TURLOCK -- Mick Matthews has a lyrical Australian accent, and when he talks -- which he does a lot these days -- his thick walrus mustache flaps back and forth in the breeze. He's a short man with a stout hawk nose and rectangular, steel-framed glasses. Sometimes his head is shaved; sometimes it's an inch or two of messy black brush. He's 54 years old, and when he talks, it's usually about homelessness.
Homelessness, Mick likes to say, is all he's thought about since Dec. 15, 2005, when he moved from a friend's couch to a shelter, then to a dirty old mattress under the Golden State Boulevard overpass.
Mick has become the unofficial spokesman for Turlock's homeless community.
Struck down by a stroke in April 2005 and without insurance, the 30-year truck driver spent his $200,000 savings on medical bill after medical bill. Lying half-paralyzed in a hospital bed, he lost his big rig when he missed a $3,500 truck payment. His apartment went next, then his spot on the friend's couch.
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He moved into the city's cold-weather emergency shelter — a much-needed roof while navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of Social Security. But he lost that, too, when the shelter closed in April, and he moved to the mattress under the Golden State overpass.
But on a Sunday morning, Mick isn't thinking about homelessness or the apartment he may get if approved for disability.
Mick is thinking about not falling off his bicycle.
Earlier in the morning, he got in a fight with his girlfriend and sought the advice of half a bottle of Early Times bourbon. Wobbly, he makes it from his new campsite in a field off West Avenue, down High Street, cutting through downtown to East Avenue and into a friend's apartment at a low-income senior complex.
"I need to apologize, sir," he says at the door. "I'm a little inebriated this morning."
"You are? Again?" says Mike Parker, letting him in the door.
Mike Parker is a 65-year-old former engineer who teaches at Turlock Adult School. Six feet 2 inches tall and 320 pounds, he was a right tackle on Turlock High School's 1957 league championship football team and later a state shot put champ. Though never homeless himself, Parker picked up the cause after a summer of living and working in Justiceville-Homeless USA — a now-defunct dome city for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles.
"I've dealt with these emergencies before," Parker says through a sideways grin, filling a mug with hot coffee and Kahlúa. "Me, personally, I tend to fear inebriation," he says, pouring himself the same thing. "I have a phobia. When I get inebriated, bad stuff happens to me, if you know what I mean."
Parker's roommate, "Blue Bike" Mike Roark, who spent four years homeless, returns from the store with 24-ounce cans of beer. He cracks one and Sammy, Parker's small parrot, squawks.
Mick, Mike Parker and Blue Bike Mike are an unlikely trinity of letter writers. Letters to the editor and photocopies of mass-mailings to City Council members and railroad companies are pasted to the wall near Parker's desk. Most weekends, the three meet to discuss new ideas to empower or shelter the city's homeless population. On the front burner is a plan to establish a KOA-style campground at which homeless people legally could pitch a tent or lay out a bedroll.
"Look here," Mick says, "homelessness isn't always because of employment problems or drug abuse or alcoholism. Look at me, now, I sound like a hypocrite, but there are other factors. Like me, I may seem here all the time, but physically, because of the stroke, in here," — he points at his head — "I'm not here all the time. I'm left-handed and I still can't hold anything for any length of time with my left hand."
Blue Bike Mike: If you drink in moderation, it's OK.
Mike Parker: No, it's not. The obsession of every real alcoholic is that they can go back to controlled drinking.
Blue Bike Mike: Then why is it legal?
Mike Parker: I have no idea. It's not my department.
Mick: Look at my buddies, got caught in the park drinking a beer.
Blue Bike Mike: I got arrested for drinking a beer last month. I had to walk home from Modesto. I have no record at all.
Mick: I haven't gotten arrested in the park for drinking a beer or anything else. This morning, and that night in the Sunflower Patch — damn women — other than that, I'm squeaky. I got arrested by immigration in 1983, but I didn't swim backwards, I swam forward. Now I'm a registered alien, Nanoo Nanoo. Never been arrested for anything. But you know what, living the homeless life, sometimes you need to get a little torn up.
Blue Bike Mike: Yeah, I'm just a homeless guy. I'm a transient.
Mick: No, you're not.
Blue Bike Mike: Yes, I am.
Mick: No, you are not.
Blue Bike Mike: Yes, I am.
Mick: What makes you a transient?
Blue Bike Mike: I slept out in the field.
Mick: No, that doesn't make you a transient. A transient is a person who goes from town to town to town. That's a transient.
Blue Bike Mike: I thought a transient was one who slept out in the fields.
Mick: That could be called a vagrant in a lot of ways.
Blue Bike Mike: No, vagrant is a bad name.
Mick: Well, yes.
Blue Bike Mike: And transient is a good name and I'm a good man.
Mick: No, no, it's The guy that supposedly started the fire at Minerva's Furniture store was classified as transient. He doesn't live here. He traveled in and started the fire, so they say and I never heard of him before Man, I tell you, there's so much that gets blamed on the homeless community.
Blue Bike Mike: Yeah, they said he was homeless.
Mick: He wasn't homeless. He was a transient, which means he traveled from town to town to town. OK. See, you, you couldn't be considered a transient, because you live right here in Turlock.
Blue Bike Mike: I didn't know that.
Mick: So, Mike, feel better, bud. You're not a transient.
Blue Bike Mike: So, I'm a normal person or what?
Mick: Well well, I wouldn't go that far
BLUE BIKE MIKE'S STORY
Blue Bike Mike is 5 feet10 inches tall, 190 pounds. His bright blue eyes match his bicycle, and his snaggletooth grin is infectious. For 30 of his 51 years he was a journeyman machinist, living and working in Turlock. After a divorce, he managed to rent a small house in town; shortly thereafter things came undone.
"I rode my four-wheel-drive up to the mountains and I broke an axle," he says as he sits on Mike Parker's couch. "It was Sunday. I couldn't make it back to work on Monday. I didn't have a cell phone or a way to call, and when I showed up, they fired me for not showing up. It went downhill from there."
He went to Reno to find work. His child support payments mounted. After a few unsuccessful months in Reno, he went back to the rented house in Turlock to find it empty. The owner, a friend, had died. The owner's children had cleaned out the house.
"My clothes, my furniture, my TVs — they gave it all to Salvation Army; I have my truck and the clothes on my back. I got a job, I had a couple good jobs, but all the stress and everything it drove me to drinking. I took to drinking. I lost my job because of drinking.
"One thing after another, after another, after another, I lost everything. The cops took my truck because I couldn't afford the registration and everything or insurance. I couldn't afford anything. I ended up "
He stops and looks at the TV. Greg Biffle in the National Guard car just won the last NASCAR race of the season; Jimmy Johnson won the year's championship and $8.9 million in winnings.
"I'm a 30-year journeyman machinist!" Blue Bike Mike said. "I know my s---, I could make good money, but I don't care anymore. You want to take my s---? Fine! Keep it. You come into this world naked and you leave naked. You can't take any of it with you, so who gives a damn anyway?
"I'm slowly trying to get it back together. I'm working on it now. I'm working on it. It's really hard, though. You get depressed. You go to drugs and alcohol, maybe. You just, you don't give a s--- about anything anymore. I had it once, I had it all, and they took it all away. And I don't care."
It could have been a regular Sunday afternoon anywhere — a NASCAR race, a few beers, jokes about girlfriends and ex-wives, loud pets, chicken, potatoes and vegetables. But rather than jump in the truck to head to separate houses for a quiet evening or early bed, Mick, Blue Bike Mike and Parker get on their bicycles to visit a different kind of home.
"The Sunflower Patch" got its name for obvious reasons. The nest of tangled vegetation, old mattresses, cardboard boxes and miscellaneous litter sits 50feet off the railroad tracks under the Golden State Boulevard overpass.
Four years ago, the city bulldozed the area, destroying what many called "Camp Golden State" — a veritable shantytown under the bridge. The City Council OK'd the demolition after increased police calls and complaints from area businesses. The council passed a law prohibiting overnight stays on public property.
Most days, especially after dark, downtown Turlock is filled with homeless people — riding their bicycles, sitting on park benches, walking down the otherwise desolate Main Street. Many trace the downtown takeover to the demolition of Camp Golden State.
Under the bridge, Blue Bike Mike points out "his wall" that he used to squat against and use as a toilet. A lone black tent is pitched not far away.
"They can do whatever they want," Blue Bike Mike says. "There will always be people here. They can kick them out again and again. There will always be people here."
Mick picks an old, broken record off the ground.
"Human beings allow other human beings to live this way," he says.
He throws it into a matted down section of the tangled weed where his mattress used to rest.
Mike Parker says he remembers playing under the bridge as a child in the 1940s and '50s.
"Back then, they used to call it a hobo camp," he says.
Soon, Mick heads off toward his new camp — "The Weeds," near West Avenue. After passing a long brick building on First Street, Mick leads the group toward the railroad tracks, around the building to a low cardboard encampment.
Off the side of the brick building near First Street, Stephen Harris built a hovel. He picks up trash in the long side yard between the tracks and the building, and on his good days stacks castoff wood and scrap metal in a large pile in the middle of the green to keep things peaceable with the business owners. But this was not a good day.
"We didn't mean to impose on your privacy, but you're one of our brothers," Mick says into a large, low box. "We wanted to check on you."
Harris, 49, has lived in Turlock since his parents brought him here in 1959. A long-haul trucker by trade, he was crippled in 2000 when an 80,000-pound water truck rear-ended his unloaded semi at 15 mph in Bay Area traffic. Several vertebrae were fractured; a knee crushed. Surgery on the knee made things worse, he says, so he doesn't want anyone to cut into his back. A few months after the accident, his second wife divorced him.
On the good days, he rides his bike around town, usually pulling a small trailer with a pinwheel flitting in the wind. On the bad days, his arthritis is paralyzing.
The walls of Steve's home are shopping carts. The roof is cardboard. It's covered with a tarp, torn vinyl and umbrella skins from the trash. A gas camping stove heats the little cave and candles provide some light. Blankets piled upon blankets make a bed — the bed Steve couldn't move from that day.
"The only thing I'm missing here," he says, "is my own shower and bath."
An old friend of his, an 80-year-old man on Susan Street, took him in after the accident. Steve helped him in his garden and, on the good days, drove him around town. The old man was a crack mechanic and Steve helped him work on his cars.
When the man's family came to town to help him, Steve was turned out. He tried to find work, but "because of my injuries, no one will take a chance on me. They think I'll just get hurt again." He's been homeless for a year and a half.
"I didn't tell you what happened to me Sunday night," he says outside his camp. "Seven or eight guys, all late-teens, early-20s, were waiting for me behind a Dumpster. This guy says, 'Remember me?' and comes out swinging. Man, I was lucky he couldn't hit."
Steve says he was punched in the face and head a half-dozen times. Amid laughs and jeers, the guys took off.
A description of the group — young men, a tall leader, a red car — circulated in the homeless community throughout November and December. Despite three alleged attacks, one involving a baseball bat, the police have not been called. Homeless people rarely go looking for the police. Steve shrugged the whole thing off as part of the life he's living.
"I think God has a reason for me to be out here," he says. "I'm not very religious, but I think I'm out here for a reason. He put me out here for a roundabout way. It's humbled me a bit. I'm learning a lot about humility."
Where the railroad tracks cross West Avenue near High Street, a field is flanked by new home construction to the west and old homes to the east. Thistle brush and tumbleweeds stretch 6 feet high. Pie melons litter the ground.
"This is where Marlene and I have been living for about the last three weeks," Mick says. "The reason I'm bringing you in here today is the shelter opens up tomorrow, so I don't care if the cops find us."
After bulldozers rolled over Camp Golden State, many homeless and advocates of the homeless asked where the homeless should go. The short, unsatisfying answer was Modesto. After a series of community meetings in 2002, Turlock established a cold-weather emergency shelter at 400 B St. A nonprofit group, We Care, was formed at Turlock Community Collaborative meetings, and the city appointed the group managers. The 62-bed shelter opened Nov. 20 this year. It is federally funded.
"Hey, no cameras. I don't want to be on TV. I don't want to be on TV!" Marlene, which is not her real name, shouts from a red Ozark Trails tent. Barefoot, with her face made up, reddish dyed hair combed and styled, Marlene comes out in a patterned housedress, apprehensive and upset.
"You have to understand, she's a local girl," Mick says.
"You don't have to give them my story," she says. "Unlike Mick, I don't want to advertise my situation."
"Hey, I'm embarrassed about the way we have to live, but unless Blue Bike Mike and I stand up and say, 'Look, this is what we're doing,' people will never know who's living in their field," Mick says. "As a human being, no human being should have to accept living like this. We have no other choice."
"Yeah," says Blue Bike Mike, unfolding a small camping chair. "And you look very nice, Marlene."
Some old mountain bikes and bicycle parts, piles of clothing and a stack of thrown-out magazines lie around the four-man tent. The bottle of Early Times, with an inch or so left, is under a bush 10 feet away, where Marlene had thrown it that morning. Mick rolls a cigarette and takes a long drag.
"My head is finally clearing," Mick says. "I absolutely hate that feeling. Other than the time in the Sunflower Patch and today, I haven't been inebriated since we've been out here. Same reasons then, too."
"Did you tell him what we fought about?" asks Marlene.
"No, I did not."
"I don't want them knowing our business," she says.
Mick and Marlene have been together four years. Before his stroke, they trucked across the country together. Mick, as a contractor with his own truck, grossed $20,000 a month.
"Everywhere I'd go, I'd see homeless people," he says. "Then I'd open the paper and see the list of Help Wanted. 'Why don't these bums get a job?' I'd say. It's all rather ironic now. You're looking at a man who had absolutely no compassion for the homeless."
Mick and Marlene were cutting through Victorville, in San Bernardino County, bringing a load to Phoenix, when his left arm went numb. "I was 52 and almost all the males in my family died at 52 — my dad, an uncle — so I thought, 'All right, here it comes.'"
By the time a California Highway Patrol officer called an ambulance, half his body was paralyzed. He lay like that for three months in a Victorville hospital, one side of his face limp, hardly able to talk.
"I'm basically all here physically, but my memory isn't any good," Mick says, sitting in front of his tent. "I've done it all myself, really. That's why, in a sense, homelessness — and no one wants to get out of this hell worse than me — but all the walking and cycling, I think homelessness might have helped me come back physically."
"What's for dinner, Mick?" Marlene asks.
"I don't know, babe. I'll have to find something I may stop by 7-Eleven. You want a burrito or two?"
During the week, the United Samaritans Foundation and Food Not Bombs provide meals for the homeless. On the weekends, they're left to their own devices. Mick said most homeless can make $20 to $50 a week collecting cans. Some have under-the-table jobs, like Blue Bike Mike, who passes out satellite television fliers. Food stamps are worth $155 a month, and for the lucky few, there's Social Security. Marlene has a monthly$800 disability check, but sees only about $400 of it because child support back pay is automatically deducted.
"Marlene got carpal tunnel real bad and they operated," Mick says.
"You don't need to tell my story," she says.
"OK, well, she had problems with her hands."
In her case, the $400 a month that goes to pay the child support doesn't even cover the interest. She's hesitant to talk about her kids, other than to say, "They're all grown."
At the 7-Eleven on Lander Avenue, Mick uses his food stamp card to buy a burrito. When he returns to the camp, Marlene has changed into warmer clothes. The sun is down, and under the cover of darkness, the two ride out of the weed patch to collect cans and tell a few friends that the shelter is opening tomorrow.
"I have absolutely no aptitude for panhandling," Mick says, rummaging through a Dumpster behind The Salvation Army on Lander. "In my career, I've made exactly 11 cents."
Aluminum cans fetch about $1.40 a pound; glass based on color and the fixed California Refund Value ranges from 6½ cents to about $1.60 a pound; plastic varies widely. Mick uses a large plastic bag with reinforced handles.
Mick sees a friend at a taco truck across the street. "Sammy asked me to remind him about the shelter. I'll cruise over and remind him," he says.
Sammy has long hair and a beard in braids. His clothes are rags and sweats and T-shirts layered as thick as a child's ski parka. He sits under the taco truck canopy drinking a Coca-Cola. His shopping cart, half full of cans, is within arms' reach.
"Sleep?" he says. "Wherever I drop, I sleep. I'm always looking for a little cubby hole so the wind's off my back." He turns around and points at a Dumpster near the back of a gas station parking lot. "Sometimes, I'll get in there cause there's walls."
Mick and Marlene push off down Lander Avenue. Back at the 7-Eleven, a thin man with scraggly facial hair, barefoot, in hospital pants and a T-shirt is frantically tearing through a garbage can.
"That's Mad Dog," Mick says.
"Mick! Mick!" Mad Dog says. "You got any money? I need a beer. I'm starting to see s---. I need a beer real bad."
Mad Dog rocks back and forth, kicking his legs up erratically, as if his bare feet are burning on the concrete. Mick rolls him a cigarette. Mad Dog puffs at it maniacally, his feet still kicking. "I need some money," he says.
"I don't have any," Mick says. "The shelter opens tomorrow, though. They'll help you."
Mad Dog walks toward Vermont Avenue.
"OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, "
Mick yells after him, "Don't forget!" Mad Dog keeps walking. For the first time in several hours, Mick is very quiet.
THE COOL'S STORY
Terry and Linda Cool sit in their van in the United Samaritans parking lot off Broadway Avenue. Their laptop is plugged into an outlet by the day care center. Pillows, blankets and clothing are piled high in the tinted van windows. The van has been home since January.
"We play FreeCell on there at night," Terry says, pointing to the laptop. "Our computer will stay charged for two-and-a-half, three hours."
The Cools have been married14 years, a second marriage for both. They met in Fresno and spent much of their life together in Los Angeles. At 61, Linda suffers from the early stages of emphysema and asthma.
She is overweight and has chronic arthritis in her back and knees. She worked as clerical staff for hospitals, real estate management companies and other offices. She's been waiting for Social Security to kick in for almost a year.
Terry, 53, was a career security guard before pinching nerves in his back moving boxes in a company storage shed. He received a large settlement and workers compensation, which kept them afloat in Los Angeles.
"I ran through my settlement, spent it on the wrong kind of stuff, mismanaged my money, so now with my (Social Security) we're just getting back on my feet," Terry says.
Terry spent much of his 20s in Turlock. His children live in Waterford. In April 2005, the Cools came back to the area and moved in with one of Terry's sons. A few months later, they had their own apartment in the same complex, but bills stacked up and soon they were out again. The workers compensation ended and Terry's Social Security hadn't started.
Terry starts the van. They aren't allowed to spend the night at United Samaritans, so they park in The Salvation Army lot every night and drive back to Broadway in the morning for breakfast.
Mick and Marlene talk to them briefly, then everyone goes in different directions. Mick rides up Broadway to Main Street and stops at the Jack In The Box to use the restroom. He comes out with water on his face, his close-cropped black hair wet. "Thank God for Jack In The Box," he says.
It was time to go shopping.
Mick and Marlene ride up Golden State. By the gas station at the corner of Olive Avenue, they cross the street to the dead-end North Front Street. Blue lights and a siren go off. Mick and Marlene pull over behind China Café. Officer Mike Stapler gets out of his cruiser.
Stapler: What are you cutting in front of a bus for? You trying to get hit?
Mick: I thought I had plenty of room.
Stapler: You guys have ID with you? Where are you going?
Mick: Just riding around.
Stapler: You need to get a light for your bike, not run red lights, not cut through parking lots, not go the wrong way. It's just like being in the car.
Mick: That was my fault.
Stapler: I saw that bus almost cream you there.
Mick: I looked and thought I had plenty of room.
Marlene: You always ride like that, Mick.
Stapler: Any of you have any unfinished business with us? Warrants, parole, suspensions?
Mick: No, officer.
Stapler: Pending nothing else floating around, we just really need you guys to ride carefully.
Mick: I know, guy. And I looked, I thought I had plenty of room.
Stapler: I know, but with this fog, and even though it's Sunday, we've had plenty of DUI crashes this week.
Dispatch comes back with a clean bill on everyone. Stapler says he's a cyclist and sympathetic to the situation, but he doesn't want to have to stop them again. Mick and Marlene are sent on their way.
"That only happened the way it did," Mick says afterward, "because of the new chief in town."
Front Street Road and the Geer Road extension behind the China Café spill into a shopping center parking lot. Mick and Marlene cut across the lot to Express Car Wash.
"One time, I missed this," Mick says, stepping over a taut rope that keeps cars off the carwash property. "I landed on my head about five feet from my bike." On a sunny day, the carwash is ideal for can collectors. Washing their cars, people empty weeks' worth of empty soda cans and water bottles into the oversized trash cans with yellow plastic shoots. But it is foggy and overcast. It has been all weekend. The pickings are slim.
Marlene disappears behind the 99 Cent Only Store to their favorite Dumpster in town. Spoiled and expired food goes in the bin almost every day. At the end of a month, on a weekend — when the food trucks aren't running and food stamps are spent — it can make the difference between eating or not. Back at The Weeds earlier, Marlene had made a hobo stew of found yams, powdered sugar, cocoa and instant coffee — 99 Cent Only Store gems.
Down the Dumpster row, at the Goodwill box, a homeless man moves pillow cushions and bedding.
"Anything good, mate?" Mick asks. The homeless man says nothing.
"I'm going to take this for Mad Dog," Marlene says, holding a soft blue blanket. "He didn't have a blanket with him."
Before riding back to The Weeds, Mick and Marlene roll over to Bonander Pontiac. In the alley, a giant black tent is set up — room for a dozen people. At the far end of the alley, Mick's friend Charles is walking his dog, Emmitt Smith.
Charles, 34, won't give his last name. With his sandy blond hair and rosy checks, clean-looking by anyone's standard in a polo shirt and raincoat, he looks like a college student. Charles is in high spirits. He was paid $200 the day before to camp in front of Wal-Mart and buy a PlayStation 3. Then he bought the giant tent and registered Emmitt Smith with the city.
Crystal meth brought Charles to the street, and now the Lord, he hopes, will bring him out. "I had God in my life before, but I was living two lives. I'm done with that. I want to live my life for a reason, like Joseph and Paul and those guys.
"The first two years, I used to hide. I was always hiding out, tweaking. No more, man. Been clean three months, no weed for 12 days," he says. "I used to smoke up when I'd get discontented, but now I pray a lot."
Charles tried to go to Gospel Mission in Modesto and the cold-weather shelter in Turlock, but had no luck with Emmitt Smith in tow. "I've had him for nine years. What kind of person would I be if after all that I just let him go for a warm bed?"
Charles used to be called Chuck, but off the drugs and in the pew, he uses his full name. He bends down and scratches between the dog's ears. "His dad's a pit and his mom's a chow. He has his mom's eyes," he says. "Now he's a Christian, too."
Back at The Weeds, Marlene takes a few more bites of hobo yams then leaves to find her sister, who's also on the street. Mick lights a Backwoods cigar and watches the fog roll in. The temperature slowly drops as midnight approaches and passes.
"Some people think it's a laughing matter, what happens to the homeless people. Every night, when I close the flap on the tent, I think, 'Good Lord, keep me safe tonight,'" he says. "Seriously, you don't know where we're living."
As if someone overheard the conversation, three gunshots go off in the distance.
"It's often said in this life," Mick says, "'Things aren't always what they appear to be.'"