Homeless in the High Desert
A five-part series by Don Ray
Stories From the Streets:
Who are they and why are they here?
Part 1 — Sunday, October 8, 2000
HOMELESS IN THE HIGH DESERT / By choice or by chance?
BY Don Ray, Projects Editor
All homeless people are panhandlers. All homeless people abuse alcohol and illegal drugs. All homeless people choose to be homeless. They are all lazy and they are all mentally ill. They all have police records and they are all fugitives. None of them bathe and they all have lice.
It’s easy to paint with a wide brush.
Indeed, there are homeless people who fit one, two — even a handful of the above descriptions. There may even be a few who fit all categories. But none of these characteristics apply to all homeless people. To make such sweeping generalizations of the homeless is akin to declaring that all birds can fly.
And this becomes the first hurdle in trying to deal with the homeless.
There are many faces of homelessness.
When someone asks for help at High Desert Homeless Services in Victorville, case manager Lorrie Mendoza must quickly size up the person. Not just anyone can take advantage of the services the shelter on Amargosa Road at Anacapa Road offers.
“We don’t allow anyone here who has drug or alcohol problems,” she said. “Who you’d want in your own home is who we want here.”The shelter takes in people who are homeless because they lost their jobs or income, their landlords evicted them, the city condemned their house, a fire destroyed their home or even because they came out on the short end of a family fight, Mendoza said.
“And some people are scammed and lose their home,” she said. “For example, someone will rent out a house that they don’t actually own.” Then they’ll collect rent until the true owners discover the tenants living there and kick them out, she said.
Many are people who are just passing through, she said, modern-day hobos.
But if someone seeking shelter is on probation or parole, the shelter requires them to produce a letter of approval from their probation or parole officer — no letter, no service.
The shelter also turns away people who appear to be either mentally unstable or who are prone to violence, Mendoza said.
And it turns away victims of domestic violence — they don’t want angry spouses crashing their way into the shelter in search of the victim, she said.
Up to 55 people a night — the average is about 30 — receive food, a bed and assistance in solving the problems that brought them to the shelter. Mendoza refers the rest to other places better geared to their particular problems. Those who stay must take an active role in solving their problems, she said.
They must help out with the daily maintenance of the shelter and they must look for a job.
If they do, they have a good chance of straightening out their lives — even if it’s a short-term success.
“It works for the majority of them,” she said. “What they put into it they get out of it.”
Tim Neilson bottomed out and ended up at the High Desert Homeless shelter. His downward spiral is a typical story. He fell apart emotionally following the breakup of a relationship and ended up without a place to stay, he said. His friends were willing to take him in — at least for a while.
“It wasn’t too long before I tapped out all of my friends,” he said.
The next thing he knew, he was on the street. Some people he met at Narcotics Anonymous told him about the shelter in Victorville, but he said it took him three days to get up the nerve to go there and ask for help.
“I was desperate, shocked, embarrassed, broke and too proud,” he said. “I have always worked — I just couldn’t believe it was me.”
His first night there was the most difficult, he said. He couldn’t sleep, so he sought help or guidance or advice from Larry McLaughlin, the night manager.
“He talked to me for an hour or two,” Neilson said. “He said to me, ‘Maybe there’s a purpose you don’t know about. Maybe you should see all of this as an opportunity.’ Well, he was right. It was indeed an opportunity.”
He stayed there five days longer than the 90 they allow, he said. He was so grateful for the help he agreed to come back as a volunteer. On his first night, he served dinner to the homeless and realized something was happening, he said.
“I got addicted to the feeling I was getting,” he said.
Today, Neilson is still a familiar face at the shelter, but he’s no longer a client — he works there full time as a case manager.
“Now I’m a finger in a hand that makes it operate here,” he said. “When they leave here — no longer homeless and with their pride intact — it’s a wonderful feeling.”
At Barstow’s Desert Manna shelter, Robert Ebersole tells a similar story.
“I was at rock bottom. I came in here and said, ‘I’ve had enough. I need a job — I need more than just food stamps,’ ” he said. “A voice from God said, ‘Is this what you want in your life?’ So I did what needed to be done.”
Ebersole also stayed on to help others who find themselves with no means. He’s now the client representative there — a position required under a federal law that ensures a voice for people staying in homeless shelters. He shares Neilson’s desire to help the more motivated homeless persons find a way out.“You’ve got to want to help yourself,” Ebersole said.
But in reality, the successes at the High Desert Homeless and Desert Manna shelters represent only a fraction of the so-called homeless in the High Desert. It doesn’t require an exhaustive search to find the others.
It’s difficult to drive along any major thoroughfare that connects with Interstate 15 and not see a homeless person either pushing an overloaded shopping cart, foraging for aluminum cans along the road, sleeping behind a commercial building or sitting near an intersection or freeway off ramp with a sign that promises they’ll work for you in trade for some food.
“They come around here all the time,” Pablo Romero, the night manager at Richie’s Diner in Victor-ville, said.
“There’s one guy who checks the coin slots in all the vending machines and newspaper racks a couple of times a day. When I see him I tell people ‘There’s the owner of the machines,’ ” Romero said, smiling. “About three times a year they take meat from our cookers outside. One woman came in last night and grabbed a cinnamon roll and ran out.”
Romero can only remember one time when he felt threatened by a homeless person.
“A man came in with some raw meat and asked me to cook it. I told him I couldn’t do it — I’d lose my job. He said, ‘Hey, I’m homeless,’ but I still said I couldn’t.” Then the homeless man asked Romero if he wanted to fight.
“I picked up a big cooking tool and said, ‘OK, you want to fight?’ ” The man took his uncooked meat and left, Romero said.
Victorville Mayor Pro Tem Bob Hunter said City Hall still receives a lot of calls from citizens who complain of feeling intimidated by beggars and also receives calls from the owners of local businesses who say homeless people are chasing away customers.
“It’s difficult because we don’t have any anti-annoyance laws here,” he said. “The other complaint we get is that people are afraid to take their children to the parks where the homeless people sit and drink alcohol.”
The park they complain about most is Forrest Park at Sixth and D streets along the railroad tracks in Victorville.
It’s here that a group of anywhere between four and 20 homeless people gather during daylight hours. Most of them sleep in a small camp next to the Mojave River. A few others bunk up behind businesses or take up residence in abandoned buildings near old downtown.
A city ordinance prevents them from loitering in the park after dark — although it’s not uncommon to see them in the late evenings gathered under the lights that illuminate the parking lot and the area where passengers wait to board the twice-a-day Amtrak train. And indeed some of them are — by their own admission — often under the influence of alcohol, rock cocaine or Mexican black heroin.
They function as a quasi-family — a protective alliance that seems be unique among those in the homeless scene in the United States. They’ve been a fixture in the park for so long they no longer have to go looking for food — a different church group brings them a full-course meal every afternoon, free of charge.
Their drug and alcohol consumption would certainly prevent them from seeking shelter at High Desert Homeless Services or Barstow’s Desert Manna.
But that doesn’t seem to matter to them — they’ll tell you. Most of them are on the streets by choice.
The few who say they want to return to the mainstream world can’t seem to shake the demons that cast them onto the streets or can’t shake the drugs or alcohol that help kill the pain.