Not long ago I was driving down one of Ventura's busier streets when I saw an electronic sign. It said something like "increase in auto burglary" and then something about locking car doors and calling 911. I can't remember exactly. I try to watch the road when I drive.
I do remember the reaction of an acquaintance when I mentioned the signs.
"It's the homeless," he said.
A week later an e-mail appeared in my box. Written by someone I didn't know -- it was forwarded to me by a friend. The writer was upset. People were living among the reeds and bamboo stands in the Ventura River bottom. There was human waste. There was also a bicycle theft ring, the writer said: homeless people were stealing bicycles and parts and bringing them down to the river where a ring leader was paying them in crack.
These two events set me wondering again about an issue I'm betting gives all of us pause. These days the homeless are everywhere. I see them sleeping under bridges. I see them asking for money outside stores. I've seen a woman with two small children walking down our street. I am not certain she was homeless. Other mothers and fathers are walking their children, too, but they are not pushing a shopping cart. I have seen people disappearing into the bramble of the Ventura River. Sometimes they have bikes. Whether these are their bikes or not, I don't know.
There is a lot of gray.
As a journalist I have written stories on the homeless. Not many, but enough to open my eyes. One of the first stories I did saw me go down into the river bottom. I found an eye-opening number of encampments totally hidden from casual eyes. I wandered through the brush. I talked with the people who were willing to talk to me. I avoided the people who scared me. One of the people I talked with was a man in his mid-thirties. I'll tell you his name was Jim, although it wasn't. Jim was articulate, funny, insightful, and helpful. He made me feel at home. He actually worked hard at it. When others regarded me suspiciously, Jim vouched for me. Jim's word carried weight. Jim told me he had tried to find a job so he could move out of the river bottom, but finding a job was harder when you couldn't shower for the interview or hop in a car to get there. Jim smiled. His hair was matted and dirty and he smelled stale, but he had a winning smile.
Several weeks later I was crossing the dunes to run on the beach when Jim came staggering up toward me. His face was scratched, bleeding a little. He was breathing hard.
"What happened?" I asked.
I'm not sure he even recognized me.
"A crazy lady attacked me down on the beach," he said and ran on.
Turns out I knew the woman Jim tried to rape. Partly on my testimony, Jim went to jail.
Writing another story, I spent several days at a soup kitchen. I didn't work there. I ate there. I grew a beard. I didn't shower or comb my hair. I wore dirty clothes. It was ridiculous. I didn't fool anyone.
But I saw some things, for no one called me out for my ridiculousness, they just let me take my place in line. If I could make one generalization about the homeless I have encountered it would be that they are generally tolerant. If you want to dress up and pretend you're homeless, that's your thing. If you want to do frighteningly good impersonations of Bill Clinton ("I did not have sex with that woman") or talk with yourself in flawless French, that's fine, too. On my first day at the soup kitchen I waited quietly in line behind the woman speaking French. No one pushed. No one shoved. One man did butt in line. The people around him made room. Many of the people in line carried on conversations. I listened to two men debate the war in Iraq. I might as well have been listening to "60 Minutes." When I mentioned this to the social worker in charge of the lunch he smiled.
"You don't have twenty-four hours a day to listen to the radio and read the paper," he said. "Don't talk politics with these folks."
He seemed amused, and mildly exasperated by everything I found surprising. He was not impolite. His was more the air of a patient professor grown tired, and a trifle irritable, by the same misguided preconceptions at the start of each semester.
If I didn't have a job or a home what would I do? I wonder about this often. Most of the time, I come up with answers I don't like.
One night, at a local gas station, a man came up and asked me for change. I gave him two dollars.
"Thanks," he said. "Now I can get a hot dog."
He pushed a rusted bike, but the bulging saddlebags looked new. He had a disheveled gray beard that descended to his belly. The hairs were like wire brush.
He tugged at the end of his beard.
"I look like this because it helps me make more money," he said. "Plus razors cost money. I've got an income of $118 a month, and a place to live is a thousand dollars a month. The math just doesn't work."
He caught me looking at the new saddlebags.
"I've got a computer in there," he said. "I look up the best sellers and then I go to Barnes and Noble and read the books."
In Britain they call them rough sleepers. In the Netherlands, zwerver (wanderer) or dakloze (roofless). In Spanish they are desamparado, which -- take your pick -- translates to abandoned, deserted, helpless, or unprotected. I don't know. I can't find a word. I think this just shows that homelessness is too big to be tidily defined.
Some believe we have lost certain essential human values; compassion, understanding, responsibility for ourselves and for others. Some believe we should run them off. It can be a strange dance we dance with those less fortunate than us.
I don't know if the homeless are breaking into cars. Maybe they are. Maybe there is a crack-for-bikes ring in our river, though I doubt everyone who lives in the river bottom is involved. Maybe some of the people involved are selling the crack to buy food for their children who are sleeping in the bushes.
There is a lot of gray.
Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.