Thursday, June 22, 2017

We Don't Want Your Kind

Tony and I at Taco Bell in Sacramento

As I drive up to Taco Bell I see three people, covered in dirt and ragged clothes, dash across the street with large garbage bags. I assume the bags are their belongings but I have no idea why the rush to the smoke shop they now approach. I park and begin to walk a little.

I walk a block or so and am on my way back when I run into Harlin, one of the runners. As he approaches I can hear the bag is not his belongings but cans, hundreds of smashed cans. I approach him as he approaches me, cigar bouncing in his lips. "What you up to?" I ask.

"Just trying to trade someone for these cans, so I can get something to eat."

"I'll buy you something to eat."

"Awesome, how about some chips and a beer? Want the cans?"

"That's okay, how about we go to Taco Bell or Subway?" I was hoping to have more of a conversation with him.

By now his friends are caught up and clearly curious about why I was talking to Harlin. "Who is your friend?" they ask.

"He's getting me something to eat."

"I'm happy to get you all something. Do you want to go to Taco Bell?"

Harlin quickly chimes in, "No, just a beer and chips at the gas station would work for me?"

By the look on the other two faces, I can tell they are more interested in some real food. I know Taco Bell may not qualify, but it beats the gas station. Harlin is more interested in a snack. So, I get Harlin a few items at the gas station and I then head to Taco Bell with the young couple, Tony and Stacy.

They too had a large bag of cans and I had to ask, "So why were you running to the smoke shop with the cans?"

Bag of cans they collected as it sat outside Taco Bell while we ate.

"They pay 5 cents a can but turns out you have to get there before 5 o'clock, so we will just come back tomorrow."

"How much will you get for all that?"

"I'd say we have 300-400 cans, so $15-$20 bucks."

We order, and as we wait, I begin to get to know Tony and Stacy. They've been on the streets or couch surfing at friends for the past 8 months after being kicked out of Stacy's mothers home in San Francisco. "Right now we have a friend that lets us keep our stuff at their place and stay from time to time. That is really nice because when we have a cart our stuff gets stolen all the time."

"Is this your first time on the streets?"

"No we were homeless before when Tony's Mom kicked us out." I turn to Tony, "You see your mother any more?"

The mood quickly changes, Tony didn't get mad or unwilling to share but extremely contrite. He began to share very openly some things that clearly brought him intense pain.

"My mother is in Arizona, but I don't know where. I haven't seen her in 9 months. I wish very much I knew where she was."

He continues to explain that he was trained as a chef and had worked in some very high end restaurants, earning $15-$18 dollars an hour. During that time, about 7 years ago, he got into drugs with the girlfriend he was dating at the time. Stealing became a way to feed the addiction and he wrote bad checks, stole identities and credit cards. In time, he was caught and spent 9 months in jail, did community service, went through a rehab program and spend 4 years on probation. "Given what I did, they were very lenient on me. It could have been much worse." It was during this time that he met Stacy, got his old certificates current and landed a job at "The Rose Garden" in Portland, Oregon. By the way he said it, you could tell he thought I would know about his restaurant. He was planning to move and come back later for Stacy but they found out she was pregnant and decided to ask for an extra week before he started to get things in order and bring her along. They agreed and he prepared to move. The day before he left they called him and told him that they would not be giving him the job, due to his background check and the past issues it turned up. "No real restaurants will hire me."

That was a couple years ago and since them they had a baby boy. He's now 1 and they have not seen him in 9 months because when Tony's mother left to Arizona she took the baby with her. I now understood why admitting he didn't know where his mother was brought so much pain.

He cheered up a little as he said, "but in three months it will have been 7 years since my conviction and my record will be clean. I can't wait to get a job."

"Have you been able to stay off drugs?"

He and Stacy said they had and I believed them. However being on the streets, drugs are never far away. "Heroine is a real issue in Sacramento. We had a friend overdose last week."

"So no one will take you with your background?"

"I could probably get a job at a place like this, but it's hard to take a job for $8 an hour when you were a chef in a nice place that made $18. I know that's a bad attitude to have, but it's hard."

They shared a few more stories about her siblings, she has a sister at Sacramento State and a brother who is in high school back in San Francisco. Shortly after, we finished our meals and I headed out.

I thought of a story I had read online  a story about a homeless man who turned down a job because he made more panhandling, and the car dealership used the opportunity to shame the homeless man.  I realize that Tony's story was very different, he was not panhandling but like the man in the story he had a hard time taking a job. Many of us are quick to assume such men don't want to work, but in Tony's case he had just worked an 8-10 hour day in 108 degree weather to get a $15-$20 pay check. Clearly he was willing to work.

But something keeps him from a job. What he described was pride. Being too proud to work a lowly job for lowly wages. But again I am not sure one would consider collecting cans much above fast food worker. I sense it may have more to do with that call he got from Portland. After he had paid his debt to society, done community service, probation, went through rehab, re-earned his certificates, applied for a job and got an offer, he got a call that said, "Oh wait, you are not good enough, we don't want you, we don't need your kind here."

I recently tried to take my wife to a restaurant, one that I'd been to many times before. I called ahead and they didn't answer, so I went, assuming I could get in. Once there, they said, they no longer took reservations without a tee time (it's connected to a golf course). It might sound silly, but even that felt awful, and it had nothing to do with me personally. It felt like they were saying, "you are not good enough for our restaurant." I hated that feeling and would avoid any place that I thought might bring a similar experience.

He said Taco Bell would hire him, I think, at least partially, he's scared to find out if that is true. He's happier believing they, lowly Taco Bell, would accept him, rather than apply and risk finding out that they wouldn't.

I thought of a man in my last ward, Lynn Goodfellow, who runs a business on the edge of Boulder City. He often employs men who may not be able to find employment because of their background. I thought of the homeless Bishop who told me he had to know which employers would be willing to consider those he works with. Such employers are hero's of mine. It made me think, in what ways do we send the message, "we want you to be a part of us" or  conversely "we don't want your kind?"

I am not sure why many able bodied, homeless men do not work. Perhaps sometimes it is that they are lazy, but I think a lot of the time it's far more than that. I am not condoning able bodied men choosing not to work. Tony knew and was correct that this is a "bad attitude", but maybe we can do things to make it less hard. Perhaps after we spend thousands of dollars "rehabilitating" an individual with court, lawyers, jail, rehab and all the work and money it entails, we can offer them less rejection and more encouragement, less shame and more praise, less disdain and more love.

Here is another Homeless interview: When did you get out?

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