They are visible by day throughout Modesto. The homeless bide their time in parks or at the library. They can be seen pushing all of their worldly goods in shopping carts around town, sometimes rummaging through trash bins for recyclables.
Those fortunate enough to find beds at the Gospel Mission or the Salvation Army are right back out there again early the next morning. Others find shelter wherever they can, enduring the elements.
It is how they live, surviving from day to day, night to night. Homelessness is top of mind these days. It became the subject of a conference in Modesto that drew 500 people. It’s been an issue among candidates during the City Council and mayoral campaigns in Modesto. Lots of posturing, but no record of success because there is no cookie-cutter solution to a problem that besieges thousands of individuals, each with a different personal history, circumstances and needs.
A couple of years ago, Modesto residents John Lucas and Richard Anderson decided they should better understand homelessness in the Modesto area. Lucas and I first met about that time, when I wrote columns about a woman being evicted from a moldy, dilapidated rental on the west side of town and into homelessness. He began following her plight, and that of others as well.
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“I met a lot of homeless, and that’s how it started,” Lucas said, referring to the ongoing project that became his interest and passion.
What are their individual stories and backgrounds? What sent these people out onto the streets? How long have they been homeless? Would they accept help if offered?
So Lucas and Anderson, video cameras in hand, set about interviewing as many homeless as they can. They’ve logged about 200 hours’ worth of video they will eventually edit into a documentary. Along the way, they’ve recruited others to their project, among them Leng Power, who works at the Great Valley Center and volunteers when they go out to do their interviews.
“The project is to humanize the homeless experience,” Power said. “We want to know the stories of their lives, what ultimately led to homelessness. It’s valuable information when it comes to working with people.”
Lucas and Anderson began sharing the stories and information in short snippets titled “Homeless in Modesto” online, though some of footage will be used in the documentary as well. Frank Ploof, who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness, also works with Lucas while managing a Facebook group titled Homelessness & Poverty in Stanislaus.
After talking to dozens of homeless, it struck Lucas that all of the work came in broad daylight. He wondered how those who can’t get or don’t seek shelter spend their nights. What happens to them when the sun sets, the doors close and the chill sets in?
Lucas invited Modesto Bee photographer Andy Alfaro and me to tag along as he, Power, Joe Salazar and Joe Homer looked for more homeless folks to interview one recent evening. Salazar himself was homeless until recently, finding housing through the Salvation Army.
All of them are affiliated with the Peace-Life Center, an anti-war and anti-nuclear weaponry organization that promotes peace and social justice education. Wednesday night wasn’t the most productive outing they’ve experienced. Lucas began by interviewing Salazar about his personal attachment to the project.
But when he or Power approached others at Graceada Park, they declined to be interviewed or said they aren’t really homeless. Nor were there any along McHenry Avenue, where Salazar said he frequently sees them.
“That night, you’d have thought there are no homeless in Modesto,” Power said. They know better, though. They’ve done scores of interviews, hearing the same basic story told many different ways. The reasons for homelessness include losing jobs and homes during the recession; drug or alcohol addiction; mental illness; troubled family situations, including domestic violence and abuse; criminal histories; and in some cases, all of the above.
Some have been homeless their entire adult lives.
“I met a woman at Beard Brook Park (earlier this month),” Power said. “She’s been homeless since she was 18. She’s 31 now, and she’s pregnant. She’s been homeless the larger part of her formative years.”
And that is not unusual, Power said. In fact, she said, it confirms the need for early intervention when someone becomes homeless.
“That’s what we’re hearing,” she said. “If you can get off the street within a year, you aren’t as likely to become chronically homeless.”
Salazar spends time with the homeless at the Salvation Army’s Berberian Transitional Center at Ninth and D streets downtown. Under the right conditions, many of them could emerge from homelessness. Others, he said, are mired.
“A lot of them are all broken up in body and mind and won’t come out of it,” he said. He believes the situation would improve dramatically if the shelters remained open all day instead of from 6 p.m. until morning.
Some, Lucas said, have been on the streets so long that they “don’t meet the conditions” for available services.
“They might have an animal, and can’t go into the shelter because it doesn’t take animals,” he said. “They’re not going to give up their dog, and so they can’t access the services.”
Finally, outside the McDonald’s at Ninth and I streets, they approached a 26-year-old man named Jamar Strain. Lucas explained his project, and Strain agreed to go on camera. He told them he’d been in the foster care system as a youngster, bouncing all over Northern California, including Stockton, before coming to Modesto.
“I was staying in a three-story house with a flat-screen, a sound bar with a subwoofer (speaker),” he said. “Had a brand-new laptop. I had brand-new shoes – everything.”
It all disappeared, he said.
“Just one bad year of crystal meth basically ruined my whole life, and I can’t get it back,” he said. “People might influence you in the wrong direction. Make sure you look out for yourself.”
He takes classes at Modesto Junior College but remains on the streets, each day taking him perilously closer to the realm of permanent and chronic homelessness.
“It’s the consistent periods of instability,” Power said. “It’s not just one person. The issue is systemic. We have a group of people who have nowhere to go to be human. They are stripped of their human dignity.”
Lucas, who wants to try another nighttime expedition soon, turned off his camera and bought Strain dinner at McDonald’s before heading home.
Strain went off into the night, looking for a place to sleep until dawn.
To view “Homeless in Modesto” videos, go to www.modestocahomelessdocumentary.org.