Of Walking in Homelessness

A new routine has developed since dad moved into assisted living: I drain a cup of cold coffee, wait for first light, and then walk out the front door and meander to the assisted living center to join dad for breakfast.

I have always preferred early morning walks to any other time of the day. I took about 7000 such walks when living at the Oregon Coast and it was the perfect experience (with or without dogs) to get my head straight for what was coming later that day. Often I would write in my mind on these walks and upon my return home, write it up on paper.

I never listen to music or podcasts on my walks. I want input from the world serve as my soundtrack.

This new city routine is obviously and vastly different from my beach one. Whereas I used to pass sanderlings, gulls, driftwood and piles of kelp, now I pass bedraggled and blasted-out members of the New American Diaspora as they begin their day of living on the streets or in the willows.

On each walk, the weather, wet or dry or somewhere in between, I typically encounter:

Two men bicycling and pulling jury-rigged contraptions full of bottles and cans.

A woman staggering down a street.

A man carrying a gas can.

Derelict RVs and their puttering generators.

A man living in his car with a big dog.

Someone asleep on the parking lot of a drug store.

Men and women rifling through recycling bins for cans and bottles.

A man slumping in a bus shelter.

A man sweeping leaves away from the entrance to his tent.

A man cursing a power pole.

A man acting like a toreador with a blanket.

A newly shattered window of a vehicle or shop.

A man working on the engine of his 50-year old RV.

Someone asleep under the cedars in the park.

Two tents pitched on a sidewalk.

A man living out of a pickup.

A man walking and drinking a can of malt liquor.

A man asking me for a cigarette.

All of these encounters take place within three quarters of a mile of my house. I see some of the same people doing the same things, but there are always new people doing new things.

I often find myself writing in my mind on these walks. At first, it was almost exclusively about homelessness, but I’m running out of literary gas on that subject. In fact, this piece is mostly fumes.

Lately, I am writing stories that have nothing to do with homelessness. They are about a junior high football team in the 80s, a high school classroom in the 90s, maybe another Christmas tale before Christmas.

Sometimes before entering the assisted living center, I see homeless people milling around. Sometimes it’s barely above freezing or raining hard. Some of these people are old and frail enough to live in the center—if they could afford it.

Breakfast arrives at the table in the dining room and occasionally I tell dad about my encounters. He listens and shakes his head. We discuss the eternal Marvin Gaye question of What’s Going On? Or the eternal Bob Dylan statement of We Live in a Political World Where Mercy Has Walked the Plank.

We have no solutions. We have no prognostications. We sometimes get angry. We never stop caring.

Sometimes I point out the homeless people shuffling or bicycling past the dining room windows, but usually not. I wonder what they think when they see senior citizens eating breakfast in a clean, warm, well lighted place?

I have started to believe these early morning walks to the assisted living center are crushing my spiritual fitness. Maybe I should drive instead. You don’t see as much that way.