How to live on the streets

How to get there How to stay there

I will tell you now, matter-of-factly, as Mark told me, that he suffers from a mental disorder. The diagnosis was never precisely clear to me, but it's apparently bipolarism. He takes Zoloft to balance things out. And he has had a bit of luck. In the gym of the YWCA on Sycamore Street in Santa Ana, the Mental Health Association of Orange County operates a day-care center for people with mental illnesses. There are showers and food and pool tables and activity groups and counselors. Mark goes there often.

"I'm a nut," Mark said to me and smiled. I did not know what to say.

"Well, c'mon," he said. "I'll show you my spot."

By which he means his house, the place where he sleeps. Mark's spot is the side entryway of an empty office building. It is enclosed on three sides, and it has a roof. The floor is a slab of concrete about 6 feet by 12 feet, bordered on each side by 1 1⁄2-foot-wide strips of dirt that once contained plants. The walls are stucco, dirty and streaked. Finding a good spot is one of the most important activities for someone who is homeless. When you first come to the streets or when, for one reason or another (say the cops roust you), you have to find a new spot, you go on a recon. You look for a place that cannot easily be seen from the street (the cops are lazy, Mark explained; they don't like to leave their cars unless they have to). You look for a place that the daytime tenants leave at a reasonable hour so that you can get under cover for the night. If you are lucky (as Mark was), you will find a place with a working faucet that can be turned on with a pair of pliers if the handle is missing. If you are exceedingly lucky (as Mark was), you will find a place with a working electric supply that can be tapped into in order to power a radio or a small TV or whatever other appliance you may have scrounged or bought or stole. And when you have found a spot, you are very, very careful who you tell about it or invite over for a visit. Someone tipped off by a careless word might hijack your spot. A rowdy visitor, too happy with smoke or booze, might get loud and carry on, irritating more conventional nearby residents and bringing the heat. Mark asked me to not reveal the location of his spot. I agreed, of course. (He also has, he said, several backup spots here and there, with a few things stashed in case of an emergency. These spots are kept absolutely secret.)

In the cave of the entryway, we spread his ground cloth, layered with a thin blanket over it, and sat down to rest. His belongings were around him. He stretched out his legs and leaned back against the wall with his hands behind his head.

THE THINGS HE CARRIES A gray sleeping bag. A bluish-gray jacket with a red checkered lining. A black knapsack containing a silver whistle made in the shape of a cross; two C-cell batteries; two olive-drab socks; a blue marking pen, a black marking pen and a white crayon; a gray plastic toothbrush; a 5-peso coin; his Social Security card; a small, half-used tube of toothpaste; a cheap heart-shaped watch; an unopened cube of bath salts; a small, empty, lidless plastic box; and a rolled-up pair of silver-and-black snowboard pants. There is one other possession: around his neck, suspended from a red-and-white beaded neck chain and generally hidden by his shirt, Mark wears a medicine pouch that a friend made for him. Mark would not tell me what medicine he carries in the pouch.

A COUPLE OF FACTS The best estimate: there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless people in Orange County, perhaps as many as one-half of them children. On any given night, there are beds available through various programs for maybe 20 percent of these people. The vast majority of the homeless are white men. Very few are Asian or Latino. "It makes sense," Mark said. "Those people take care of their own."

ANOTHER STORY Mark's roommate is Jimmy. A stocky gray-haired man, 50 years old, pale and lined face, on the streets nine years. Jimmy had been off somewhere and now had come wandering back to their spot. He and Mark talked for a bit, and Jimmy showed him his crack pipe, which was crafted of some dark wood. Then, while Mark sat on the blanket and sifted through his things, Jimmy told me his story: he and Tracy were very much in love. Jimmy ran a tow truck and made close to 4 grand per month. He and Tracy were going to paralegal school. Everything was great. And then Tracy was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. In 59 days, she was dead. "At this point," Jimmy said, "I fell off the mountain." All of the money went to hospital bills and other debts. The savings were gone, the house was gone, the car was gone. Also, there was a fondness for methamphetamine, crack and various other drugs. Jimmy came to the streets. He then descended into madness. He heard voices in his head. Spells of blackness came over him during which he wanted to kill himself. He carried with him the diary his wife had kept while dying, and he read it so often that he memorized it. I asked him if he still had the diary. He looked at me sharply-perhaps seeing the real reason behind my question-and then shook his head, walked away a few steps, and stared across the nearby parking lot. After a time, he returned and told me that he now takes Zoloft and some anti-psychotics and that these keep him mostly evened out, although sometimes, the blackness comes, and the voices speak to him.

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