At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Velvelyn Brown, homeless and 70, was bargaining with the security guard of the Courtyard Inn in North Highlands for a few more minutes inside the dark and roach-filled confines of room 124, where she had slept for the past three nights.
Brown had been living in her Ford Expedition for months until the city of Sacramento helped her obtain a voucher last week to pay for this motel off Orange Grove Avenue. Like many of the estimated 2,000 people living on Sacramento’s streets on any given night, Brown has tried to obtain more help from county and city social services – with no luck until this short respite. Time and again, she had been told the shelters were full and there was nothing else available but lists and endless rounds of new phone numbers to call.
Her voucher ran out Tuesday. She paid $80 – $60 for herself and $10 extra for each of her dogs, Keseff and Lizzy – from money strangers had given her to stay an extra night.
Now she had to make a choice. Use what she had left on temporary shelter, or bank it for something permanent.
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“I don’t want to spend all the money I have trying to stay here,” said Brown. “I’m not paying no $80 a night. That’s crazy.”
Besides, “my dogs don’t like the roaches,” she said. Every time Lizzy saw one, she’d jump. She was jumping a lot, which was “hecka funny,” Brown said. But then the Pinscher-Pomeranian mix started trying to eat the bugs, and Brown had to put a stop to it. She was worried that roach spray might have made the insects toxic.
The security guard, Justin Miles, had carried the pups to Brown’s car for her a few minutes earlier, and they now waited patiently and panting in a wire cage on her front seat as the afternoon heat crept up.
Miles was congenial and sympathetic, but had heard it all before. He held a clipboard with the names of about a dozen others who needed to check out and get out. An official-looking sheriff’s star hung around his neck – more a reminder of the order he represented in this chaotic last-stop lodge than a symbol of any power to arrest.
The Courtyard Inn has rules, many of them made by Miles in the year and a half he’s been there to try to make the place safer, he said. In March, he hopes to join the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. But for now, he spends his days circling the two-story motel buildings to make sure guests keep their blinds drawn and doors closed. No loitering outside unless you’re smoking a cigarette, and if you really need more time, it costs $10 an hour after checkout, but only for a few hours, and it doesn’t count towards another night’s stay.
The place used to be really seedy, Miles said, “but now that I’m here, I don’t play.”
Once, in his first few months, he had a feeling he should put on his bulletproof vest, despite its weight. That day, a woman shot him with a BB gun when he asked her to leave her room. The windows in his car have been broken so many times he now takes the bus to work.
Still, he said, the job is OK.
“Sometimes it’s good because sometimes you get to help people, instead of (dealing with) people trying to abuse the system,” he said.
Miles had already given Brown an extra hour for free – mostly because Brown had invited another family into her room who had already been kicked out, Rachel and Martin Clemente, a husband and wife, and Rachel’s 68-year-old mother, Sarah, who used a walker and sat silently in purple slippers. Rachel Clemente said her mom had suffered two strokes and had a recent surgery to remove a blood clot in her leg.
But the clock had wound down. It was time to go, even with nowhere to go.
“All right, guys,” said Miles, standing at the door of the room with its brown walls, brown carpet and identical watercolors of a Mediterranean villa above both beds. “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but I’ve got to lock up.”
Without hurry or a clear idea what to do next, Brown walked toward her car, a water bottle half full of honey Arizona Iced Tea in her hand and a big black purse over her shoulder.
Inside the purse was a bit of hope – a newly issued federal housing voucher that will pay her rent if she can find an apartment that will take it.
The voucher was one of a few good things to happen to Brown in the past few days. A man came by the hotel and brought her a bag of supplies – coffee, tea, sugar. He was white but said he had a black son in Africa. That’s all Brown remembers about him, but she’s thankful for the bag.
Another woman came by and gave her an envelope full of cash – $500 to be exact, though she’s hesitant to talk about it too loudly. That’s the money she’s guarding for a place of her own.
And with a bit of rest and time, she was able to find her medication inside her car. She had thought it was lost but hadn’t wanted to talk to her doctor about it, who has suggested to her that she may be having some memory loss. Brown doesn’t want to hear that possibility. She admits she forgets things, but attributes it to the stress of living on the streets.
Not far behind Brown, the Clementes made their way off the Courtyard property, escorted by Miles. Their pace was slow, hampered by Sarah on her red metal walker and the uncertainty of even fewer options than Brown. The Clementes had no car and no money. There was no bus stop close, and no way and no place to take it if they could.
Sarah was barely mobile. Miles walked the trio to the overhang of a closed restaurant, Olive’s Italian Sports Grill, where a plastic image of Popeye’s girlfriend holding a mug of beer and a plate of indistinguishable black food stood sentinel to better days for the establishment. Now the hotel used it for storage, but its portico was shady and Miles told the Clementes they could sit there while they figured out what to do. Rachel helped Sarah settle on the narrow seat of her walker in the corner by the door and tried to figure out whom to call for help.
“Usually we don’t let people hang out at all,” said Miles, who said he made an exception because of Sarah. “If my boss tells me, ‘don’t do that,’ I’ll take that,” he said.
Rachel Clemente began making calls. A family member hung up on her. She is expecting a check from the state for In-Home Supportive Services for working as Sarah’s caretaker, but the mailbox at the apartment they used to live in was vandalized and mail is no longer being delivered. A call to IHSS led to a labyrinth of push button options. They’d given up on the city’s 211 line, meant to connect homeless with services, but which Rachel said never led anywhere.
“There’s no help out here,” she said. “We in a situation. We don’t have no way out.”
Finally, a call to Adult Protective Services won a promise to send out emergency transportation to take them to a shelter.
Miles went back to his rounds. Brown decided to check her own mail at a friend’s house in Citrus Heights.
For the Clementes, the afternoon grew hot and long under the portico. Adult Protective Services never arrived. With darkness looming, Rachel received a call from a stranger, Imani Mitchell, from a new group called Black Women United. She had reached out to Brown and also wanted to help the Clementes.
Mitchell was attending a paralegal class close by at American River College and promised to come when she got out. At about 9 p.m, Clemente said Mitchell came and paid for two more nights for the family at the Courtyard.
“It was literally an exit away from my school and I just thought, this is kind of divine intervention,” said Mitchell on Thursday. “This is definitely the right thing to do.”
Mitchell said she finds it “frustrating” that the social services meant to help homeless people don’t seem to be working. Her group of about 10 women plans to continue aiding the Clementes and Brown, though it’s their first time directly working with homeless people. She said she planned on trying to find a shelter Thursday to take the Clementes.
“Hers is a little bit more complicated because she is with her husband and mother and it’s a little harder to find,” said Mitchell.
For Brown, the group hopes to provide social support and start a crowdfunding effort on the Internet to help her with expenses.
“With Velvelyn, we felt kind of obligated to help her especially because she doesn’t have any children,” said Mitchell. “She doesn’t really have anyone. We are kind of hoping we can fill that role and fill that space and really show up for her.”
Brown’s luck held Wednesday and her friend in Citrus Heights let her spend the night. Thursday, she went to her doctor, called apartments with no success, and met Mitchell at a Starbucks in south Sacramento where she likes to stay by the river off Freeport Boulevard. Mitchell and another member of Black Women United took Brown to her storage unit and paid the bill. That made it a “beautiful day,” she said, but she knew she still had a ways to go.
“I’m feeling OK, a little buzzed out,” said Brown. “I have to get things done and I don’t know any other way to do it. ... God’s going to take care of it.”