benign, but there are cases of genuine concern that ruin it for other homeless individuals,” said Macias.

Cause for Alarm
McKeen and Macias recalled a time when they found a homeless man passed out in the bushes near their building. “We were not sure if he was alive or not,” said McKeen.

In other occasions, Macias has gone out of his way to give a couple clothing items to a homeless man. “If I can help him out, I will, but I do not feel bad when they choose this lifestyle,” said Macias.

According to McKeen, homelessness has become a major social issue for the area. In addition to the city council meetings attended by both business owners and homeless individuals themselves, there is also a new specialized group of police officers that deal with the homeless specifically. “When I was a kid, there were no homeless people in San Luis Obispo,” said McKeen. Today, police are inclined to be prejudice through the insistence of business owners and influx of homeless people.

Now more than ever, the interactions between the homeless, the community and the San Luis Obispo Police Department are struggling to stay balanced.

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