Reflections

After doing this project, it brought to light just how insignificant and small my own problems are compared to all these wonderful people that I’ve met during my interviews. Every single one of these homeless individuals that I met these past few months have touched my heart and made me even more understanding to the multi-faceted problems that homeless people face every single day.

In response to questions that I’ve been approached with over the past quarter:
“Why don’t they just stop being homeless?”
“Don’t encourage them, they’ll never learn to get a real job.”
“If you’re poor, why don’t you just stop being poor? I don’t understand why they choose to be like that.”

The simple answer is, homelessness is the result of a cascade of problems that are inflicted on a single individual, with little to no outside help or support. It is a vicious cycle that is monumentally difficult to claw your way out of, and is rarely a lifestyle that the individual willingly chooses.

After conducting more than twenty interviews, here are some things that I learned:

  • No matter who it is, always shake their hand before and after, especially if they were not open to be interviewed.
  • Always carry change or a bite of food.
  • Keep my opinion out of the interview and reveal little about myself.
  • Silence is key to a great interview. A lot of interesting things come out of silence.
  • Don’t be discouraged if no one is around or no one wants to talk. One man who I talked to had a sign that just read “change”, didn’t want to be interviewed because he said he would fall apart under pressure. More often than not, they’re more scared than you are.
  • Hug them if they hug you and don’t let go until they let go.
  • Treat these like any other major interview, because it is.
  • Treat them with respect because everyone deserves respect. I have a whole new group of friends just from this project, and we’re all on a first name basis.
  • Even though I felt responsible for their wellbeing, and its difficult to see them in the same condition week after week, there is nothing I can do.
  • Don’t take any anger personally. The only reason why homeless people are stereotyped as mean and bitter is because they don’t have the patience to treat others with kindness. When people already mistreat you, why should you put any effort into being nice back?
  • Homeless people are some of the friendliest and loneliest people on earth with some of the coolest life stories. Be humble and take a seat.

After this project, I learned how to talk to anyone openly and make them feel comfortable. It put me in their shoes and changed the way that I treated people in my life. It made me realize how absolutely reversible these situations are, because all they need is a chance.

To Greg, Joker, Squidward (Aaron), Walter, Ollie, Jim, Peter, James, Robert, Steve Majors, Ernesto, Tori, Patrick, Scotland, Ben Burns, Jesse James Morrison, Valerie Derby, David Danielson, Dr. John, Thomas Fischer, and Chad Noll, thank you so much for letting me into your lives. Thank you for letting me share your stories to the world and show the common roots that we all share. Thank you for letting me disprove all the wrong stigmas associated with being homeless and interacting with homeless individuals.

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.

What is Mine is Yours

Story Highlights:

  • When homelessness meets terminal illness
  • Interview with Kennedy Library’s night supervisor

It is easy to judge a homeless person based on appearances and write off their actions as another casualty of mental illness, something that has become prevalent to me while observing the interactions between the residents and homeless population of San Luis Obispo.

This was my first impression of Scotland, a 27-year-old man who approached me eagerly with the usual gimmick to make a couple bucks. However, after asking him for an interview, he dropped the facade.

Scotland has multiple tattoos all over his body, ranging from professionally done pieces to tattoos done by friends. His rule for tattoos is "if I give you a tattoo, you have to give me one."

Scotland has multiple tattoos all over his body, ranging from professionally done pieces to tattoos done by friends. His rule for tattoos is “if I give you a tattoo, you have to give me one.”

Overseas Experience
After moving from Scotland to San Luis Obispo over 16 years ago with his family, Scotland spent a vast majority of his adult life on the streets. “Even though I can stay with my Mom in Cambria, I choose to be homeless because I like traveling,” said Scotland.

In addition to spending time overseas, he has also been to:

  • California
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Florida

Scotland commented on his frequent traveling and said “I want to see what I can see before it is gone. There are still 46 more states to see and I want to see all of that too.”

Scotland came back to San Luis Obispo three months ago after visiting the ocean and the whales in Seattle with his best friend Rocky. "I always end up back here because my best friends are here," said Scotland. Patrick (right), is one of his friends that he spends time with everyday.

Scotland came back to San Luis Obispo three months ago after visiting the ocean and the whales in Seattle with his best friend Rocky. “I always end up back here because my best friends are here,” said Scotland. Patrick (right), is one of his friends that he spends time with everyday.

At the age of 22, he went back to Scotland to find his Dad. “The happiest day of my life was when I came back to San Luis Obispo after I tried to fight my real Dad. I wanted closure because he used to beat me. Instead of fighting me, he opened the door and came out with my sleeping bag instead of his fists,” said Scotland. He has not seen him since.

Living with a Terminal Illness
Generally, Scotland felt happy and content with his life despite his poor health.

“I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year and a half ago,” said Scotland.

He was told he only had five months to live. Because he cannot afford any treatment for his illness, his only option is to wait.

Scotland was born and raised a Roman Catholic, and was beaten by his Dad growing up. He was taught to not associate with Protestants, and considers his heritage a large part of his identity. "My Dad is Sicilian, and my Mom is Scottish," said Scotland.

Scotland was born and raised a Roman Catholic, and was beaten by his Dad growing up. He was taught to not associate with Protestants, and considers his heritage a large part of his identity, “My Dad is Sicilian, and my Mom is Scottish.”

This experience has affected his day-to-day actions, sometimes even conflicting with his survival on the streets. “My biggest problem is that I hand all my stuff away. I give away anything that I have to other homeless people because that is how I live. I have always been that way,” said Scotland. Last week, he gave away two of his jackets to new street kids passing through downtown.

During the day, he is free to move around, unbound by the massive backpack and bedroll that burden other homeless individuals. It is only when the sun goes down that Scotland encounters problems with his generosity. He spends his nights sharing warmth with his friends, because he physically has nothing except the clothes on his back.

Scotland routinely spends the night sleeping next to his friend Squidward and his dog, Lucky. The pair have known each other for eight years, oftentimes being confused as brothers because of their matching scruffy beards.

Now, Scotland lives each and every day as pure as possible.

“My theory on life right now is that Mother Nature is my higher power,” said Scotland, “I can hang out with her under this tree and feel calm.”

Different Spheres of Interaction
Scotland and Stephanie Lafferty, the night supervisor at Cal Poly Kennedy Library, have never met. Nevertheless, Lafferty still has some experience into the life and times of homeless individuals in San Luis Obispo. She has worked at the library for over six years and interacted with numerous homeless people who visit the library. “We usually do leave them alone as long as they are not threatening students. I have no problem with them,” said Lafferty.

For the most part, the homeless individuals that visit the library just want to be left alone and sheltered from the weather. They want a safe place where they have access to:

  • computers
  • bathrooms
  • books
  • a quiet place to rest

Despite isolated interactions with the homeless individuals that do pass through the library, Lafferty does not treat them any differently than any other visitor at the library. “It is a matter of trying to treat them with enough respect as you can,” said Lafferty.

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.