Erika D. Smith

Another life ends on the streets in Oak Park, but does anyone care?

Oak Park artist's project offers mobile shelter for homeless

Oak Park artist Aimee Phelps sparks idea for Art-through-Pods, a project that builds decorated mobile homes for the homeless, with the help of co-director Kevin Greenberg. Recipient Bobby Richmond died on Dec. 13, 2016 in an alleyway.
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Oak Park artist Aimee Phelps sparks idea for Art-through-Pods, a project that builds decorated mobile homes for the homeless, with the help of co-director Kevin Greenberg. Recipient Bobby Richmond died on Dec. 13, 2016 in an alleyway.

When they found Bobby Richmond, his skinny body still and sickeningly cold to the touch, he had a big piece of chocolate cake and a cup of milk sitting next to him.

He had a sweet tooth and I’m told the cake was half gone, which is a comforting thought.

I didn’t really know Bobby. I never shook his hand, but I wrote about him last month. He was one of a handful of lucky homeless people living in a pod – a decorative, tiny home built by engineering Oak Park residents Aimee Phelps and Kevin Greenberg.

Bobby’s pod, hitched to his bright blue bicycle, was lovingly painted with Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” He always parked it next to the Wellspring Women’s Center in an alley where he spent cold nights huddled on the concrete in a sleeping bag.

“Everybody has a journey they take in life,” he said a week before Thanksgiving. “Unfortunately, mine led me to here. But it’s not a permanent thing. I appreciate the blessing, you know?”

But the pod wasn’t enough to save him. At 58 years old, after decades of drug use and living as a nomad, Bobby died the way so many homeless people die in Sacramento County – alone and on the streets.

This year, the number will top 73. Between 2002 and 2015, more than 700 homeless men, women and children died – that’s one person every seven days for the past 14 years.

“I thank God for the pod,” said La’Chelle Armstrong, the mother of one of Bobby’s two sons, “because if it wasn’t for the pod, he would’ve died right there in the alley.”

Phelps and Greenberg are doing what they can, using their own time and money to work around an overburdened system that leaves too many people to fend for themselves in freezing temperatures. But such extraordinary acts of kindness and, let’s face it, desperation are no substitute for the responsibility of the county and city to provide adequate shelter and access to services. Yet, in too many ways, our elected leaders continue to pass the buck and people continue to die.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, speaking at the annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Monday, was right to call the status quo “unacceptable.” Yet there’s no denying that one reason it’s politically palatable is that we, the housed people of Sacramento, too often think of homeless people as a nameless, faceless, almost invisible group of unwashed and unstable addicts.

That’s wrongheaded. They aren’t “the homeless.” They’re real people.

“They had families. They had histories,” Steinberg said. “And they had times in their lives before they fell on hard times, where they undoubtedly did good and great things.”

Bobby was such a person. He wasn’t all good or all bad. He was complicated.

He smoked crack cocaine. Because of it, he was in and out of jail and on and off probation. He stole things from relatives who tried to help him so many times that they had to ban him from their houses. He had children by multiple women and didn’t take care of any of them; he left that to his sisters.

When Bobby’s 19-year-old daughter died in 2013, he made an appearance at the funeral. That was the last time his younger sister, Kelly Richmond, saw him alive.

“He didn’t say anything to me,” she said, her voice dropping to almost a whisper. “He came to the service. He sat next to me, and he didn’t say anything. And after the service, he left.”

Bobby tried – and failed many times – to get clean. An Oak Park resident since his youth, he graduated from Sac High and got a commercial trucking license. He held odd jobs here and there, but they never went anywhere.

“He was a very smart, bright person,” Richmond said, “but that addiction was just too much.”

On the streets, Bobby was known as the guy who would help anyone in need. He was friendly and calm. He always had a hustle for making money, whether it was cleaning windows or repairing appliances.

“He was a good guy. He kept to himself. He kept his pod clean,” Phelps said. “He helped with all the other pod owners. I wasn’t worried about him as much as I am some of the others, so I think (his death) was more of a shock than anything else.”

In many ways, Bobby walked in the footsteps of his father, Flemon Richmond. There was a time when both men were homeless and would smoke crack together in abandoned houses in Oak Park. Some of those houses are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars now.

It was Bobby who pushed Flemon to get medical help when he was having trouble breathing. The elder Richmond was eventually diagnosed with stomach cancer and died three months later in hospice care.

The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office hasn’t yet ruled on what killed Bobby, but those who saw him say he had walking pneumonia. Two homeless women, Alfreda and Gladys, found him in his pod early on Dec. 13.

It didn’t take long for the news to spread in close-knit Oak Park. Phelps awoke to neighbors, some with homes and some without homes, banging on her door with tears in their eyes.

Phelps is still shaken up – so much so that last weekend, when she spotted 79-year-old Donald Price, shuffling around soaking wet after days of rain, she felt like she had to help him. She knew the temperature was going to drop and that the frail, homeless man was at risk of hypothermia, even in his pod.

“I couldn’t let him sit out here and freeze to death. Not after Bobby,” she said. “My heart couldn’t handle it.”

She called homeless shelters and agencies to no avail. “It was, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do. It’s Friday.’ Or, ‘I’m sorry. You needed to call at 6 o’clock in the morning.’ ” So, instead, Phelps and a few neighbors took matters into their own hands. They paid for Price to stay at a hotel and gave him dry clothes from their closets.

Think about that for a second: Help to save the life of one elderly homeless man was impossible to find.

Sure, some of this changes with the opening of a warming center at Southside Park on Christmas Eve. But that’s temporary. Sacramento needs robust, long-term solutions to help homeless people in the midst of crisis. Steinberg says he’s working on it, and I hope he is.

Otherwise, we’ll be seeing a lot more makeshift memorials like the one now sitting in the Oak Park alley to remind everyone that poor Bobby, a man with as many character flaws as strengths, died next to a piece of chocolate cake.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Phelps said. “All I know is something has to change. All I know is these people can’t keep being invisible.”

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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