I moved here around 20 years ago now. Maybe 25. Back in the day, we had flophouses, you know what I mean? You could get a cheap room right downtown, with your own bedroom. Or share a room with a couple other guys for even less. You had to go to the end of the hall for a bathroom, but that was okay. No kitchen, no cooking, except a couple big old houses by the university, but the downtown ones, they were reasonable. You could get work for the day and pay for the night’s bed pretty easy. Or pay by the week, whatever. We didn’t worry about sleeping outside. It wasn’t a thing.
I don’t remember people actually camping outside. I don’t remember a single tent in a city park. There was no Jungle under the freeway. There were no Official Encampments, at least that I knew of. There were not a bunch of rows of campers, people in cars, and pretty much somebody in a sleeping bag in every business doorway, it seems. In every green space. In every possible spot. We were poor then, and most of us still are poor, but we were working poor, and we slept inside. I think the owners made a profit, too. I mean, we didn’t demand much. Mostly just a roof over our heads and a locked door. Now these buildings are gone, and it’s just high-rises and condos. Instead of being locked in at night, we are locked out.
You know, I grew up in a poor country, and I grew up seeing beggars. People who had nothing but what somebody might hand them out a car window, or the food someone might give them by the back door. And when I got here, I thought wow! Everybody who works can sleep inside. And everyone can find some kind of work. It’s like a miracle. People talked about how there was money enough for everybody. Now they say the money is gone, but where did it go? The government prints the same amount of money, right? So the money is still around, it’s just changed hands. It’s concentrated. Like in the countries we fled from to come here and have a better chance. Life is funny that way. Not haha funny, but more like food for thought.
I worked for the same guys, small companies, for years. A house remodel here, a clean-up there, a rockery, a fence, some landscaping around town. Basic stuff. A lot of the owners would just pick us up and drive us to the work site, and that was great. But those small businesses seemed to dry up around the same time that our housing got pulled down. Maybe it got too expensive for them, too. Maybe the traffic did it. Who knows. I’m still able-bodied, so I count my blessings there. But I lost my contacts. So now I am just one of a hundred guys standing outside of Home Depot at 5:00 a.m.
I get picked up a couple of times a week, and every once in a while, they will hire me back for a couple days. But a lot of them don’t want to pay you unless it’s something really heavy, something they don’t want to do themselves, like moving concrete and demolitions. More tear-downs than building. Then they decide how much to give you, and you can take or leave it. There used to be more of a standard day wage, but now there’s a guy who’s hungrier than you, louder than you, and younger than you, pushing out in front, so you’d better take it quick or forget it. Just hop in the back of the pickup and shut up.
I never thought – I never even dreamed – that I would be sleeping outside. I’m a hard worker. I’m a good worker. I’m a willing worker. Sleeping outside! Sleeping in doorways and parks. Keeping all my stuff in this backpack, nowhere to put it down. Going to that shared laundry downtown where they let you put on a jumpsuit and wash all your stuff at once. Why do I say all? It’s mostly one outfit with layers. And two pair of pants, in case someone needs you more clean for a job inside. And work boots.
Camping out in the city is not camping out. You think about campfires, and fishing, and starlight. No. Think about rain. Think about cold. Think about concrete. Think about trying to find a doorway where no one will kick you out or hurt you. Your backpack is your pillow and you hold it with both hands. Maybe you put your wallet into the foot end of your sleeping bag, in case someone does grab your backpack and run off. Think about every noise, every rustling. And sorry to say it, the city rats. You gotta wake up, you gotta keep an eye open. You sleep four or five minutes at a time. Then as soon as it gets light, you gotta get that first bus and stand and hope for work. You tired? Too bad. You hungry? Share a can of beans. You sad? Can’t afford it. Don’t even think about it.
The city has to be what the city has to be. I get that. It’s changing. People call it growing pains, and talk about how it will get better later. But let’s face it, it’s not going to get better for people like me. At the end of the month, eating carefully, staying sober, trying to get work every single day, the only way I can put together the couple hundred dollars my family needs to survive, is by sleeping in a doorway. And I will do it as long as I can, because I’m a working man and I’m going to take care of my family the only way I know how, by working. I used to think once my kids were grown I’d get a break, maybe even move home, but my wife has diabetes and needs insulin and now it’s my parents too, you know? I was just gonna say I wish it could be easier but I can’t let myself think that way. I could fall apart. And then where would we be?