Those among us who live in homes tend to collect stuff, lots of stuff, and if only because we have places to put it and don’t have to carry it everywhere we go.
We fill our closets with clothes and pantries with food. We stow pots, pans and dishes in cabinets. Wi-Fi connects phones and laptops. Toys for people of all ages. The smart folks store their jewelry and other dear-to-the-heart memorabilia in safes. The same with firearms, by law. Garages might have work benches and lockers to secure power tools, or sheds might store the garden equipment. And when those places all fill up, there’s always the rental storage unit.
Stuff that seems so important and vital to our existences.
By contrast, many homeless folks carry everything they own in their backpacks. I’m not referring to hoarders who commandeer a couple of shopping carts and overload them with anything that isn’t nailed down (and stuff that once was). This is about those who trudge around downtown Modesto – to the Gospel Mission, the shelter, the library and the parks – carrying a backpack and maybe a second tote bag as well.
What is in their backpacks? What do they consider most important and vital to their existences? Their answers shouldn’t surprise you. They simply reflect what most folks take for granted because the items are so basic.
“Definitely a blanket,” said William Holcomb, a 53-year-old living on the streets for the better part of a decade. “And socks. If you don’t take care of your feet, they won’t take care of you. And a jacket.”
Many other homeless will tell you the same, Holcomb said, because they covet the same. Some covet backpacks belonging to other homeless people.
“What I tell people when they come into camp is, ‘Whatever you value, take it with you wherever you go,’ ” he said in front of the Stanislaus County Library. Recently, he left a bag in a camp elsewhere in town. When he came back, it was gone.
“I didn’t take my own advice,” Holcomb said.
Tina Barber is a 40-year-old woman who began living on the streets about a dozen years ago.
“Soap and deodorant,” she said. “That’s what I carry. Always toiletries. And hand sanitizer. I’m a clean freak, and when I first got out here I realized I couldn’t use a curling iron. Now, if someone offered one I’d have to laugh at them. Socks, too. If your feet are sore or tired or blistered or cold, you’re immobile.”
“You try to look respectful,” said Patrick Nash, 36 and homeless for about five months. Friend Jason Vallow said the same.
“I carry headphones,” said Vallow, 40, on and off of the streets since he was 28. “Tobacco if you’re a smoker. Always deodorant, razors and hygiene stuff.”
His most important item? His smartphone.
“I’ve got a Bible app,” he said. “It will even read (the scriptures) to you. You’ve got to have things that will help you keep your sanity.”
Kirk Beebout said he lost his job in the defense industry in Southern California in 2006.
“World peace was bad for business,” the 58-year-old joked on a freezing Friday morning. He sat in front of the library after a night of shelter at the Modesto Gospel Mission. “I lost everything.”
He moved to Modesto to be closer to family and has found periodic work, but not full-time employment. So he enrolled in computer courses at Modesto Junior College and expects to graduate in the spring while he continues to spend his days out on the streets.
“I realized several years ago that if I don’t do something, I could be out here freezing forever,” Beebout said. “And the only person I could rely on to fix this (his homelessness) is me.”
His backpack contains … ?
“Blankets, clothes and books to read,” Beebout said. Like many other homeless, he links his smartphone to the free Wi-Fi offered by the library and other places around town.
“It helps me get info,” he said. “It’s how my professors reach me to tell me class is canceled or to give assignments.”
April Marasco considers herself fortunate. The 52-year-old began living in her SUV with her disabled husband, son, two dogs and three cats six months ago after being evicted.
“It’s still cold,” she said. “My husband nearly froze to death (Wednesday night). We just piled on the blankets. But I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have the car. If we could just fit a bathroom in there.”
Aaron Lauderdale, Amanda Stonekings and Doug Smith hang out together for protection. Smith and Lauderdale have both served prison time.
Lauderdale relies on his bicycle for transportation, so he packs a bike lock and tools along with clothing in his backpack.
“I’ve got to keep it going,” he said. And his smartphone is vital to living on the streets.
“I try to stay ahead of the weather, Lauderdale said. “Wi-Fi and The Weather Channel.”
Their backpacks are their lifelines, Smith said.
“I carry food, hygiene stuff, socks, undies, water and meds. And rain gear,” said Smith, a military veteran who said he sometimes carries weapons for protection. He also said he has mental issues.
“I’m broken,” he said. “(But) I’m not your normal homeless. I have income. I need someone willing to rent to me, and then I’m human again.”
Indeed, with a roof over his head, a dresser for his clothes and a place he could store his backpack.