Homeless & still grinning

President Obama’s proposed budget for FY2011 includes a broad range of programs addressing homelessness, from provision of new services to the “Zero Tolerance” initiative for homeless veterans; I wish them all well. Aside from national efforts, most of us struggle with our personal relationship to the growing numbers of homeless citizens: Look the other way? Drop coins in cups? Buy snacks? Volunteer with the Food Bank? Most of us try to give something.

Occasionally, we get something more. This is such a story.

My friend Kevin left our neighborhood park in December, bound for Bakersfield in California’s central valley. “The Saint Vincent de Paul bought me a ticket,” he said. I worried about who would look after him. In our neighborhood he could sit in the sun and watch the birds on the lake, the joggers and strollers, and children on the playground. On rainy days he could sit on a corner bench inside the library. He never asked for money, but many of us gave him a dollar or two whenever we met. “Oh, I think he’ll be okay,” said one of the dog-walkers who is also among the Mountain Lake Park regulars. “He’ll find a meeting, and they’ll help him. He’s been doing really well with his drinking.”

Turns out it was not really Kevin I was worried about, but myself. Things were not the same. I would finish the hop kick on my loop around the parcourse fitness trail, and Kevin was supposed to be there. Instead, I would encounter an empty bench, or a disinterested stranger preoccupied with someone at the other end of a cell phone line. I missed the “How you doin’?” or the “Where you been ?! I ain’t seen you in a long time!” The occasional pause to sit beside him in the sun and pay attention to the feasts of nature everywhere.  Most of all I missed the wide, semi-toothless grin and the parting “Have a guht one!” that sent me brightly on toward the push-up bars just around the next bend in the trail. I was bereft.

Then a couple of weeks ago, headed from the chin-up station (I wish), I spotted a vaguely familiar figure walking slowly toward me. Decked out in a puffy new jacket (Kevin’s fashion tastes lean toward multiple bulky layers) and a new, bright blue cap, his beard somewhat trimmed, I did not recognize him until the great, toothless grin broke across his face. I ran down the trail, catching myself at the very last minute to restrain the hug I felt – this, I think, would’ve been too much for Kevin to handle – but grabbing both of his mittened hands.

“Kevin!” I said. “I thought you’d left us, gone off to Bakersfield forever!”

“Naw,” he said. “It’s too wahm in Bakersfield.”

So there it was. We were redeemed by the perpetually mild weather of the San Francisco Bay, where it seldom gets too warm and on rainy days one can find refuge in the library.

Did he have a good time in Bakersfield? “Oh, yes.” Did he get to see family? “Mmm.”

I still don’t know all the answers, or whether one day I’ll get to the hop kick station and find him gone again, for good.

What I do know is that for now the universe is proceeding as it should. And that one man with seemingly nothing to celebrate has brought the spirit of celebration back to Mountain Lake Park. It’s a great gift.

Housing, homelessness & other inequities

Today’s Sonoma County (CA) Press Democrat features a front page story about Joe Montana’s digs near Calistoga, available for $49 er–million. It is right above a photo of homeless vet Jack Saltzman reading in his hatchback, the juxtaposition of photos hard not to notice.

Others vets don’t have hatchbacks. Press Democrat feature writer Jeremy Hay reports that according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 400, or 12%, of Sonoma’s 35,000 vets are homeless, which fellow homeless vet Don Bridges says is “just the tip of it.” Some 131,000 of the nation’s 24 million veterans are homeless on any given day.

Hay details some of the measures being undertaken to alleviate the problem, including $3.2 billion recently pledged by the V.A. to be spent over the next five years toward getting veterans off the street and keeping them from falling into homelessness. But returning vets have been part of another world most of us only see in the extreme abstract and can’t possibly comprehend; fitting right back into mainstream America can be harder than anywhere they have served, where at least, another vet explains, “you’ve been part of your tribe.” More vets will return, and more will wind up on the streets.

None of this is the Montanas fault.

Another Press Democrat front page story, a New York Times article by Andrew Martin and Lowell Bergman, mentions a 91-year-old Florida woman who got a letter from Citibank last month advising her that her new credit card interest rate was 29.99 percent, up 10 points from the previous rate. Haven’t we been reading about Citibank lately?

These bits of information are being digested by those of us who elected Mr. Obama and now feel sad and frustrated because our expectations were, perhaps, too high. Some of us are wondering why he ever wanted the job in the first place.

We don’t have an answer to homelessness. We may not make an offer on the Montana estate — even though, with a Tuscan-style mansion, equestrian center, full-sized basketball court, gym, pool, etc, etc it is probably worth that matching 49er price — because with 20% down and a 30-year 6% fixed rate mortgage the monthly payments of $235,023 would be a stretch. And we are not planning any credit revolt, despite the fact that it is the responsible credit users who are being penalized by the likes of Citibank. What we are doing is just trying to comprehend the surreal nature of today’s news as covered on one front page.

And keep the faith.