How to live on the streets

How to get there How to stay there

"Lots of people out here hear voices," Mark said helpfully from the depths of the entryway, where he was putting his things back into his bag. "What it is, man, is whether you listen to them."

Mark and Jimmy engaged in a brief exchange about craziness. Mark was singing to the theme song of the old TV show Petticoat Junction a little verse called "Depakote Junction." They both ended up laughing.

Jimmy touched my shoulder. "This guy," he said, nodding toward Mark, "is always helping people. Y'know what I mean? Giving people cigarettes or money or whatever."

"When you got your check, and I needed 30 bucks, you gave me 30 bucks," Mark said.

"Yeah, I did."

Mark stood up and paced around. "It's like, you give people cigarettes or a buck or whatever. I mean, you're out here, y'know? So why not?"

"But not everybody does," Jimmy said. "Yeah, well, there are some real wasted motherfuckers out here, too. Well, whatever."

FOOD AND CLOTHING Living on the streets is like living anywhere else. There are necessities you must have or be able to acquire. In addition to finding and keeping a good spot, these necessities are, of course, food and clothing.

"If you can walk, you'll never go hungry," Mark said. "If you go hungry, it's because you've forgotten how to chew and swallow."

All across the county, places serve free food to those who want it. These places are variously operated by private individuals, churches and agencies. They are supported by donations or grants of public funds. Many people who are not homeless eat at these places. The food may not be great-canned fruit and vegetables, gruel, burritos-but it is filling. In addition, there are various private individuals and organizations and church groups who have removed even this barrier to free food. They bring the food to the streets, setting up tables or what have you in parks or at the Civic Center Plaza. "Sometimes there are so many of them that they're having fights over who's going to feed people," Mark said. "'These are my homeless people.' 'No, no, they're mine.'" He had a good time acting out a little food-fight scenario.

In the world that is not of the streets, some restaurants are better than others. On the streets, some feeding places are better than others. For instance, the feedings at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach are generally spoken of in glowing terms, while the food one woman serves out of her vehicle at the Civic Center is referred to as "junk in a trunk."

On the streets, there are also, just as in the world that is not of the streets, memorable food occasions, particularly Thanksgiving. Mark has not yet partaken of Thanksgiving on the streets. Jimmy filled him in with rhapsodies about the various restaurants that provide free feasts to anyone who walks in. He was nearly overcome recalling the Thanksgiving festivities in Laguna Beach. "Man, you got all these people bringing honey-baked hams and turkeys and pies and cakes and all this shit, and they're all trying to outdo the others." It is also interesting to note, as Mark pointed out, that there are more fat people on the streets than you might think there would be. This is due to the availability of food and to its high fat and starch content; the ingredients are cheap.

Clothing is easily acquired as well. Across the county, there are numerous private and church organizations handing out donated clothing. All that is necessary is that you be able to get to them. It is also helpful to maintain a good intelligence network. By talking with other people on the streets, you will be able to stay on top of which agency or organization has the particular items of clothing you need most. Perhaps you hear, for instance, that at the moment, Covering Wings has an excellent supply of, say, shoes. Clothing is so easily obtained, Mark told me, that some people don't even bother to wash what they wear: when it gets too dirty, they go somewhere and acquire a new wardrobe. There are also money-making opportunities where clothing is concerned. You learn, for instance, that a certain thrift store receives a large donation of clothing originally purchased from Nordstrom, some of it with their tags still affixed. You go to the thrift store and pick out the Nordstrom items, and then you take them to Nordstrom and return them for cash.

We pass now to a related subject: dumpster diving. Mark loves dumpster diving. Rarely in our travels did we come across a dumpster he could pass up. He would root in the trash and come up with a pair of gloves or a crumpled hat or a broken mirror or a bicycle tire or a broken knife or a small plastic table or an outdated calendar. He would admire the items for a moment. Then he would return some to the dumpsters. He would stash others in his bag, some only to be carried around temporarily and then discarded when something better or more interesting turned up. (Mark scavenges even when no dumpsters are available. We were walking along one day, and at the curb near an alleyway, we came upon a discarded black garden hose that was perhaps 30 feet long. Without breaking stride, Mark picked it up and draped its coils over his shoulder. One block later, we came upon a gardener just finishing his work on a lawn and packing his equipment into his truck. After a little bargaining, Mark sold him the hose for $2.) Sunday evenings after the weekend garage sales have closed are good times for dumpster diving. Another good time is the end of the month, when people are moving out and the dumpsters near apartment complexes yield a treasure of items that couldn't fit in the van. Dumpsters near markets are good for finding bruised fruit that can easily be trimmed and other treats such as cakes, cookies and yogurt that have been tossed out because they are just past the expiration date. Another good place is a dumpster near a McDonald's. "The kids go in there with mom, and they get a Happy Meal, and all they want is the toy, so they throw the burger out," Mark said. "You get some good shit that way."

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