Tag Archives: homelessness

Feeding People in Las Vegas

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My friends are part of the Las Vegas Catholic Worker community, although neither of them identify as Catholic. I think it’s unusual to be a non-Catholic Catholic Worker, but I can’t say I’ve surveyed any other Catholic Workers about their beliefs or religious affiliations.

One of the Catholic Worker activities my friends participate in is serving food to hungry people. (My friends  also do peace work focused on the elimination of nuclear weapons development, production, and testing. In addition, they also cook and serve with Food Not Bombs once or twice a month.)

When I mention I’m heading to Las Vegas to visit friends, the person I’m speaking with tends to get a knowing look, all wink wink nudge nudge. People say things to me like Have fun! or Be careful. Although I do have fun with my friends, I try to explain to people that my trips to Vegas are not what they’re thinking. My first visits to Vegas, the three nights I spent there with Sweet L and Mr. Carolina, eating and drinking out of trash can and wondering at the sights of the Strip, those night were maybe a little closer to what people think Las Vegas is about. (Read about those nights in the first part of this post: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/11/20/the-other-las-vegas/.) But since I’ve been visiting The Poet and The Activist, my visits to Las Vegas have not involved one foot touching the Strip or casino property.

The Activist participates in the Catholic Worker food service several times a week. The Poet serves food and helps with washing dishes once a week. Whenever I’m visiting, I volunteer with one or both of them.

Las Vegas Catholic Work house surrounded by a circle of people holding hands.

This photo shows the Las Vegas Catholic Worker house. Image from http://lvcw.org/

The serving of food starts at 6:30 in the morning. I’m not usually out and about so early, but other people are accustomed to it. When we arrive at the Catholic Worker House to meet up with the other volunteers, the food is cooked and people are bustling around, loading everything on the trailer to transport it to the empty lot where the food is served. People have been in the kitchen since 4am, preparing the meal.

The kitchen is warm when we walk in, always a contrast with coolness of the desert morning,but especially pronounced in early December. The people inside are warm too, although they must be wondering who I am and if I’ll be back. I’m sure they see many volunteers who help once to fulfill some sort of obligation and never return. In any case, people say hello to me, tell me their names, shake my hand. If The Poet or The Activist is standing next to me, I’m introduced as a friend.

When we arrive, people are typically sitting around a table in the next room, finishing their prayer meeting. I usually hear some portion of the Lord’s Prayer drift from the room. While the prayer meeting is wrapping up, other people are carrying industrial-size metal pots outside to load them on the trailer which an SUV will pull to the site of the serving.

After all the food and tea and paper bowls and plastic utensils and folding tables and condiments and cups are loaded and the prayer group has dispersed, all the volunteers circle around the wooden counter in the middle of the kitchen to join hands and pray together. I hold the hands of the people on either side of me and bow my head respectfully, but I don’t pray. Other folks recite aloud a prayer, often the following one by Samuel F. Pugh:

O God, when I have food,
help me to remember the hungry;
When I have work,
help me to remember the jobless;
When I have a home,
help me to remember those who have no home at all;
When I am without pain,
help me to remember those who suffer,
And remembering,
help me to destroy my complacency;
bestir my compassion,
and be concerned enough to help;
By word and deed,
those who cry out for what we take for granted.
Amen.

The food is served in a vacant lot at G & McWilliams Streets , far enough away from the Catholic Worker house so it makes sense to go in a car. I ride with The Activist (and The Poet too, if it’s Saturday). We always arrive a few minutes before the SUV and trailer.

When we arrive, the hungry people are lined up and waiting. Most people would probably say those people standing in line are homeless. I’m sure some of them are homeless. Maybe even a majority of them live on the streets, but I’m not willing to lump the whole bunch into one category. I know every single one of those people has a unique life, an individual story that’s brought each of them to a vacant lot in Las Vegas, NV on any particular morning.

The vast majority waiting to eat are men. Out of a couple hundred people there to eat, I’d be surprised to see more than five women. Where are all the poor, hungry, and/or homeless women? I feel confident they are somewhere in Las Vegas. I hope they are getting their needs met by some other organization(s).

When the trailer arrives, volunteers scurry to set up. Two tables are unfolded, condiments and utensils set out on them. Plastic milk crates are placed at the head of each line, and giant pots of steaming food are set on top of them. Another table is set up with the day’s side dish and is staffed by two volunteers. Someone else prepares to distribute jalapeño peppers from a large plastic tub to folks who want to spice up their food.

Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg – mural outside the Catholic Worker Houses – painted by Q, photo by Tami Yaron. Image from http://lvcw.org/

The Catholic Worker group also provides warm, damp towels to the folks they serve. I’ve never seen another group provide this service. I think it’s a great idea. A volunteer distributes the warm towels from a 5-gallon bucket. Folks use the towels to wash their face and/or hands, then deposit the used ones in a second bucket. The dirty towels are taken back tot he Catholic Worker house where they are laundered for reuse.

When I volunteer, I usually help hand out bread. (One time I helped hand out the hot main dish.) After putting on gloves, The Activist or The Poet and I take bread out of a 5-gallon bucket and set a variety of choices on the inside of one of the lids, which we use as a tray. The available bread can vary, but I’ve seen it include bagels, sliced wheat bread, hamburger buns, raisin bread, and chunks of baguettes.

I try to be really friendly to people who come up for bread. Good morning! I’ll say with a big smile. Can I get you some bread?

Some people know exactly what they want and how many slices. Others seem confused by the choices. Some seem grateful for whatever they’re handed. I do my best to give folks the kind of bread they want, then sincerely say, Have a nice day! before they leave. I like to think a friendly face and voice and word are as important as the food, but maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel good.

I wonder what the other people in that vacant lot see when they look at me. Do they assume I have a house to return to? Do they think I’m financially secure? Do I seem comfortable and complacent? Do they realize I’m closer economically to the the people there to eat than to the other people serving? Does anyone look at me and imagine I once lived on the streets, that I’m only one step out of my van away from homeless again? But for the grace of the Universe (or God or the Higher Power or Goddess or whatever one chooses to call it), I’d be lined up to receive food instead of serving it.

You Got Shoes to Wear

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Sometimes I see women in my age group who look homeless or at least very poor, and I think, That could be me. Sometimes I see women in my age group pushing overflowing shopping carts or riding bikes upon which recyclables have been fastened, and I think, That could be me. Sometimes I see women in my age group walking down the street talking to themselves (or to someone I can’t see), and I think, That could be me. I sometimes see women (in my age group or otherwise) flying a sign, and I think, That could be me.

I’m poor and I live in a van now, but I’ve been 100% homeless and there have been days when I’ve had zero money to my name. I’ve never pushed a shopping cart or tied my money-making enterprise to a bike, but I’ve walked through towns with all my earthly possessions in a ridiculously large pack strapped to my back. Sometimes I do talk aloud when no one else is around, until I catch myself doing it and close my mouth before a stranger labels me crazy. I’ve flown signs, panhandled, asked strangers for what I needed to survive. I could be those women I see because I have been their sister in poverty, a sister of the streets.

During a recent visit to San Francisco, I saw a couple of women and thought, That could be me.

I was walking down the sidewalk next to Mission Street, near the 16th Street BART station. Two women about my age were walking in front of me. Between them they were hauling a huge, red plaid, thick plastic tote bag, something probably designed to transport laundry into and out of the washateria. I didn’t see what was in the bag. I really wasn’t paying much attention to the women, even though they were yelling at each other. Then I looked over and noticed the woman on the left was wearing socks but no shoes. It startled me more than if she’d been barefoot.

Walking on a dirty city sidewalk in socks with no shoes really said living on the margins to me. Had she lost her shoes? How? Had they been stolen? Did she not have the few bucks to go into one of the several thrift stores on Mission Street and get a pair of shoes? Did she own shoes but for some reason I can’t fathom chose to only wear socks?

I could have asked her; she was right in front of me, but I didn’t want to be nosy. Her footwear (or lack thereof) was none of my business after all. I didn’t want her to think I was judging her (although I guess I was). I didn’t want to offend her. And while all of those reason for not talking to her were true, I also didn’t want to admit publicly or to myself that her situation could be my situation.

I feel like I’m doing ok right now. I’ve got my van. my little comforts, my small saving to get me through to my next job, and my seven pairs of shoes (which I know is a ridiculous number for a person living in a van to own.) But I know I’m one road disaster or health crisis away from being back to having nothing. I know friends would help me if they could, but things are rough all over.

I look at these women in my age group, women living on the margins of society as I am, and I think, That could be me, not with disdain, but with a little fear. Maybe some of those women are happy, and it’s not my place to assume they’re not. If they are happy, More power to you, sisters! But when I see women who don’t seem to be doing very well holding their day-to-day living together, I remember to be grateful for the shoes on my feet (and the extras stored away), my narrow bed, the roof of my van over my head.

Thanks to Robert Hunter for the title, a line from “Here Comes Sunshine.”

 

On Homelessness

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It happened again.

I was part of a small group sitting around a kitchen table, drinking tea and conversing. One woman was being quite difficult. She was older than I am by about 20 years and tried to dominate the conversation, no matter the topic. She tried to present herself as an authority on New Orleans because as a teenager, she’d lived for some time in a town 25 miles away. Even though I lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade and her feet hadn’t touched the city’s soil in over forty years, she wanted to present herself as the expert.

The five of us in the room talked about where we’d grown up. I talked about my job as a camp host. The difficult woman asked me, Where do you live now?

I  answered in a perfectly cheerful way, I live in my van.

I saw the panic on her face and heard it in her voice when she asked, But where do you live?

I said again, I live in my van, then went on to explain I don’t have a sticks and bricks house waiting anywhere for me.

I could tell she felt pity for me, which is not what I expected from her, since I knew she lives in a 5th wheel with multiple cats.

I think the woman was worried about me because she is worried about herself.

Later in the conversation around the table, the woman admitted she’s not entirely happy about living in the 5th wheel. She doesn’t see the 5th wheel or its current location as the home she wants for the rest of her life. She want’s something bigger, something “better,” something different. I suspect she wondered how I could be happy living in a van if she’s not quite happy where she lives.

As the five of us stood up to say good-bye before parting, the difficult woman singled me out and hurriedly told me in a voice barely above a whisper how some years back she lived in her car with her dog. I could tell this part of her history was not something she remembered fondly or spoke of proudly.

I assured her many people have lived or currently live in a vehicle. I wanted her to know that living in a vehicle is not as weird as she’d convinced herself it is.

I refuse to be ashamed for living in my van, I told her.

I hope she will let go of her shame too, because if isn’t doing her any good.

I told her I don’t know if I could ever go back to living in a conventional home, as I now find the thought of paying rent for a house or an apartment offensive.

Sometimes I’m glad I can be an example of a woman living a good life while housed in her van. Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel as if I have to explain my existence to every curious or worried person who crosses my path. On the day with the difficult woman, I felt something in between. I hadn’t expected or wanted to talk with someone who was shocked by the way I live, but I did enjoy disabusing her of some of the notions she seemed to be holding about people who live in vehicles.

Picnic Pavilion

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When I was homeless, I lived in a picnic pavilion at a rest stop for two months. By lived in, I really mean slept in. The rest area attendant arrived at 8am, so I left well before he started work. I usually woke with the first light of the sun, rolled up my sleeping bag, put on my shoes, and walked out on a nearby trail. The trail went past a tree, all alone in the high desert. I usually stopped at the tree, rolled out my sleeping bag on the ground under its branches, took off my shoes again, and stretched out to nap for another couple of hours.

Not only did I not want the rest area attendant to find me, accuse me of living there, and call the cops, I didn’t want any civilian bystander to call the cops on me either. Best to not have anyone see me in the rest area during the day, which is why I left as soon as I had enough light to see the path.

I suppose I could have spent my nights under the tree, but I was afraid I’d encounter a rattlesnake or an unsavory human out there. I felt safer in the civilization of the rest area, with its lights and flush toilets. In retrospect, I don’t know how much safer I was in the rest area Babylon.

The rest area attendant got off work at 5pm. Sometime after that, I’d go to my “apartment,” the picnic pavilion which opened toward the natural attraction tourists came to see. The other pavilions opened toward the roadway running through the rest area. Anyone sleeping on the concrete floor of one of those pavilions would be easily spotted by cars driving through at night. Because my pavilion didn’t open toward the roadway, I could sleep between its low stone back wall and the back bench of the concrete picnic table, and no one driving through would see me.

The rest area was open all night. People could go there to look at the natural attraction 24 hours a day, any day of the week. It wasn’t unusual for people to sleep there in their cars. Others pulled in to use the restrooms in the middle of the night. Sometimes people partied there, drinking alcohol and taking who-knows-what drugs. And I’m pretty sure couples came there to “smooch” (my euphemism for anything from making out to oral to full-on intercourse).

Lovers were attracted to “my” pavilion for the same reason I was: it offered just a little bit more privacy.

I never rolled out my sleeping bag before dark. I didn’t want to be spotted sleeping (translation: living) there. I’d read a borrowed book or a newspaper fished from a trashcan and wait for darkness to descend. Often, I’d simply look out at the spectacular view. Once it was adequately dark, I’d roll out my sleeping bag, position my backpack on the ground within arm’s reach, take off my shoes, and snuggle down for sleep. Once I lay down, I didn’t pop my head up to see what was going on, for fear someone would notice me and wonder what I was doing on the ground behind the picnic table.

I don’t know how late it was the first time a couple invaded my space. It was dark during a time when days were long, so it had to be after 9pm. I had been on the brink of sleep when the people sat on the picnic table. Of course, they didn’t know they’d invaded my space. I was so discreet, they hadn’t even realized I was there.

I didn’t know what to do. I’d heard from several single sign-flying and hitchhiking women that sometimes people worry about women in such situations and call the cops to do a welfare check. I didn’t want these people to call the cops because they were worried about me. I wasn’t running from the law, but I didn’t want to be hassled by the police, didn’t want to be told I couldn’t sleep at the rest area any longer or that I needed to move on out of town. Better not to interact with the cops at all.

I knew the longer I waited to say something to the couple, the more awkward it was going to be when they discovered me. (I never doubted one of them would notice me eventually.) I suppose I could have pretended to be asleep, but what if they started making noise impossible to sleep through? Then I’d have to “wake up,” and what if they had their clothes off?

So I sat up and said something like Hi. I’m just sleeping here. (I don’t remember my actual words, but I was trying to convey I’m harmless. I’m fine. I was here first.)

The woman screamed. It was a loud, piercing, blood-curdling scream. So much for discretion.

I started apologizing. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.

Then one of my worries came true. The woman started asking me if I were ok. Are you ok? she kept asking me.

I tried to assure her I was fine. I told her I was just sleeping. I told her everything was good.

Are you ok? Are you ok? she asked again and again.

I wanted to say, I was ok, before you woke me up. I was ok before you screamed. Instead I just assured her I was currently fine.

Finally they left. I don’t know where they went to have sex (maybe the car they’d arrived in?), but the cops didn’t bother me that night, so I guess I’d convinced them they didn’t need to worry about me.

The next time a couple tried to use my picnic pavilion for their shenanigans, it was truly the middle of the night, and at least the guy seemed drunk. When I sat up and told them I was sleeping there, neither of them seemed worried about me or upset in any way or even vaguely surprised. These people had obviously seen a lot in their lives.

I could tell they didn’t want to leave, but they also respected the fact that I’d gotten there first. So they left, but they didn’t go far. They simply walked out of the picnic pavilion and sat down on the ground right next its wall. I could hear every word they said! (If only I could remember their every word. If only I had taken notes.)

The woman (who seemed significantly younger than the man) talked and talked and talked, mostly about her unhappy life. (It’s just as well that I don’t remember the details. She probably wouldn’t want me to repeat her stories, although I wouldn’t feel too bad about doing so, since she knew I was right there the whole time.)

The man? Well, what he said (in drunken repetition) to the woman boiled down to this: I want to be your friend. But I also–if you would like–want to make love to you.

She didn’t fall for his line while within my hearing. Maybe she was hoping her litany of woes would cool his ardor. Maybe she simply needed someone to listen.

As for me, I was wishing I couldn’t hear them. I really just wanted to go to sleep, not listen to an unhappy woman and a horny man.

I thought about calling out, I can hear you!

I thought about calling out, Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to sleep!

In the end, I said nothing. I didn’t want an altercation, especially with someone who was drunk. I only wanted to sleep. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I could sleep for a few more hours under my tree in the morning.

To read about how I ended up living in a picnic pavilion, go here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/06/11/hummingbird/.

Why I’m Glad I Don’t Live in a Tent

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When I think back to the days when I was living in a tent (with the man who was my partner then), it seems as if we lived that way for a long time. However, when I do the calculations, I realize we only lived in that tent (the cheapest two-person tent Wal-Mart had) for a few months. Oh how the imagination stretches the unpleasant! I don’t want to go back to those days (for a lot of reasons), and I hope I never have to live in a tent again.

THE SET UP AND THE BREAKDOWM OF THE TENT WAS A PAIN IN THE ASS

Even after I’d grown accustomed to setting up the tent, it was never easy. It was always difficult to thread the poles through the pockets on the roof and sides. It was always difficult to poke the ends of the poles into the pockets on the ground. Every piece of the tent puzzle had to be in the right place at the right moment to make the whole thing work.

Taking it apart was easier, but it was such a struggle to get the tent folded correctly and small enough to get it into the carrying bag.

Setting up and breaking down the tent took time and energy. Neither was a fast process, even after I knew what I was doing. At the end of a long day, setting up the tent was the last thing I wanted to do. And forget about a quick get-away in the morning.

In my van, whenever I decide to park for the night, I can crawl into bed moments after I pull the key out of the ignition. In the morning, if I’ve taken nothing out of the van, I’m ready to go as soon as I get dressed and put on my shoes.

HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO BE STEALTH IN A TENT IN A CITY?

I’m sure some people figure out how to be stealth in a tent in a populated area, especially if there’s a park with a woodsy area or a woodsy area on the edge of town. I only pulled off staying in a tent in a city once, with the help of some street kids who shared their camping squat on some undeveloped land quite a walk from the city center.

It’s easier to be stealth in my van, especially if I get into bed as soon as I park and don’t turn on any lights. A van will blend in with other parked cars, but outside of the woods, a tent is going to stand out.

THE TENT DIDN’T OFFER MUCH POROTECTION FROM THE COLD
Yes, sleeping in the tent kept me warmer than sleeping outside without a tent but warmer is not the same as comfortable. Most of the tent sleeping I did was in late spring and early summer. If the night were cold (and some of them were), I was cold in the tent.

Sleeping on the cold ground seemed to suck the heat out of me. Someone once told me that if one’s kidneys get cold, one’s blood gets cold, and then one has cold blood circulating throughout one’s body. Cold ground = cold kidneys = cold body. I suppose a good sleeping bag or an air mattress would have helped, but I had neither.

Unless the temperature dips into the 20s, I stay warm in my van. I have plenty of blankets and a propane heater I can turn on if I need to. A van is better insulated than a cheap Wal-Mart tent, so it stays warmer. My bed is raised, so I’m not losing my heat to the van’s cold metal floor.

THE TENT DIDN’T OFFER MUCH PROTECTION FROM THE RAIN EITHER

The Southeast in the springtime can see a lot of rain. The spring I was living in the tent saw a lot of rain. The tent was wet a lot. The seams started to leak. Water seeped in at the bottom edges. All of the stuff in the tent had to be piled in the middle to try to keep it dry. (Did I mention my partner and I had no motor vehicle, so there was nowhere to store our stuff other than the tent?) Sleeping bags and blankets got wet. There was nowhere to put our wet clothes to dry. It was a miserable time.

Fortunately, my van doesn’t leak. (I paused my writing to knock on wood.) The rain can come down (and down and down and down), and I stay dry. My stuff stays dry too. I can drape wet clothes around the van, and they’ll dry out eventually. My van is good protection from the elements.

THE GROUND TENDS TO BE BUMPY AND NOT REALLY FLAT

Outside of a campground (and sometimes in one too), it can be really difficult to find a clear, flat piece of earth on which to pitch a tent. If you’ve ever slept in a tent on an incline, you know it’s not really sleeping, as you’re fighting all night to hold your position and not end up pressed against the wall of the tent at the bottom of the slope. It’s also not easy to find a piece of ground that’s not littered with (sometimes seemingly invisible) rocks and sticks. You may not see rocks and sticks, but you’ll certainly feel them as soon as you lie down. If you’re in an area with a lot of trees, it may be impossible to get away from roots. Again, an air mattress or a good sleeping pad might help make sleeping on the ground more comfortable, but that’s a lot of stuff to haul around, especially if you’re carrying everything you own on your back.

In my van, I carry my comfy bed with me. I sleep on top of two layers of memory foam. This bed is more comfortable than several of the “real” beds I’ve slept on in houses. I never sleep on top of lumps and bumps. Sometimes, however, if I’m not careful about where I park, I do end up on an incline and wake up in the night in a scrunched-up woman heap with my head off the pillow and my feet pressed against the wall. Even when I wake up and realize I’ve made this sort of poor parking decision, it’s still better than sleeping on the cold, hard ground.

THERE WAS NEVER ENOUGH ROOM IN THE TENT

Two person tent + two people + two people’s stuff = never enough room

Neither of us could stand up in the tent. I often felt claustrophobic. It was not comfortable to have a friend hang out in the tent with us.

While I wouldn’t say my van is spacious, it is roomer than the tent. My van has a high top, so I can stand up. If I needed to, I could get two or three other people in the van with me for a short period of time. One person could probably spend a night on the van’s floor. There’s room for me to set up my stove so I can cook in the van if I need to, and there’s room to operate my Mr. Buddy heater safely.

THE TENT OFFERED ONLY MINIMAL PRIVACY

Sure, the tent kept people from seeing us naked, but that’s about it. Unless we whispered, anyone nearby could hear what we were saying. I suspect everyone probably knew when my partner and I were having sex too. If my partner and I were both in the tent, we had no privacy from each other.

Once I pull the curtains in my van, I feel I have a high degree of privacy. Oh sure, if this van’s a rockin’ is a real phenomenon, but at least no one’s going to hear every moan and sigh. If I were traveling with someone in my van, one of us could sit in the bed or in one of the front seats with the front or back curtain pulled while the other was in the main part of the van, and we wouldn’t have to look at each other.

THE TENT OFFERED LITTLE SECURITY

Are there tents that lock? I’ve never seen one. Anyone could unzip the tent flap, reach in, and grab whatever they wanted. I guess in campgrounds folks stash their valuables in their locked cars, but when one is carrying everything one owns, there is no place to lock anything away.

Tents offer even less security for my physical self. Is a tent going to stop a bear? No. Is a tent going to stop a murder or a rapist? No. (Not that I dwell on murderers or rapists, but the thought occurs to me.)

I feel very secure in my van. I can lock the doors when I leave and when I’m inside. As my dad says, a lock is to keep an honest man (or woman, Dad) honest. If someone with tools and know-how wanted to break into my van, it would probably be fairly easy. But I do feel like my stuff and I are safe when the doors are locked. (I paused to knock wood again.) While a bear might be able to peel off a door, at least a person with bad intentions is not going to be able to rip open the van’s metal roof.

Of course, I realize a different tent would have solved some of the problems I’ve outlined. A bigger tent could have helped with my space and privacy issues. A three-season tent would have kept me warmer. A better-made tent might not have leaked. A tent with a better design may have gone up and down more easily. But I don’t know how to solve stealth and security issues with a tent.

In any case, I’m so, so grateful for my van. It keeps me safe, dry, warm, and comfortable. (I’m knocking wood again.) I wouldn’t trade it for a six-person, three-season, easy-up, well-made tent with a lock and a top-of-the-line air mattress.

To read another story about tent living, go here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/06/23/hierarchy-homelessness/.

 

No Backpacks or Sleeping Bags Allowed

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I’d been warned the McDonald’s was unfriendly to people who looked homeless. I’d seen for myself all the DO NOT signs posted on the premises, more DO NOT signs than in any other Mickey D’s I’d ever been in. In addition to the common (but usually ignored) NO LOITERING signs, this one had a NO PETS sign in their outdoor seating area and a NO TOOTH BRUSHING sign in the women’s restroom (Really? No tooth brushing in a McDonald’s restroom? I can’t think of a better time to brush my teeth than after eating McDonald’s food.)

I actually was homeless at the time. I’d been living in a picnic pavilion at a rest area in a high traffic tourist area for a few weeks. I’d become part of an arts and crafts community selling handmade items to the tourists. On the day in question, I’d hitchhiked into town to do my meager laundry and get supplies for making jewelry.

I walked along the town’s main drag all morning as I ran my errands, and by early afternoon I was hungry. My money was limited, so I passed all the locally owned restaurants, the ones I suspected served delicious but more expensive food, and I headed to the town’s only McDonald’s. I knew I could buy two McDoubles for two dollars and change. I knew two McDoubles would keep my belly full the rest of the day.

I had my pack on my back. My sleeping bag was strapped onto the outside of the backpack with a bungee cord. Everything else I owned but wasn’t wearing was in the backpack—my boots (carefully stowed at the bottom in anticipation of winter), an extra pair of pants and a t-shirt and a light jacket, my water bottle, a few pieces of jewelry I’d made and tools and supplies to make more jewelry. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had.

I had no plans to linger in the dining room of this McDonald’s. My plan was to get some food and get out, eat the food somewhere away from the restaurant.

I was standing in line at the front counter when a man of late middle age stepped up to me. He had brown skin (but didn’t seem to be African American) and short salt and pepper hair. He was not wearing a McDonald’s uniform; he had on dark pants and a plaid shirt. He told me I couldn’t have my backpack and sleeping bag in the restaurant.

What? I wasn’t only pretending to be confused. I really was confused.

I told him I was in line to buy food, and once I got my food I was leaving.

He shook his head and again said I couldn’t have the backpack or the sleeping bag in the restaurant. He told me there was a sign, as if the sign had magically appeared or had been handed down by Ronald McDonald or maybe Ray Crock himself, as if the directive of the sign had to be followed no matter what, no matter the circumstances.

He gestured for me to follow him. We walked over to the sign and he pointed to it. Sure enough, the sign prohibited the presence of backpacks and sleeping bags in the restaurant.

I tried again to tell him I wasn’t planning to hang out in the dining room with my backpack and sleeping bag. I tried to tell him I simply wanted to purchase food and leave. He wasn’t having it. He said I could leave my pack and sleeping bag outside while I ordered food, but the sign said I couldn’t have the items inside. He acted as if he had not connection to the sign except to enforce its rule.

No way was I going to leave all of my earthly possessions outside unattended while I stood in line inside. I didn’t have much, but I couldn’t risk losing the sleeping bag which was keeping me warm in the cool desert nights or the boots that were going to get my feet through the winter or the jewelry I hoped would earn me a few measly dollars.

So I stalked out of the restaurant, angry and still hungry.

When I thought about it later, I concluded the man who showed me the sign must have been the owner of the McDonald’s franchise. Who else in regular street clothes would have assumed the authority to kick me out? I doubt another customer would have cared enough about me and my backpack to point out the sign and tell me I had to leave my belongings outside. And even a McDonald’s manager would have been wearing a uniform and a name tag.

In retrospect, I wish I had asked the man his name and what authority he had to reject me because of my belongings. I was still timid and afraid back then, afraid of trouble, afraid he’d call the cops and they’d harass me for being homeless and poor.

I’m less afraid now, although I don’t go around looking for trouble. I’d just like to know the name of this man who thought it made good business sense to kick out a paying customer.

 

Anti McDonald’s image from http://kieracutepinky.blogspot.com/2012/11/anti-mcd.html

To read other stores about my homelessness, go here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/05/12/the-question/ and here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/06/11/hummingbird/.

The Other Las Vegas

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I’d been to Las Vegas one time before.

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It had been a three night whirlwind dirty kid tour of eating strawberry shortcake and drinking fine tequila we pulled from trash cans, exploring the Hard Rock Hotel while high on the finest of hallucinogens, and napping in a park during the daylight because we’d been awake all night. We’d been kicked out of Caesars Palace when Sweet L accidentally hit a slot machine with his knee and a panel popped open, exposing wires and lights. We’d apparently been banned for life from the Las Vegas Margaritaville location after we’d tried to take a shortcut through a barricaded area in the wee hours of the morning. We strolled The Strip for hours, marveling at the excess of the casinos, watching the water shows performed by the Fountains of Bellagio, pressing in with the crowd to see pirates battle sirens in the cove in front of Treasure Island.

We even gambled one night. Mr. Carolina asked me for a dollar, and I gave him one from my meager stash. He put the bill in a slot machine, and he and I took turns pushing buttons (he knew what he was doing, but I had no clue), until we were up $5. I insisted we cash out, while he stared at me incredulously. He knew we’d never win big if we didn’t play big, but I wanted the five bucks to buy gas for the van.

We mostly saw rich people, or at least people rich enough to take a holiday in Las Vegas. In addition to the rich people, we saw the workers in hotels and casinos and gift shops who served the tourists.

We also saw locals putting the hustle on visitors. We saw people dressed up in costumes (superheros, Muppets, Disney characters) hoping to have their photos taken with tourists in exchange for a tip. (For an interesting discussion of these folks in costume, see http://www.vegassolo.com/vegas-costumed-panhandlers/.) We saw panhandlers (especially on the bridges used to cross from one casino to another while bypassing vehicular traffic) asking tourists for spare change. At one point, I was carrying around a white takeout box we had pulled from the trash, and a local woman asked me for my leftovers! I thought that was funny and weird, because in no way did we look (or smell) like Las Vegas tourists. I told her she could have the food, but she changed her mind when I told her it had recently been in a garbage can.

But mostly we saw tourists with money. We were on The Strip, after all, and The Strip is a prime hangout location for tourists with money.

Almost exactly three years later, I found myself back in the city, but this time I got to see the other Las Vegas.

I was visiting my friend The Poet and her husband (who is now my friend too) The Activist. They’d moved to West Las Vegas in March, and now it was October.

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Las_Vegas,

West Las Vegas is an historic neighborhood in Las Vegas, Nevada. This 3.5 sq mi (9.1 km2) area is located northwest of the Las Vegas Strip and the “Spaghetti Bowl” interchange of I-15 and US 95. It is also known as Historic West Las Vegas and more simply, the Westside.[1] The area is roughly bounded by Carey Avenue, Bonanza Road, I-15 and Rancho Drive.[2][3]

(I highly recommend this Wikipedia article, as it explains a lot about the history of segregation in Las Vegas.)

The Poet and The Activist are involved with Nevada Desert Experience. According to the group’s website (http://www.nevadadesertexperience.org/history/history.htm),

In the 20th century, the Western Shoshone Nation’s homelands began to suffer from nuclear weapons testing conducted by the U.S.A. & the U.K. A few peacemakers came out in the 1950s to challenge the nuclear testing, and a few more in the 1970s. People of faith gathered for the first “Lenten Desert Experience” at the Nevada Test Site in 1982 to witness against ongoing nuclear violence. Soon the resisters were calling their movement “Nevada Desert Experience” (NDE). The name also refers to an organized activist group which continues to conduct spiritually-based events near the Nevada National Security Site (the NNSS/NTS) in support of peace and nuclear abolition. NDE celebrates the power of God’s creation, analyzes the tragedy of the nuclear weapons industry, and calls for ending the destruction and repairing the damage.

The Poet and The Activist live in a cute little house that includes the NDE office. Their place is in a compound with two other houses where activists live. Each house is painted a lovely bright color, and they all face a tranquil courtyard. My friends have a guest room, where I stayed during my visit.

The Poet and The Activist also work with the Las Vegas Catholic Worker folks, although neither identify as Catholic. They are both definitely workers, arriving at the Catholic Worker house (500 West Van Buren Avenue) around six o’clock several mornings each week to meet the folks they work with to serve a 6:30 breakfast to a couple hundred poor/homeless/hungry people who gather in an empty lot at G & McWilliams Streets.

I got up early too on two mornings during my visit and helped serve breakfast.

The breakfast crew is a well-organized bunch. When we arrived at the Catholic Worker house a little after 6am, folks were gathered in the common room off of the kitchen for their morning prayer group. Breakfast was already cooked, and food and equipment were ready to be loaded on a trailer for the trip of several blocks to the lot where the morning meal is served Wednesday through Saturday. Before we left, the dozen or so of us there joined hands for another prayer. (I’m not one to pray much, so I just bowed my head politely and kept all snarky comments to myself.)

Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg – mural outside the Catholic Worker Houses – painted by Q (image from Las Vegas Catholic Worker website–http://www.lvcw.org/)

When we arrived at the site of the meal, I was surprised by two things.

#1 There were a lot of people there. I didn’t try to count, but I estimated there were 200 people. The Las Vegas Catholic Worker website (http://www.lvcw.org/) confirmed my estimate. I knew Las Vegas is a major city (with a 2013 population of approximately 603,500, according to https://www.google.com/search?q=population+of+las+vegas+nv&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8), but I was surprised to see so many people in need in one place.  Based on my prior Las Vegas experience, I would have said the city didn’t have a large homeless/poor population. I would have been wrong about that. (I tried to find an estimate of the number of homeless people in Las Vegas. I couldn’t find statistics pertaining specifically to the city, but according to the Nevada Homeless Alliance 2015 homeless census, 34,397 individuals experience homelessness in southern Nevada. To learn more about the Nevada Homeless Alliance, go to http://nevadahomelessalliance.org/.)

#2 All of the people waiting for breakfast were lined up and waiting for the food to arrive. They’d obviously done this before. There were six or eight lines of people. When the food arrived, the folks serving the food set up at the front of each line and started dishing out breakfast.

I was not surprised to see that most of the people waiting for breakfast were men. In most of my experiences with services for poor/homeless people and being on the streets, men typically outnumber women (with the possible exception of clients at food pantries). I’d say out of the approximately 200 people there to eat breakfast, maybe 10 were women.

On my first morning serving, I helped The Poet hand out bread. On the second morning, I served bread alone while The Poet distributed jalapeños. On both mornings, everyone who came up to get bread was polite and friendly. I was polite and friendly myself and did my best to greet everyone with a smile and some bubbly happiness.

After seeing so many homeless people gathered for breakfast, I was outraged by the number of obviously abandoned houses throughout West Las Vegas. I was totally flabbergasted when my friends and I went downtown, and I saw abandoned hotels.

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El Cid Hotel was just one of the obviously abandoned and fenced off hotels I saw in downtown Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is not lacking space to house folks experiencing homelessness. Las Vegas has plenty of space to house people. The city could buy some of the abandoned hotels and provide housing to several hundred individuals. And if the city bought up all the abandoned houses it could provided them to families dealing with homelessness.

I was outraged and sputtering while standing in front of El Cid, taking photos and outlining how Las Vegas could alleviate homelessness. My friends just shook their heads and said the city was unlikely to do any such thing.