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The Geography of Invisibility: Living Homeless in Santa Rosa

Dr. Gillian Squirrell

Seen but not heard: On a Californian town’s shifting geography, shaped by the feet, tents and tyres of its homeless population.

I have never known a place so well as Santa Rosa, a small town in a small county, an hour and a quarter from San Francisco.

Sonoma County, and especially Santa Rosa, infamous for people living homeless, with many homeless services and various places to camp relatively undisturbed. Most people were long-term dwellers in homelessness. Some were imports to the west coast, seeking jobs or homes, who then stayed, the majority were rendered homeless in their own county.

I want to share the geography created by people repurposing places and streets to meet their needs of living without secure shelter, or in ever-decompensating vehicles. Managing, as they must, the imperatives of conducting their lives in public view, juggling the opprobrium which this could bring and perversely experiencing the invisibility engendered by people not wishing to see. The invisibility which falls on a man sifting through bins in Railroad Square looking for a coffee cup thrown away part-full, or the uneaten end of a toasted panini. The invisibility of lining up to wash in a mobile shower unit parked at City Hall and towel drying hair on the grass verge. So many elements of life performed in the public gaze.

"The invisibility of lining up to wash in a mobile shower unit parked at City Hall and towel drying hair on the grass verge. So many elements of life performed in the public gaze."

What business did I have to be observing these routes and routines, and indeed learning them so closely? I ran a programme supporting people living homeless supplying tents, sleeping bags, food and clothing, animal foods and resources, and free vet clinics. Clinics and distributions were pop-up events with location and time circulated in advance and resources were often taken to where we knew people would be.

Santa Rosa Avenue

Let’s start our walk at the top of the sketch at one end of Santa Rosa Avenue.

I never knew her name. Over four years I watched her as she moved from panhandling at a prime junction location with a cardboard sign, smile and two suitcases at her heels, to later placing her possessions, first in the two cases, then randomly stuffing items into a shopping trolley. She took to a nomadic life of no obvious outward adventure, pushing that trolley up one side of Santa Rosa Avenue and down the other. She was locked in her own world, often talking to herself, and shunning potential companions.

She walked through the intensity of heat and drought, the few very cold months and when rains lashed. She grew ever more leathery, lean, rounding as she walked, melding into the frame and fabric of the shopping trolley. I offered bottles of water, snacks, waterproofs, she took nothing. I could never make eye contact, never heard her voice and never knew her name.

"She grew ever more leathery, lean, rounding as she walked, melding into the frame and fabric of the shopping trolley."

While she passed up and down Santa Rosa Avenue, others to the sides of this busy road set up camps. There were pockets of trees at several junctions. Out of regular eyeline homes were formed. Safe hideaways close to the shopping plazas where some might shop-lift, beg or check bins. Close to the Catholic Charities re-purposed low-rent motel, where an associate in one of the rooms might allow them to stay, use a bathroom or share the donated food often past their sell-by dates.

Safe Storage and the 101

Close to the bottom end of Santa Rosa Avenue was a ramp to Highway 101. The ramp and its pedestrian walkway take us to Dutton Avenue, home to Safe Storage. Safe Storage, a fascinating liminal space redolent with deep emotions: relief at safe harbour for possessions, the hope and nervous energy of a start-up, despair at housing possessions following a break-up, a place where items were jauntily perched awaiting a house purchase to complete.

For those living homeless their storage units were the repository of their housed lives, a place of memory; status, role, and relationships. A place-holder in a trajectory all too often pointing away from being housed. A consumer of scarce cash. As people moved deeper into living homeless, units got smaller and were sometimes abandoned with arrears. While they had them the storage units provided emotional salve and practical refuge. A safe place to sleep in the daytime, change clothes or wash. Some heated food and entertained their friends. The bold, evading Safe Storage staff checks, slept overnight in their units, rigging the lights to power music and charge phones. Sometimes you could smell cooking and wondered at the dangers of conflagration and entrapment in a roller-shuttered tomb.

Old Town: 4th Street Bridge and The Mission

Santa Rosa Avenue led into the Old Town just past the deserted Astro motel, a relic of 1960s motel architecture and commitment to the space race.  Some early city planning had trisected the Old Town with heavily-used road ways, flyovers and a rail line. While this made it hard for foot traffic, commerce and management these slices created opportunities for people living homeless.

"Santa Rosa Avenue led into the Old Town just past the deserted Astro motel, a relic of 1960s motel architecture and commitment to the space race."

There was a camp under the 4th Street Bridge. Tents, tarps, bikes and possessions staked out individuals’ pavement camp sites.  Always gloomy and cool under the flyover, these camps were protected from extreme heat and some rain. These under-bridge dwellers used bikes and feet for transport, trolleys and prams to move their possessions. They would sortie out and return hoping to greet the bulk of their possessions. Those remaining kept a watchful eye on the encampments, some from benevolence, others with more predatory intent. Alliances were struck and torn down. The encampment was a permanent fixture. Periodically there were police raids attempting to move people on, when it was deemed the campers interfered with commerce and tourism, and the few house owners could no longer brook public defecation, gatherings, drug use and occasional friction. The raids only briefly thinned out these rough sleepers and their possessions.

Other clusterings were in predictable flux. The shifting rhythm of coming together and dispersing, dictated by the opening of services and supply of meals. Up 4th Street into the orbit of The Mission there were always several groupings waiting for lunch. Arrivals coming from breakfast at a church, those who had walked from Homeless Hill, and others who passed their day in Doyle Park. Come the Northern Californian Winter, there would be congregants for any Mission supper offering and to queue for a few vans taking the lucky to sleep on local church floors with access to inside toilets and a sink.

At night, the area around The Mission’s fiery cross was territory dominated by dealers and their deals, supplicants and hustlers; money, sexual acts given or taken, trades of items owned or stolen would transfer hands. Nicki, blond, with Gracie her dachshund, was sometimes found there; sweating, half-dressed, mind and speech racing, eyes and skin flashing in the light of the bonfires lit on the earth of what was no man’s land. She would be looking for the drugs she used to manage the symptoms of her mental health.

As in all societies, so those living homeless had a hierarchy, those considered more acceptable and those who were otherized. Broadly those with vehicles and carrying more possessions often considered themselves as having more responsible ways of living. They did not engage with communities dependent on their feet or bikes, living publicly under the bridge or carrying their total worldly belongings. They would shun and tut at the most decompensated or those who managed their lives by disappearing from them. Nicki, who had survived so long rough sleeping, would attract some of the worst censure.

Sandy’s Van

Santa Rosa Avenue segues into Mendocino Avenue after Old Town. Walk a half mile or so and to the left was a large parking lot dominated by the nearly all hours glowing landmark of the red CVS sign. A Hollywood-style calling card for those with a little cash for cosmetics, cheap housewares, liquor, bumper bags of candies and snacks, and over the counter, own brand, cures. The lot was patrolled by security guards moving on anyone trying to sleep in a vehicle. Along with sleeping in vehicles often went public defecation or at least emptying vessels used to urinate in.  Trash which needed to be dumped, often rat-attracting part-eaten food, donated out of date items, or bits of meals smuggled from day centres.

I helped Sandy tow her van to this lot late one grey November Sunday afternoon. She had a strained relationship with this van. It had been her home, a place she had enjoyed and where she did her art. For the past three years though it was just storage, no longer a place where she could, or would sleep.

She had been followed into her van by a man also living homeless. She had been attacked, raped and then discarded, brutally beaten, with the van’s doors shut on her, locking her broken form and being from sight. After several days she brought her trauma, broken body and infinite distress out of the van.

She had joined the alarmingly high number of homeless women subject to such sexual attacks.

Sandy slept in the bushes next to the van at the back of a tire dealership, but the business had run out of goodwill and required she move it. The van wasn’t running; flat battery, cumulative neglect under the hood and ironically a flat offside.

"Sandy slept in the bushes next to the van at the back of a tire dealership, but the business had run out of goodwill and required she move it."

In the CVS lot it was a standout vehicle. The flat tire, grime and detritus over the bodywork, and the windows covered inside with towels, paper and anything else that had come to her hand. Sandy said she would get it running and move it again. Either she didn’t know anyone to help or it was too hard to tackle the ambivalence she felt about her former home. It got towed and with it everything she owned.

Safe Parking

Further up Mendocino Avenue, if you took a left way at Safeway, you would head into the warren of roads linking the City’s administrative offices, court house, jail, a few bail bond merchants and the barest sprinkling of houses. There were numerous parking lots full by day and empty by night. One on Administration Drive was re-rolled into Safe Parking. From 7pm to 6am it was possible to park and sleep in a vehicle, without getting moved on or attracting a police ticket and fine.

The lot filled with 40 or so vehicles; SUVS, small saloons, bumper pulls, vans and pick-ups with camper shells or make-shift wooden, tarp and rope creations offering insecure bedspaces and storage. People would stake out and then habitually park in a favourite spot. Perhaps needing to park against a curb because of malfunctioning brakes, perhaps wanting to park near people they knew, or away from others deemed irritating.

Pat had years of experience of living homeless in condemned industrial buildings, an office at the garage where she worked and in a string of vehicles. Her current blue SUV she shared with an elderly dog, Simon. She slept up front in the driver’s seat. Possessions piled in the trunk, clothes and blankets folded, around Simon’s bed a large container of water and bag of kibble, and more items stored on the front passenger seat. She always seemed to have pressed clothes and was ferociously punctual. She looked continuously for employment, for ways to not sleep in her car and to have disposable income. At one point she secured a role as a live-in aid. She had neither skills nor experience, but she cost the family very little and she was pleased to park in the driveway and have Simon with her. With the demise of the old man she lost the driveway and returned to the parking lot. In response to this knockback, she sat at an intersection with a cardboard sign announcing her homelessness and asking for an office job.

I recently checked my map of Sonoma with its little inset of Santa Rosa. I wanted to compare my recollections against an actual map. It was a surprise to see the mapmaker accorded a downgraded status to Santa Rosa Avenue and its continuance, Mendocino Avenue. These roads, tributaries, plazas and parking lots where so much life, all life, was lived, were just streets like any other, little yellow lines, maybe a little wider.  The sites worthy of marking: the home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, the Schultz Museum, notable eateries, microbreweries and high-end hotels – quite other priorities than the sketch map I had drawn.

It was the same small town I knew so well, but they had missed something – the invisible routes drawn by feet, by bike and by van – the geography of those living homeless.

Call to Action: Dr Gillian Squirrell’s non-profit sociological projects can be found on her website.

Dr Gillian Squirrell has worked with people living homeless with animal companions in Sonoma County (Northern California) for the last six years, listening to their experienes and hopes for being homed.

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