Opinion

Ten Years On The Streets, And The Chair Is Empty

By | Jan 11, 2010

It’s the hair that is haunting. Four feet long, matted together, with bugs and God knows what else interwoven throughout the strands. It can’t be surprising when he has been living on the streets for ten years-no visits to Fantastic Sam, or for that matter to a shower. They are like old weeds growing out of one’s head.

I met him six months ago. Well, I didn’t actually talk to him. And at the time, I was about 100 yards away. But he was part of the homeless survey we conducted in Long Beach, California. A group of us saw him sitting next to a palm tree on the side of the 710 freeway. Most of us stayed close to the van while two people approached him. We didn’t want to scare him.

He refused to talk, and just stared in the abyss. The image of him sitting there has preoccupied my thoughts of homelessness ever since. I’ve blogged about him several times: the human fixture along the freeway, while thousands of housed people zoom by in their cars having no idea he is there. He’s just an old man, homeless.

My last blog title was poignant: “He’s Cold, Old, and will Probably Die Outside…”

Today, we sent a rescue team to try one more time to convince him to move into safer conditions. After many failed attempts in the past few years, I was warned by the experts to not expect much.

The team consisted of a PMRT (Psychiatric Mobile Response Team) member from the County’s Department of Mental Health, officers of the Long Beach Police Department experienced with homelessness, a PATH outreach team, and the city’s outreach and veterans case workers. It was quite a team.

Surprisingly, the police officers were able to convince him to go and get cleaned up-a shower and even a haircut-along with clean clothes and food. The PMRT worker performed an assessment, and the case workers were busy putting together a housing plan. It’s a miracle.

His name is James. He is 65 years old, and has been sitting on that chair for ten years. Like society gave him a “time out” in life. Ten years sitting. Watching society zoom by him.

He is a Navy Vet. Fought in one of our country’s wars.

Piled around him are bags of plastic bags. He said he tries to collect them, but people have taken them or tell him they will sell the bottles for him, but never return. He said he eats by finding tossed out food in trash bins near him.

After a shower, he warms up to the idea of being housed. At first, he refused. But it’s surprising what a shower, clean clothes, and some food can do to you.

James says he is willing to go into a motel room for a few nights and perhaps even go into an apartment. After ten years sitting outside on a chair, I’m sure it’s not an easy decision.

The experts continue to tell me that it will be a slow journey back into housing. But it has to start sometime.

He also tells the PMRT worker that he doesn’t want to lose all his hair. His reason sounds like Samson, the Biblical character whose hair kept him strong and powerful. He said that if he looks too cleaned-up he won’t be safe on the streets. His hair protects him. People stay away.

Hair four feet long, tangled, dirty, and filled with creatures certainly would scare me away.

But not enough to convince a rescue team to save him.