A pop-up sidewalk forum in Sacramento
By Rob Cockerham |
On Saturday night, I decided to try out a project I have been considering for a while: Ask a Homeless Guy.
My vision was to provide a table and a sign, inviting people to approach and talk directly to a willing homeless guy in Sacramento. I thought it would be interesting to hear what kind of questions the public would ask a homeless guy (or girl) if the forum was formalized a little.
On the advice of Shannon at work, I changed the title of the project from "Ask a homeless Guy", to "Meet ______". She had a good point that this prasing would be more personal and kind.
I think homelessness and poverty is a big problem in California and across the U.S. because the path out of poverty is extraordinarily steep. The path is also very long and bumpy. It is also flooded in the winter. Also, it is closed on the weekend, and the website is down.
Finding the Right Guy
Once you have a long collapsable table and a foamcore sign, all you need is a willing subject.
This seemed like it might be the hardest part of the plan. I had once met a charismatic homeless guy outside of the closed OfficeMax at Folsom and Power Inn, so I stopped there first. I talked to Alex and Todd there, but they were looking after their mom, and were very soft-spoken, so I didn't recruit them.
I parked on Capitol Avenue downtown and walked around with a notepad. I immediately found a young man walking south, but he was unapproachable, absorbed in his thoughts.
Walking further, I noticed a man wearing sunglasses and a white leather jacket. He seemed talkative, but I was afraid the sunglasses would be an obstacle to addressing the public.
Next, I found Ruben! He was posted up near Sharif Jewelers on 10th and K street. I talked with him a little, and told him that I loved setting up projects like Compliment Exchange and the Rocky Challenge. I asked him if he was willing to sit with me and answer questions from the public.
He was in!
I quickly returned with the table and temporarily stole two chairs from the Ambrosia Cafe. Ruben preferred to sit, because he has a prosthetic leg.
Armed with scissors and a glue stick, I quickly completed my "MEET RUBEN" sign and taped it to the front of the table. We were ready for business!
Immediately, Rudy, a bike rickshaw/chariot driver came over with some questions. He didn't have a passenger, so he was just killing time. Rudy wasn't interested in polite patter.
"Do you drink a lot?"
Ruben answered "No, I drink some, usually just a couple of drinks."
It was St. Patricks weekend, so there were people celebrating in green. Damon and Ross stopped and their friend Jen was happy to meet Ruben and asked some questions. She was concerned that Sacramento had been too interested in building a new arena and not interested enough in helping the poor and homeless. She talked about the mobile shower buses (Lava Mae) that could be used to help homeless. Ruben was also concerned about the arena, and let her know that anyone can shower at the Loaves and Fishes washhouse on North 12th Street, and women can shower at Maryhouse.
Q. What brings you to Sacramento?
A. I've been here 40 years. I lost my foot six years ago and that was the beginning of when things went downhill for me.
Q. What's a factor you would want people to know about your situation?
A. It can be very lonely.
Q. Is there anyone you can reach out to?
A. I'm staying with my brother now, but he is losing the place in two weeks, so I'm trying to move into a room near Southside park.
The next person to stop and talk with us was a smiling young black man who was himself homeless after moving from L.A. He was staying at the Volunteers of America shelter, but complained that it was 70 men, and that was a hard environment to stay in all the time.
Q. How old are you?
Q. How is your health, other than your foot?
A. I have diabetes, so I have to be careful, so I don't lose my other leg. I also have kidney problems. I've been going to dialysis for six years. At one point I was very close to death from it, so I go three times a week.
The MEET RUBEN sign was a little vague, but I was able to explain the project to anyone who was interested.
Ruben was also good at explaining the experiment. He usually said "I am willing to answer any question you have", which opened people up.
A lot of people stopped and said "hi", but didn't have a specific questions about homelessness ready.
Q. Do you smoke?
Q. How far do you feel comfortable walking before you start looking for a place to sit down?
A. Not too far without resting. I miss my bicycle. I used to have a three-wheeled bicycle, with a special clamp for my foot, but someone jumped the fence and stole it.
Q. Where did you work?
A. In the restaurant industry. I used to work at the Firehouse restaurant and at Martin's, mostly doing custodial work, but that work had me on my feet eight hours a day, and I can't do it anymore.
Cathy and Mike were out that night, having come from a Downton Abbey-themed concert at the Convention Center. They were great and compassionate and asked great questions.
Another couple was more skeptical, "You are telling me you just met him and made this sign?!".
"Yes, well, if you will take a look, you'll see that I come prepared. Here is some more of the green paper I used, and here is the gluestick....", I answered.
They were convinced, but had more questions about the project than about homelessness. They left us with some advice about Jesus only putting up obstacles that we could handle, making decisions for Jesus and acting for the right reasons. They were also generous.
Q. Do you have any kids?
A. No, I haven't met the right woman yet.
Q. Do you get SSI or disability?
A. Yes. At first I was told that I was too young, but with the help of a lawyer, over two and a half years, I did get SSI. I just gets tight at the end of the month.
Q. Do you have a cane?
A. Yes, but I don't like to use it because it makes me look old. I also have a walker. I was in a wheelchair for two years after my surgery. That was hard. I felt trapped in my house.
The evening was a success! More than thirty people got to meet Ruben and had the chance to talk to and connect with him in a casual person-to-person forum. I can't wait to try this again!