California Forum

Faces of the homeless in Sacramento

Maybe you have seen the older woman, bundled against the cold, shuffling along Folsom Boulevard with her two dogs. Or the grizzled man in filthy clothes, mumbling to himself outside of a gas station restroom along Arden Way. Or the dentally challenged lady with the shopping cart, begging for change as customers file out of Safeway.

Collectively, we know them as “the homeless.” Most of us never speak to them and avoid making eye contact.

On any given night, according to the most recent “point in time” census of homeless people in Sacramento, more than 2,500 men, women and children are without a permanent place to sleep in our community.

Today, we ask you to look at their faces and read their stories.

I met John Kraintz for the first time in 2007, when he was part of the homeless “problem” in Sacramento.

A wily street philosopher with a scraggly beard and little more than a backpack and a bedroll to his name, Kraintz slept outdoors every night, citing his desire for freedom and his disgust with consumerism. He took his meals and showers at Loaves & Fishes and spent his days at the downtown library, poring through daily newspapers and devouring books on subjects ranging from science to politics.

He began speaking publicly about homelessness and soon became a leading voice in the effort to establish a “SafeGround,” where people could live outdoors with basic services and without police interference. Today, Kraintz lives in an apartment, has the ear of the mayor and sits on panels charged with the herculean task of ending homelessness in our city. He is frustrated, he said, by the lack of progress. But despite recent health problems, he keeps fighting for the cause.

As a reporter who has covered the issue of homelessness for the better part of 20 years, I have written about countless lawsuits and protests, meetings and political pledges. The most interesting part of the assignment has been getting to know the homeless people behind the issue. Their stories have shaped The Bee’s coverage, and shed light on the complex reasons why people end up on the streets and in shelters.

While wandering around an illegal campsite along the American River a few years ago, I met Eve Deutsch, a wispy young woman who openly discussed the methamphetamine addiction that led to her hardscrabble lifestyle and estrangement from her family and children. Inside the notorious “Tent City” where she spent most of her time, I witnessed violent fights and illegal drug abuse and clashes between homeless men and women, and police officers responding to complaints about noise and trash. I also saw people who treated one another with deep kindnesses, sharing food and tents and clothing with others who had even greater needs than their own. I was struck by the diversity in their personal backgrounds and intrigued by the complex reasons for their homelessness.

One afternoon in 2000, I struck up a conversation with Jack Holden, who was standing in the chill outside a Target store on Broadway, ringing a bell and asking for donations for the Salvation Army. It turned out that the organization had saved his life, giving him shelter after he suffered a medical crisis, lost his job and ended up homeless. He was back on his feet, thanks to “Sally’s,” he said, and wanted to give something back. When I handed Holden $10 for lunch after we finished talking, he quietly stuffed it into his red kettle.

In 2009, I talked with Richard Nary, a former trucker who had abandoned his family in New York more than 30 years earlier for the lure of the open road. Thanks mostly to his alcohol dependence, he had become a sickly homeless senior citizen who spent his nights curled in a cardboard box behind a gas station along Howe Avenue. The Bee’s coverage of his story helped Nary reunite with a daughter in rural Wisconsin.

Last year, a man named James Flavy Coy Brown came to my attention. Brown, who blamed schizophrenia for his homelessness, had inexplicably been shipped via Greyhound bus from a Las Vegas mental hospital to Sacramento, a place he had never visited.

Brown told me that he was not the only homeless person who had been “dumped” by Nevada’s primary psychiatric hospital. Our conversation launched a Bee investigation, which found that the facility had shipped hundreds of people out of Las Vegas in recent years, in many cases to places where they had tenuous ties, or none at all. The hospital has since stopped the practice, and is being held to task by state and federal authorities.

Despite the best efforts of activists and politicians, hundreds of men, women and children still have no permanent place to sleep on any given night in Sacramento. Why? Ask them. I can almost guarantee they will have a compelling story to tell.

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