All of us have stories. Those stories can range from how we met our boyfriend or girlfriend, how we landed that dream job in a new area, or even how we got that nasty bruise on our leg. By listening to others’ stories, we get a better perspective of who they are and what brought them to this moment in life. Over the past three years I’ve been trying to gather stories from the street, similar to what Soulpancake did. Over that time, I felt that people, including myself, lumped all of those living on the streets together as one. Yes, they are all united in the fact that they lack a home- hence they are ‘homeless.’ Yet for most, that’s where the similarities stop.
Over the past three years I’ve met travelers, those who are mentally ill, addicts, and people who hit hard times. They are all different. From personalities, gender and age, but most importantly, the difference was in their stories.
Russell is a man I will never forget. I met him by the Ventura Mission when passing out sandwiches and water last November. For fifteen minutes we talked about how he ended up homeless in Ventura, his past situation, and life on the streets. While out here settling a lawsuit, he caught a DUI on the 101.
From there, his truck was impounded and he couldn’t afford to get it out. So Russell grabbed his few possessions, bought a tent, and went to live on the streets. I asked him what life was like when he moved to the streets: “I was scared to death when I first got out here. Didn’t think I would make it. People walking around talking to themselves in circles. [The police] used to put the crazies in the nuthouse if they saw that, but now, nope...I used to read in the paper that 60-70% of the people on the streets have mental illness and I said ‘that’s bullshit,’ but then I realized from being out here how true it was.”
Russell's words resonated with me- especially when he spoke of the mentally ill. When walking downtown I hear men and women talking to no one in particular. Sometimes they scream phrases or simply rant, while other times they are muttering rapidly under their breathe. They are wrapped up in their own thoughts and seem unaware of their surroundings. It's heartbreaking- unsettling even. It's evident those men and women need help, but for a multitude of reasons, that help will never come.
Russell had been on the streets for five months and he talked about how that changed him: “It’s terrible to get sleep. I had to become a different person. I had to be mean in order to survive. I noticed that when I was coming out here with that nice guy attitude - and I’ve always been nice- they would take advantage of me. They wanted to hurt me. They’d see a victim right there. They saw me as easy prey. So I had to turn around and light a couple of people up. They left me with no choice. They tried to intimidate me to the point where I had to give them money and stuff so boom I had to assault them- hard. I felt bad about it, but I knew in my mind that if it wasn’t them getting hurt it would be me.”
This type of dog eat dog mentality Russell spoke of struck me, because he wasn’t the only person I’d heard that from on the streets of Ventura. Late Wednesday evening, when walking back from Surfer’s Point, I caught a conversation with a local man who was out walking his dog. We made eye contact and next thing I knew we were walking- and he was ranting: “My dog knows of the bad juju over here.
(He's referring to the spot- pictured here- in front of the parking structure where homeless individuals rendezvous once the sun sets). He trips out every time we walk through here. Two of my buddies were killed out here over the years. Shit man, I got friends out here now who are ripping each other off. It’s crazy because they all know each other. I’m lucky to live with my parents because I can’t figure out what’s going on out here.”
The man was a bit strange, and maybe had done a little too many drugs during his day, but to his credit, I don’t think a lot of people know what’s going on in the streets. That’s why the problems persist. However, those stories of violence and betrayal only paint part of the picture.
Two weeks ago I caught a gripping photography exhibit at a local bar in Ventura. The exhibit was titled Planet of Slum and the piece “examined the lives of the itinerant. A view of the people down-and-out on the streets of Ventura."
The photographer, let’s call him Jimmy for anonymity, was taking a photography course- among other classes- at Ventura College. Jimmy had previously been in and out of homelessness himself. “I decided to actually start back with school because I felt like I had no other options. It was also a way for me to get quick money [with student loans]. I’ve managed to stay on my feet the past few years, but if some things don't shake out soon I might be homeless again. If I do end up there, at least I have my truck.” What I admired about Jimmy was how he himself was homeless, and may very well be again, but he hit the streets to photograph others and learn more about them. He listened to their stories to hear what brought them to this point. “I met one guy who begged for money and used that to pay his bills. He had no intention of changing anything and that made me upset. But then I thought of another guy I met who was struggling to eat, and all he did was ask for food. He was extremely grateful for anything you could spare, and that stuck with me.”
After I thanked him for the thoughtful conversation and began walking home, I thought of Jimmy’s appearance. A man, who at first look could have been my father, clean cut, collared shirt and crisp slacks, with a camera around his neck. Yet, because of circumstances, Jimmy could be homeless in the next few weeks. Life is like that, I guess. Things can go well for awhile, and then out of nowhere life deals you more than you can handle. That's where empathy and compassion for others comes into play. Understanding that we all have stories, and that circumstances, which are sometimes out of our control, can put us in precarious positions.
This is what runs through my mind when someone sticks out there hand and asks for help.