Nowhere Left to Go

Story Highlights:

  • Interview with a homeless veteran
  • Stories from his service

As I was finishing up filming for my video project at Mitchell Park, a man named Thomas “Tommy” Fischer approached me to ask what I was doing. The moment I told him the topic of my video, he sat down in front of the camera and started talking. “You are going to want to hear this story,” said Fischer.

I barely had a chance to pull out paper for notes before he went off on a rant about his life since last week. I was curious by his eagerness to talk to me, due to my usual regimen of having to seek someone out and then wait for them to open up.

A Cascade of Misfortune
Immediately, I could tell that something was not quite right with Fischer. Large scabs covered the right side of his face, his knuckles were lacerated and he winced whenever he shifted his body. There was a very tangible feeling of anger in him.

"I'm tired. There has been enough violence in my life to last me until I am 100," said Fischer

“I’m tired. There has been enough violence in my life to last me until I am 100,” said Fischer

After a couple shaky sentences, he managed to piece together everything. Fischer lost his car, his home and his job all within the first week of March. On top of that, he was hit by a drunk driver on March 6th and ended up with broken ribs, a concussion and the visible wounds on his face and knuckles. “They had to pull me out from underneath the carriage of the car,” said Fischer.

A Long History of Service
He paused while I waited for him to collect his thoughts and start from the beginning. Fischer grew up in Marin County during the 1950’s before being shipped off to Vietnam at the age of 17. He enlisted in the Marines in 1971 and spent most of the next three decades serving with the Force Reconnaissance.

Fischer shared one of the most traumatic stories from his service. He was stationed in Lebanon during the fall of 1983, when a bomb was dropped on the barracks where his best friend also happened to be. “I was digging through the rubble to look for him when I found part of his leg. The only way I knew it was him was because of his dog tags,” said Fischer.

After being discharged from the Marines in 1998, his life came unglued. He spent years bouncing in and out of county jails, unsure of his purpose in life. “Essentially, I was broken,” said Fischer.

The Plight of Veterans
Fischer had trouble readjusting to society and was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. On top of that, all the events of the past week only made matters worse. “The PTSD comes back when I drink, so I do not anymore. But with a couple more nights on the street, it is guaranteed to come back,” said Fischer.

This is not the first time he has been on the streets. After suggesting a visit to the Prado Day Center or the Maxine Lewis Shelter, Fischer just shook his head and said he was not allowed back there. “Anyway, after 30 days, I am homeless again. What is the point if they do not set you up?” said Fischer, “These programs essentially make people become codependent.”

And that is the problem that more than two thousand people face every day in the San Luis Obispo County. It is a never-ending cycle that viciously consumes lives, leaving little to nothing behind untouched. For some, it takes years and years of vigilance and discipline to claw themselves out of poverty. However for others such as Fischer, they see no point.

“I do not have family or friends and there is no one left that cares. I never married and never had any kids. If I shot myself tonight, there would be no one at my funeral. So if they ever found me, they would have to cremate me and throw me in the ocean with all the others,” said Fischer.

A Lonely Experience
The current stigma attached to homelessness is unfair for those who are affected by it every day. In addition to the physical problems that homelessness creates, there is an abundance of unseen psychological problems that plague homeless people. The basic respect and human interaction that we take for granted everyday is something that very rarely occurs to homeless people, which in turn wears down their own patience and kindness.

Over the three months working on this project, homelessness has been described to me time and time again as the loneliest experience a human could ever endure. “I do not understand how it got this bad. I am so alone right now and it hurts really bad inside,” said Fischer, “but I will keep fighting on for as long as I can.”

No Money, Honey

Story Highlights:

  • Interview with a local San Luis Obispo street performer
  • Insight from a representative of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce
  • Information on a new installation downtown to discourage panhandling

I met Dr. John at the intersection of Marsh and Morro Street, where he was plucking away at his guitar and serenading the people who passed by. Before he agreed to sit down for an interview, he requested money from me. 
“I charge for my time,” said Dr. John.

Well Rounded Perspective
Dr. John “the citizen” is a 69-year-old native of Bakersfield, California, who claimed his namesake from his bachelor’s degree in political science and three associate’s degrees in journalism, telecommunications and political science.

He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1968 and considers himself to be a very religious person and follower of A Course in Miracles, a self-study curriculum that aims to assist readers in achieving spiritual transformation. Dr. John claims his life was saved through religion because he learned that “the holy spirit takes things away gradually and slowly like rust gathering on a bike.”

Knowledge and Experience
Right off the bat, he rattled off fact after fact about homelessness, showing his passion and thoughts about this community issue.

  1. The average person is three paychecks away from homelessness.
  2. 60% of homeless people had everything. First they lost their jobs, developed a health problem, struggled becoming employed again because of the health problem, lost their home, lost their car and ended up on the streets.
  3. Most of the homeless population in town is Caucasian.
  4. Homelessness is not discriminatory towards anyone.
  5. People think homelessness is a disease.
  6. Every homeless person wants a job, but some people are still homeless even with a job.

A Daily Routine
After Dr. John retired, it became hard to support himself or even find another job. It was then that he decided to pick up his guitar and become self-employed. He started street performing in the San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach areas and has been homeless since August of 2013, where he spends his days filling the streets of downtown with his music.

“When I was your age, they said I’d live to be 86, and I believe it. I’m almost there.”

“When I was your age, they said I’d live to be 86, and I believe it. I am almost there,” said Dr. John

A typical day in the life of Dr. John involves getting up early enough to start performing at 9 a.m. sharp. He typically stays out on the streets until 5 p.m., trying to make money just like anyone else working an eight-hour job.

“It is hard on me,” said Dr. John, “the times are really hard. I make 23 dollars on an average day, and 7 dollars in the rain. When it rains, it is hard. Getting tips from people sometimes just does not happen because people are not giving like they used to.”

He paused and fumbled around for a cigarette.

“But I continue to play music because I can make people happy and make money. Sometimes I do not make any money, and that is ok too because at least they are happy,” said Dr. John.

Shining A Light
He talked briefly about his time on the streets, highlighting some of the issues he faces that are common misconceptions people have of homelessness.

“When people tell me to get a real job,” said Dr. John, “I shout back, ‘I have one, what about you?’”

He said that in addition to being treated poorly by the majority of society, people are not aware about the vicious cycle of homelessness. The longer someone is unemployed, the longer someone’s skillset has to deteriorate. So in order to become employed again, it is necessary to go back to school, a luxury that most homeless people do not have. On top of struggling to get back on his feet, Dr. John was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012. He went into remission after heavy chemotherapy.

Persistence Pays Off
Dr. John always plays his guitar and gives performances at the same place in downtown. He has spent so much time on his bench on Marsh Street that he has been immortalized on Google Maps.

“I’m world famous because if you go online to look up the post office behind me, I’m there,” said Dr. John.

“I’m world famous because if you go online to look up the post office behind me, I’m there,” said Dr. John.

“I am a rock star. Someone labeled me as a creative genius because I see things differently. I think that people have to be flexible and able to constantly adapt. It is invigorating, this lifestyle, because it keeps you on your toes,” said Dr. John.

Before he dies, Dr. John said he wants to have all his songs recorded and complete his three films.

Community Viewpoint
While Dr. John relies on generous donations to help his chronic homelessness, the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce is using their own approach to tackle this community issue.

Charlene Rosales, the Director of Governmental Affairs, shared some knowledge on what the Chamber of Commerce and various community members are doing for homelessness in the San Luis Obispo County.

"Active engagement from the community is required to effectively serve the homeless from San Luis Obispo, especially the locals," said Rosales.

“Active engagement from the community is required to effectively serve the homeless from San Luis Obispo, especially the locals,” said Rosales.

“The Good Neighbor Policy works to improve homelessness in San Luis Obispo. This is an agreement on how neighborhoods can be helpful to make homelessness healthier. It improves communication with all services related to homelessness,” said Rosales.

In addition to this program, there are going to be new installations of “parking meter” machines that will serve as a direct giving program. The downtown association, the city of San Luis Obispo and the local United Way devised this idea as a way of alleviating homelessness.

Outreach for this program will begin with posters like this one.

Outreach for this program will begin with posters like this one.

Good Intentions
The idea is that instead of giving spare change to the homeless on the streets, the change will be funneled into these specially designated machines and given to homeless service providers.

“This program could be beneficial for those with drug and alcohol problems. At the same time, people are less inclined to give to a machine than a person,” architectural engineering junior Michael N. said.

This program will debut in early spring of this year and outreach is expected to show up on campus soon.