“You mother &$%#! Don’t you ever come back here again! This is my park. If you come back here again my bros and I will mess you up! Mother…”
The profanities and threats continued as the man, a vagrant, strode toward us across the parking lot, clenching his fists, his face contorted in rage. Lisa and I, each with one of our dogs on a leash, backed away as he approached. We were frightened, our fear only partially assuaged by the presence of our dogs and other park visitors. His anger was intense.
I had incited his rage by my actions a few days earlier during another walk in the park. It was a Sunday, and there were several child’s parties going on in the picnic area. Bounce houses, barbecues, balloons and balls abounded, and the joyous laughter of children filled the air.
I noticed the man about 50 feet from one of the bounce houses. He sat shirtless on the ground with a syringe in his right hand as he considered where in between the fingers on his left hand he wanted to inject himself. He was clearly in the process of getting high. (I assumed it was heroin but was sure it was not insulin!) Without even thinking I heard myself exclaim loudly, “Seriously? There are children 50 feet away!”
Appalled that he would so brazenly use drugs around children I grabbed my cell phone and quickly took a picture. Certain I was observing a crime in process I called the police, convinced they would share my concern and respond to my call. I was mistaken. I waited, at a distance, for over 15 minutes for the police to come. I never saw them arrive.
They must have arrived sometime later, as intermingled with the profane threats hurled our way a few days later were declarations that I had wronged him. “You liar, tell the police I was shooting up when I wasn’t!” was one of the refrains.
As he yelled his threats from across the parking lot I pondered what to do. I was not confident that the police would respond to a call but felt compelled to call anyway. I did not want to yield dominion of the park to such a man. This time they responded. A policeman came to my home a short while later. He seemed genuinely bothered by my story but offered little reassurance. “You can file a report,” he said, “but nothing will happen to the guy.”
He went on to explain that recent changes in California law had rendered the man’s blatant drug use and subsequent threats on my person mild offenses on the level of a parking ticket. All he could do was issue a citation, which would almost certainly be ignored. This, he told me, was the way things worked now. He then shared with me the uncomfortable truth that almost all of his fellow officers were planning to leave the state as soon as they qualified for retirement. For them, the war was lost and the bad guys had won.
In spite of his discouraging words I encouraged him to file my complaint and confront the man. “He needs to know that this is not acceptable,” I said, “If there are enough complaints maybe someone will do something.”
I do not know what followed, but I have not seen the man in the park since.
This week I had a different sort of encounter with a transient, even more frightening than the first. This time it was my daughter and I walking our dogs. We had taken them to a small park in a neighborhood a short way away from our home and had rounded the corner onto a street heading towards our house. We were walking on the sidewalk along a row of parked cars when from behind a small cabover camper came a snarling pit bull. Before I could react the dog was upon us, growling and biting at our dogs. Sadie, our shepherd mix, rose to our defense, bravely biting at the other dog as I forcefully pulled her and Kona away and out of the other dog’s reach.
I saw that the pit bull was tied to the back of the camper and briefly thought I had backed away far enough and that we were safe. I looked for the owner and sawvhim across the street talking to another man. The owner turned at the sound of the dogfight and ran towards us from across the street, yelling at his dog as he came.
His dog ignored his commands. With a powerful lunge the pit bull broke free from its chain and attacked again. I vainly tried to pull my dogs away, spinning and tugging as Sadie again did her best to defend us all. The man finally arrived and grabbed his dog and pulled it away.
“I’m sorry,” he cried, “It was an accident!”
I was not interested in his excuses or apologies. He had foolishly and irresponsible left his violent dog unattended. I do not recall all that I said, but I remember telling him that it was dumb to leave his dog alone and that I better never see his dog unattended again. Remarkably, I did not resort to profanity.
I looked quickly at our dogs, and not seeing any blood, continued toward home. Sadie, powered by adrenaline, seemed unhurt. It was not until we were home that we discovered the extent of her injuries. She had deep puncture wounds in her chest and a tear on her back near her shoulder. It was clear that she needed medical attention. Lisa took her to the vet while I walked back to talk to the man about Sadie’s injuries.
I found him standing on the sidewalk next to his camper, talking to a friend. In as calm a voice as I could manage I said, “I realize it was an accident, but as a result of your mistake my dog has been injured and we are taking her to the vet. You are responsible for her injuries and I think you should pay for her treatment.”
“I’m homeless,” he replied, “I don’t have any money.”
And that was that. There was nothing I could do. I called animal control, but all they did was leave me a form to complete. The animal control officer told me that no action would be taken against the man or his dog.
The care of Sadie’s wounds required her to be sedated while the cuts were cleaned, dressed and sutured, at a cost of nearly $700. By the time we got Sadie home, Kona was displaying signs of injury, refusing to bear weight on her hind leg. Close examination revealed that she too had been bit. The next day saw $300 more in vet bills when she received care.
The man and his dog simply drove away. His foolishness and irresponsibility cost him nothing.
The last few days I have been ruminating about each of these encounters. I have come to the conclusion that they each reveal the root cause of the “homeless problem” facing our nation- the benefits of unaccountability. Both men did something clearly wrong, yet neither faced any consequences for their actions.
This is the reality for nearly all who choose to live on the streets (and for the vast majority of vagrants, it is a choice). They have withdrawn from civilized society, have cast aside the obligations of citizenship and any sense of responsibility for their actions or to their fellow man. They pay no taxes, utility bills or rent. They do not need to show up for work, answer to a boss, or meet any deadlines. They do not in any way contribute to society. They do what they want, when they want.
They often ignore basic hygiene and cleanliness, leaving their trash and excrement scattered around for others to collect. Many use drugs whenever they can, and often cast their used needles on the ground for others to retrieve or step on. They commit misdemeanor crimes with impunity, knowing they will be back on the streets before the officer completes his paperwork. They support themselves with gifts of food and money from strangers without shame or consequence, and many receive government aid.
While others may consider their quality of life unacceptable, many of them are content with their existence. It is the life they choose. They do not have to answer to anyone else, not to family, friends or supervisors. This freedom from accountability outweighs the discomforts of being homeless. They do not want to be a part of our world.
Their choices impact the lives of law-abiding citizens, but these citizens have little recourse. The legal system now sides with them, as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has declared that there is a right for people to sleep in public places unless someone else provides them with a free place to stay. According to the courts, it is up to the rest of us to support their existence.
What can be done?
The debate about what to about this problem rages in newspapers, city council chambers, courtrooms, and even churches. Good people who care about the plight of their fellow man struggle with what to do when they care more about this plight than those who endure it.
If this problem is going to be solved it will require hard truths to be faced. For me, I am going to start by changing the words I use to describe people who choose to live on the streets. I am not going to call them “homeless” any longer. That term implies a desire to find a home and the responsibilities that come with it. (consider- no one calls a retired person or stay-at-home mom “jobless”). Only those down on their luck individuals who are truly trying to get back on their feet deserve to be called “homeless”.
For the majority of street people who do not want to participate in society, I now choose to describe them with terms that reflect their choice. Language should communicate the truth of things, and as a society we have not been truthful about the nature of the problem. We need to use terms that reflect reality. Many of these people are not “homeless”. They are vagrants, transients, and bums, on the streets by choice.
If these vagrants are to ever rejoin society, they will have to learn to follow the rules of civilized society, to accept the responsibilities the rest of us fulfill every day. When we give them money, food, and other support we keep them from having to accept these responsibilities.
If we are going to solve this problem, we must first begin by acknowledging the truth of it. If we don’t the problem will only get worse.