In their own words: The homeless and their helpers in the South Bay
His name was Joel Davenport.
A familiar face at the Redondo Village shopping center, at the corner of Beryl Street and Prospect Avenue, he was known to everyone from the cashiers at Vons, to the owner of the dog grooming shop, to the regulars at the coffee shop.
“Then he just disappeared one day, for about a month,” said Chad Fitzsimmons, 21. The two met when Fitzsimmons was about 13 years old, riding the bus to school with a banjo in tow. A lover of folk music (“He would talk about seeing Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village before he was Dylan,” Fitzsimmons recalled), Davenport would listen to Fitzsimmons and his friends as they played music at the bus stop. Chad and his friends grew to know Davenport over coffee as the years went by.
“Almost everything everyone knows about him came from snippets — you had to piece things together from long conversations,” Fitzsimmons said. Daniel Olguin, who moved to Redondo about three years ago, agreed. “Sometimes, you’d be going to the grocery store to avoid him, because he’d want to chat you up for about three hours.”
He was a raconteur, charming his way across the streets, learning the names of everyone. And though he was blunt, he often found way to draw conversation out of the most stoic people around him. Davenport was, for at least 20 years, a fixture of the Beach Cities’ homeless population.
Details of his life remain a bit unclear, there is but one indisputable fact: Joel Davenport died alone, at 66 years old, in a tent he’d lived in for years.
In Hermosa Beach, at least three homeless people have died this year. Sidney Ferrell was found unconscious by lifeguards on May 17 near 8th Street on the beach; an unidentified male was found in a beach bathroom on Second Street; and Alfonso Barrera Jr., 61, died of respiratory failure and pneumonia on Oct. 21.
The size of the local homeless population has ebbed and flowed over the years, but a recent countywide homeless count found 201 homeless in Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo and El Segundo — in tents, cars, vans, makeshift shelters and, occasionally, simply on the street.
A similar count by the Redondo Beach Police Department, reported in March 2013, found approximately 180 homeless persons in Redondo alone.
A census of people without homes is inherently difficult, but a count done this year pegs the number of homeless people living in Los Angeles County at 44,359. Another county report estimates between 30 and 40 percent of these people are mentally ill or developmentally disabled, and up to 80 percent of the chronically homeless struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
In the South Bay region, Service Planning Area 8, there are an estimated 3,006 homeless people, which represents a 39 percent increase over the count done in 2013.
But counts can only go so far — the men, women and children living in the cars, parks and streets of the Beach Cities are more than numbers. Some of them are there by choice; some are victims of circumstance, looking to get back on their feet and in homes; and among them are the few who dedicate their work to making their lives more livable.
By his estimate, Gregory Thomas hasn’t slept in a regular bed in 15 years. Lifelong back problems have made it easier for him to sleep in a chair than on a mattress. Indeed, he says that he is “more comfortable on flat concrete than I am on a regular bed.”
Gregory used to have a job hauling spent grain from breweries out to a cattle ranch. But the ranch was sold, and he lost out on money he was owed. Gregory also distanced himself from his family. Now, he is regularly finding different places to sleep, and he is approaching a critical juncture in his time “on the road.”
— Ryan McDonald
In his own words:
“That was six, seven years ago. I keep saying recently, and it’s, no it’s been that long I’ve been on the road. People keep telling me, if you’re on the road for five years, you ain’t coming back. Well, I’ve been fishing and hunting and an outdoorsman most of my life. I don’t feel any difference, guys. If you haven’t been night-fishing in the cool, if you haven’t been hiking in the heat, if you haven’t felt the chill, the frigid air of King’s Canyon National Park, well that’s because people that have that attitude, they don’t have a full life. They think that everything is supposed to be warm and cozy. Well, I like the cold. I get to see more neat things in the cold. You’d never know there were giant squid out in the ocean, or yellowfin and bluefin tuna. Well, you got to be out in the cold and the heat to catch them.”
Gregory arrived in the South Bay with thoughts of leaving the country. He came to Marina del Rey, and tried to cobble together sailboat parts off Craigslist.
“I originally came down here through Marina del Rey, looking at sailboats, because I just don’t like being in America anymore. People pick on you, they’re cruel. I’d like to go to Easter Island, there are things I would want to look around those islands for, but then I don’t have legal paperwork. Everybody wants legal paperwork. Some of it’s used to document illnesses, but a lot of it is just to domesticate you.”
Now he mostly spends his days in Valley Park. He often senses a contemptuous attitude from those that pass by, but doesn’t quite understand why.
“People think [those living outdoors] are falling down to something. Do they think I’m the bottom of the barrel? I just come here to read because it’s outdoors. People accuse me of having a sedentary lifestyle: ‘That’s why you’re like this.’ No, I just like to read in the library, or read out here…the moment it’s dawn I’ll roll in here, just set up and read two and a half, three hours, then I get up and walk for an hour.”
Gregory has met many people living “on the road” like himself. He says that the friendly ones are often people who were born and raised in Hermosa, but for one reason or another have become “displaced.”
“They live in the area, they used to have a house, relationships come and go, they used to have a family…they would go lay their head down in another town, but they’ll always come back to where they lived. A lot of those people I noticed, it’s a sign of the economy. Because they can’t afford to live here, but all of their memories are here. And so when I look around, I see a lot of attorneys, a lot of doctors.”
Sister Michelle Morris
Sister Michele Morris, co-founder and executive director of the House of Yahweh in Lawndale. Photo by Caroline Anderson
Sister Michele sees a lot of good in the world around her.
Leading a visitor through the Lawndale compound that contains House of Yahweh, her eyes are big and bright as she points out specific volunteers and the mechanics of the operation, which provides food and shelter to those in need.
At about five feet tall, she moves quickly in her jeans and sneakers, a large silver cross hanging from her neck. She marvels at the clothes and household goods donated to the organization’s thrift shop.
“This is quality,” she says as she runs her fingers over a wooden set of drawers or lifts a figurine of one of the Three Wise Men from a shelf.
Walking outside to the food boxing area, she digs through a box of Trader Joe’s salads, chocolate peanut butter cupcakes, fruits and vegetables in wonder.
You wouldn’t think that she’s been running this place for the past 33 years.
— Caroline Anderson
In her own words:
“We have 11 units of transitional housing. They’re independent units, which is not too usual. The goal of the program is to help people help themselves. Get them into independent living.
I’d be talking to people spending $40 to $50 per night at a motel. Imagine what could happen if they had a month or two. They have to be free of drugs. They have to either be working or going to school to get a job.
A lot skilled people are still living on the edge, living paycheck to paycheck. There’s not too much sympathy from landlords. Of course they don’t have to have sympathy, because they have lots of people waiting. Evictions, we don’t want to see that happen. It makes it very hard in the future to trust them and take them in.
If you think about the whole thing, you do nothing. An awful lot of people out there need help. They’re falling through the cracks. Sometimes it’s really frustrating because you don’t know where to tell them to go.
Not everything has an answer. It’s hard to get jobs, even if you have a college degree. It’s not always what you know, but who you know.
[How did you get started with House of Yahweh?]
It was 33 years ago. I was a Sister of St. Joseph at Carondelet. Working the parish at St. Catherine of Laboure. I would hear about young kids sleeping underneath the pier.I was giving parish renewal weekends.
If you wake people up, you’ve got to give them something to do. People are generous. They want to be of service. It’s a powerful word, ‘Ask.’ Ask and people will respond.
The big thing was housing. We serve everybody, regardless of religion, race, gender.
In housing, we help the most vulnerable. Women raising children. Once in a while we get a single dad who was just left. The elderly. But we don’t just take them. We have two single men now. The only ones we don’t take and we can’t take are the juveniles. It’s against the law.
Our largest program is food. The miracle of the place is the whole thing is run on donations, the stock. It doesn’t pay the bills.We serve 55 to 60 families a day. They come once a week.
Even though we’re the givers, we get more than we give.
What I found is the people are really real. You’re pretty close to the earth when you’re sleeping on it. There’s a lot of faith in God deep in them. Very inspiring wisdom out there with the homeless. Compassion. Not just thinking about themselves. Who are the givers? Who are the takers? There’s a mutuality going on.
There are over 20 stores that donate daily. We have two routes all over the South Bay. They like us because we’re always there.The thing about the food industry is that they have to keep turning it over. Move the expired food. During the holidays, we are always blessed. The stores over order sometimes.
We have refrigerated trucks. We take total responsibility for the food. They really don’t want to throw food away. They want to make sure it’s going to a reputable place. The health department, that’s the strictest organization. We get checked just like everybody else.
Besides the regulars, we have emergency food. Someone can call and come the day of. The more food we have, the more emergency food we can give. We also give diapers, when we get them. Lotions, shampoo. We get those.
We try to be fair. Let’s say we get five to eight turkeys and we have 400 people coming. We do a lottery. That way everybody knows it’s fair. There’s a week’s worth of food in a box.
On December 19, we’ll have our Christmas. They set up a manger scene and we give away toys. The kids line up around the block.
[She walks into the thrift shop.]
We’re surrounded by affluence. And they’re very generous people. We have Dollar Day on Mondays. St. Vincent de Paul — we give them the surplus. We’re a nonprofit, so donations are tax deductible.
‘Ask’ is the magic word. People really want to be asked. The more specific, the better. I bought a used fridge for $163 and called up a business and asked if they would underwrite it, and they did. People want to help. They want to know where their money is going.
We have six paid staff and about 20 volunteers per day. We have lots of projects. Right now I’m looking for retired, able-bodied men to do furniture pickups.
[What were you doing before this?]
Reactivating the parish. And I think I did.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, we’re teachers. I taught at Bishop Montgomery in Torrance. I was a religious coordinator. I had different callings. I taught third grade through college for 20 years. I taught English as a second language.
[Where are you from?]
I’m almost a native to Southern California. I was born in South Dakota. The war started right after we got here. My dad came here for a job and to get a place for us to live. He was a carpenter. Where he was, people wanted to be.
[She looks at her watch.]
I’m getting tags for my car later today. I got a used one that someone donated. Having a new car, that doesn’t turn me on. In fact, my little heart sank looking at the price of cars. It’s a Honda Accord. I love my car. It’s my little cathedral. I drive a lot.
I’ve traveled across the country looking at God’s glory. Some of my relatives are still in South Dakota.I really want to go back to New Mexico. I think it’s a mystical state. Utah, I never pass through without going to the big temple in Salt Lake City.
[Where do you live?]
South Gate is where the roof is over my head. It’s next to Downey.
[That’s a long drive.]
I listen to the radio, tapes; I think, get ideas. It doesn’t bother me to drive in traffic. Sometimes it’s nice when you don’t go as fast. You can see something.
Everything is an opportunity. There’s a lot of good going on around the city. And other denominations, they’re all doing good work.
[How did you become a sister?]
I loved being Catholic as a kid. We moved a lot. I would always be very close to my faith.
I knew I wanted to be a sister when I went to seventh grade. I saw nuns for the first time. I saw them once when I was three or four, but I didn’t know what they were.
I went to public school up to seventh grade. My friends had Bible camp and I went with them. This Catholic kid took first prize from all of them. I didn’t know if you recited a Bible verse you got points. I wasn’t expecting anything.
The last thing I heard was, ‘Big winner.’
The priest, he said, ‘You come to my school if you want.’
I love being a sister. All the people you’re privileged to meet. It’s an ongoing adventure. House of Yahweh is a wonderful adventure.
Little bits make big bits. It’s all of ours. We all need each other.
[She goes into the trailer that houses her office and sits down behind her desk.]
Love — that’s the driving force for everybody.
[She looks at the wall]
Mother Teresa — I just love her. When you win the Nobel Prize, they throw a big banquet. She asked if she could have the money and then used it to help people.
St. Vincent de Paul, when he was dying, he was looking for someone to continue his work. He told them, ‘You have to love the poor so much that they won’t hate you for giving them bread.’ You have to do it in such a way that they’re doing you a favor.
First of all, they shouldn’t have to give bread — they should have bread.
[Have you thought about who will continue your work?]
I’m always looking. I’ll know. First of all, not too many are going to want this job.
It’s hard. It’s a calling. You have to have passion for the mission, which is service.
Anything that’s lasting grows slowly.
I love the winter, when everything looks dead but is very much alive when it blooms and blossoms in spring.
In nature, nothing is instant. Beware of the instant. Something is missing. It doesn’t last.
In Zorba the Greek, he talks about a caterpillar that’s in a cocoon, getting ready to become a butterfly. He breathes on it, and it dies.
We can hurry things around, but there’s no hurrying God’s work. It never ends. It’s a process.
It takes a lot of faith.”
[requested no last name be used, or a photograph]
Two bags at his sides, Terry sat on a bench in the plaza above Redondo Beach’s International Boardwalk, taking drags from his cigarette until he had just about burned the filter. His right hand does the bulk of his actions, while his left arm rests on his knee.
He’s 56 years old, and been on the streets since about January or February of this year, he said. He didn’t choose the life, though. “Who would?” he asked. “Who in their right mind would choose to sleep outside like this?”
He doesn’t look homeless. Wearing a sweater over a button-down shirt, khakis and red Nike trainers, he looks like any one of the customers who might frequent the restaurants on the Pier. He attributes that to having enough money to pay for a motel every so often — and from taking the occasional “bird bath,” as he called it, in public restrooms.
Originally from Oklahoma, Terry came west following his retirement from an irrigation and drainage business that used up his body. He’s had spinal fusions, metal in his back, torn rotator cuffs and countless surgeries. “I’m a good delegator, but I’m hands on. I just can’t keep myself from getting down and dirty,” he said.
He retired early, putting his savings toward a plan to ride a Harley Davidson across the U.S., “border to border, coast to coast.”
He stopped, for a time, in Big Bear before making a trip to visit Wyland, artist of the famous Whaling Walls, at a gallery opening in Las Vegas.
That’s where trouble struck.
— David Mendez
In his own words:
“I was heading back to Big Bear, on a right-hand sweeping turn onto the freeway. Some idiot was on the inside lane, texting, steering with his knees with his earbuds in, driving across my lane. I honked, he wasn’t paying attention, and when he looked up, he had taken up the rest of my lane.
I went into the sand, hit the curb and the bike catapulted me off. I did a Superman routine until a boulder about the size of a Mini Cooper popped up in front of me. The last thing I remember thinking was ‘Oh shit, this is going to hurt.’ And it did.
It took 98 stitches to put my head back together. My shoulder was shattered to the collarbone, broke six ribs, cracked pelvis, broke bones in both hands…and I didn’t have medical coverage. Bills ate the living daylights out of me. That was on May 30, 2014. I got surgery on my shoulder a month later, June 24…and then came down with a MRSA infection, put me back in the hospital again.
When they were working on the MRSA, they removed muscle from my arm; I can’t lift it up more than [a few inches]. Only found that out when I wondered why I wasn’t making any progress in physical therapy.
[How he ended up in the South Bay]
I still had some money, but it was getting cold in Big Bear. I went down to Newport Beach, bought a Jeep, sold my motorcycle, my trailer, a bunch of other stuff and said ‘well, I guess my retirement plans are out the window.’ I came here looking for a guy I knew in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but he’s not in the same place — I don’t know where he’s at…
The water pump blew on the Jeep, and it ended up costing more than it was worth to fix it, so I sold it for parts.
Now, my battle is with the bank — medical bills bled my account dry, but I’ve got full disability on Social Security, and they paid me for back pay from my application date once they accepted me. I deposited the money in a friend’s account, and they immediately froze it, said we were trying to pull a fraud. I’m waiting for my money back — that’s what I need to get on my feet.
I’d open up an account for myself, but I don’t have an ID card; it went flying in the accident, and troopers couldn’t find it.
So now, I’m in this catch-22, where I have to have a birth certificate for a driver’s license. I can get the birth certificate, but I need the application notarized with my signature, and a notary won’t do that without a current ID. I’ve got a Social Security Card, an expired ID, but…what, does that mean I’m dead? That I’m not an entity?
I’ve lived in hotels, burned up money, and I don’t have enough to put first and last month, plus the security deposit, on a place…I’ve got an RV to pick up in Oklahoma, and I can get help from a lawyer there who can vouch for me with the notary, but it’ll cost me $150 for the Amtrak out there.
I’m just waiting on that money to come back from the bank, so I can get back on my feet.
[On the biggest challenge in being homeless in the Redondo Beach]
The hardest thing is trying to find a place to stay around here that’s safe. I’ve had thousands of dollars worth of clothes, sleeping bags, my laptop, all stolen from me. It’s hard to find a place to stay where you don’t get harassed — police will haul you in, say you’re drunk in public, and keep you there for six hours just to get you off the street…
This is my first time doing it, being homeless. I learned quick, but like I said, I was always one to say ‘I’ll never get in that position.’ If it wasn’t for this shoulder, I’d have have a job like that, washing dishes, whatever. There’s no shame to my game. I have an engineering degree…but you get thrust in this, and it’s a quagmire…I didn’t make the choice to be homeless. It was made for me.”
As a grom hanging and surfing at Torrance Beach, my friends and I would befriend the street people who scoured recycling from trash cans.
Over the years, we’d get to know Jose, who was once a high school track star and referred to me as “Number 2.” He was “Number 1” and claimed he could beat me in a foot race. We actually did have a race once, between lifeguard towers, as my 13-year-old self had taunted him to race all summer (he won). Then there was Charlie, who gave me a ride home in his home, a ‘75 Cadillac, one day when my mom wouldn’t pick me up from the beach. You should’ve seen her face when I pulled up.
But these two are long gone.
I went to the recycling center on PCH in Redondo Beach, at the old Albertson’s. Many times, I’ve dropped off the remains of a party there, making jokes about the recyclers posting up with their Gatorade bottles full of cheap vodka. I went up to one of the locals and stumbled over my words.
“Can I ask you a few questions about your life?” He looked at me strangely, said “F*** no,” and took off. In between parked cars sat another man. I approached him. He was staring at a beer bottle between his legs. He looked up and I jumped back. His right eye was puffy and shut, like he’d just lost a 12-round boxing match. “No thank you, brother,” he said.
On the corner of Torrance Boulevard and PCH, a heavily blanketed man lay in deep sleep. The 80 degree sun beat down on his bronzed and bearded face. I couldn’t bring myself to wake him. I pulled into the McDonald’s on Diamond Street. When I walked in, I noticed the angry man from the recycling center. We made eye contact. Looking spooked, he dashed out of the building.
I resorted to what I should have done at the outset. I called the First United Methodist Church to ask about the local free meal schedule. St. James Catholic Church, I was told, was the place to find people who might talk.
I arrived at St. James, walked into the crowd, raised my hands, told them I was from the local paper. The crowd just pointed to him. And this is where I met James.
“Make sure you get don’t get my missing tooth,” James said, laughing as I pointed my camera.
— Eddie Solt
In his own words:
“I’m taking RCIA classes right now at St. James and hope to become a Catholic [laughs]. Too many things going for my Thanksgiving — whatever falls in front of me, I guess. I am a transplant to Southern California; I was born in Northern California. I was transplanted down here in the mid-60s. I have a big rubber band connected to me. I’ve been all over the place and I keep bouncing back here. I’ve spent the better part of 55 years doing nothing. Basically disobeying.
A few months ago I must’ve done something right. I got divine intervention that brought me here — or divine influence, not divine intervention. I’ve done pretty much everything mechanics, electronics, wood, metal, a little bit of everything. My latest endeavor was high-tech computers now I am tangled up with cell phones that don’t work [laughs]…If you got any more questions, I got a cellphone now [laughs].”
James then showed me the cell phone plan given to him by the church. A buddy of his heckled us as our conversation ended. We walked back to the group, where he took me around to introduce me to his friends, some he’s known for 30 years.
Though his responses were vague, something happened to James that led him to St. James for free meals. But there was no need to probe; we just talked. I noticed the interaction between him and his buddies — the same as me and my friends. Instead of the homeless cliche of bum wine being passed around, it was laughing and lightheartedness.
Something never felt quite right to Savannah Jo.
She came to California from Iowa at 18. Somehow, her entire childhood, Savannah knew she was bound for somewhere else. Iowa never felt like home. She attended Long Beach State University, then moved to Redondo Beach with a boyfriend she’d met at school. She worked four years in the local bar scene, and on the surface everything seemed perfect — a comfortable home, a stable relationship, living the beach life in Southern California.
But it still didn’t feel right. She didn’t feel like herself, and began to realize — she never had. And so Savannah began a systematic process of paring down. First, she broke off her relationship and left the home the couple had established; then, she quit her job, and went searching for something with more meaning; later, she chopped off her long blonde hair; finally, after living a year with a friend, she left behind any conventional notion of a home. It was something she’d contemplated for some time, and one day, in Venice, she had a brief encounter with a homeless man that crystallized the decision.
“How you doing, honey?” the man asked her, buoyantly.
“I’m doing fine,” she replied. “How are you?”
“I’m living free.”
The words hit home. She’d been living in South Redondo, on Catalina Avenue. But on August 1, she became, technically, homeless — sleeping in her car, occasionally on friends’ or even random acquaintances’ couches.
Savannah doesn’t call herself homeless, but rather someone without an address. Hers is a homelessness with a purpose: eight months ago, she found work in a yoga studio, and as she began the practice of yoga, for the first time in her life she began to feel like herself. The same inner compass that led her to California now told her to go to Bali to deepen her practice of yoga. The only way she could do that, working relatively low wage jobs both in the studio and in a vegan restaurant, was to reduce her bills to nothing. When we met to talk, she noted that it was the first time she’d actually purchased coffee in months: her entire focus was to simplify, save, and continue her journey to the East. In this, her path actually follows an ancient tradition — in India, where yoga began, wandering aesthetics known as “Śramaṇa” (meaning “seeker, one who performs acts of austerity”) have for centuries spurned the life of “a householder” in order to more purely pursue a life of the spirit.
But this wasn’t a tradition Savannah was at all aware of. She simply knew she had to leave home in order to find herself more at home.
— Mark McDermott
In her own words:
“You read about it, if something doesn’t make you happy in your life, let it go. But what the hell does that mean? So I went out and literally started letting things go in my life, tangible things — my hair, my job, my boyfriend. I took a giant step backwards: well, this doesn’t make me happy, so I should just let it go, right? So I just really started doing that. And it’s not that a home didn’t make me happy. I saw how I was kind of abusing my home; I was using it as a cave to hide away and be depressed. To be fearless — that is what I set out to do. You can either stuff your fears down and away or you can summon them up and face them directly. And what causes more fear for most people than being without a home?
I moved out August 1, 2015. The majority of [my belongings] I sold, or I donated. The only thing I have are boxes of dishes, because I just felt like, ‘Why get rid of those? I’ve been living out of two suitcases the past three months. Mostly yoga clothes. I have like no going out clothes. My car was smelling like a gym forever. I’d throw my dirty clothes in a bag for weeks.
[On the first day of homelessness]
Let’s just say leading up to that moment I spent a lot of time crying my eyes out. This was necessary for me, because I’d never been a person who cried. ‘Just keep it down. keep it down.’ It was this honest release of built up pain, and suffering that was just unnecessary, Letting go of things: let go of what you are holding on to, too, something I can’t touch, I can’t feel, it just exists in me. And I was scared, so f***ing scared…I questioned myself. What am I doing? When you think of necessities, shelter is a basic necessity. To willingly choose to get rid of that is a terrifying thing. It was because it threatened me, I felt compelled to challenge it, and face it… if something scares me, well, that’s where I have to go, in that direction. Because I don’t want to live in fear any more. I don’t want to be led by that anymore.
The first week was really exciting. This journey was about making ripples. I asked myself, ‘What are you willing to sacrifice to see your dreams come true?’ ‘If I send an intention out into the world, what will echo back?’ Even that first weekend, as I was worried about where I would stay and I was kind of freaking out about it. At the last moment I had three separate offers. ‘Hey I heard you needed a place to stay.’ Life is so providing in this way.
I took naps in the park and I didn’t have a place to go to basically lay and watch TV so it forced me to be outside and to be more creative with my time. It got a little tricky after that.
[On the first bad moments]
Sleeping in my car…I tried to go somewhere I felt was safe enough. You know, having a cop knock on your window. It was the second time I slept at Valley Park. He said, ‘Can’t sleep here.’ I’m like, ‘Well, now I know.’ I was lucky I had a suitcase in the front seat, so he didn’t give me a lot of trouble. I think he thought I was just travelling through.
[On the mechanics of setting up a bed in her car]
I call it my little nest. My sleeping bag, which I’ve had since I was a kid…My dad gave it to me. I contemplated getting rid of it over the years, but every time I was like, ‘Don’t!’ I am so attached to this thing….You’ve got your essentials in there. It’s kind of pushing things around in no particular order so I can lay down, you know? Try variations, try my back seat, lay this way or lay that way. I do it differently every time. The morning always weirds me out. I sit up and there are moms out walking their dogs. I kind of suck up my pride and step out of my car. ‘Good morning!’ Always knowing most people aren’t paying attention and wouldn’t know if I slept there. Or care.
That’s a big lesson: do what makes you happy; be who you are. People aren’t paying attention to you as much as you might think they are.
The ocean is right there, and there are showers right there as well. So you just rinse off.
[On learning generosity]
The difference in community support really surprised me– without even needing to explain myself, the yoga community was like, ‘Oh, do you need a place to stay?’ The kindness I opened myself up to to receive from other people….I don’t have a good enough adjective to describe how that made me feel. I went to a house party where I met an older, awesome hippie lady and when I told her I wasn’t staying anywhere she asked, ‘Do you need a place to stay?’ Earlier she had mentioned, ‘I live in a trailer park.’ I felt like she had so very little to offer in her life, but what she had she was willing to share with me for a moment. She was just a kind woman. She even shared her food with me. She at that moment, brought me to tears — generosity from others, and the ability to receive that, has been one of the coolest things about this experience.
The few people that I actually did stay with — I kept myself scarce. I was there, and then I would wake up very early and leave, not because I felt like I needed to, but out of respect for their space.
[On how yoga entered her life]
I remember knowing that what I was doing with my life wasn’t fulfilling, and I’d make jokes sometimes, ‘Maybe I’ll just go work at a yoga studio, and see where that takes me.’ Randomly enough, I get this newsletter in my email, ‘[A yoga studio] is hiring.’ So I went to the interview. What an opportunity — I get to practice for free, which is one of the purposes of working there. I had said I wanted to take up yoga more but I didn’t have the funds to do so because it can be expensive and then bam, here is this opportunity.
[On her new sense of freedom]
It’s cool actually kind of living within your environment. Everything looks different now. The same beach I’ve seen for the last few years now has different details. Like I’ve never seen this before.
For instance, I see butterflies everywhere. And I know that everyone can see them; they are not just there because I can see them. But the fact that I’ve never paid attention to them being there before really speaks to me. Butterflies, and dragonflies, too. They are a sign of transformation, like that whole out-of-the-cocoon crap…I see one at least every day. I have actually willed them to my site before.
Peace of mind, calmness, direction, focus, purpose, all of this I found when I eliminated distractions and the unnecessary weight I was carrying. I can’t even remember what I used to get so worked up over — like literally stressing out about nothing. Funny, homelessness taught me to chill out and accept life exactly how it comes. To welcome uncertainty and let go of the past. However ‘bad’ life may seem, you can face it and you’ll be fine. It’s really about appreciating what you have in the moment, because that’s all you ever have.”
Savannah has of late become a part-time householder, living at the home of a friend who is out of the country. But she is fundamentally changed. On a recent night, after her shift at a restaurant, she laid down on a public bench to take a nap. She was asleep maybe 20 minutes and woke to find on elderly homeless man, wrapped in a blanket, standing over her.
“Hello,” the man said.
“Hello,” she replied.
“Are you homeless?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t live anywhere,” she said.
He asked if he could sit down next to her, and Savannah said, “Sure.” Then he asked if he could touch her, and she reached out for his hand. She noticed his eyes were glazed, like someone with cataracts, but she didn’t ask him anything. He spoke, in a rambling, repeating way, about how tough this life is. “It’s so hard,” he said.
Then he asked if he could lay his head on her lap, and she said okay. He lay down.
“Then he just cried his eyes out,” she recalled. “This was a man who had probably not had a human touch in many, many years…He kept asking me, ‘Is this real?’ ‘Is this going to be short-lived?’ I told him, ‘Yes, it is.’”
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “As much as I feel this is my path…One of the reasons I am choosing to be homeless now is I so can reach people at that level. If I never experienced what they have experienced, how can I be truly empathetic to the things they have gone through in their lives? I wanted to be a better person.”
“There is obviously judgement, a negative view [of homelessness]. It’s easy to write people off, say they just gave up or they’re just taking the easy road. For me, I say, ‘I’m living free.’ And I’m not saying this is the best type of life, or do as I do. But there is something liberating about not having the constraints of four walls around you. There is space. There is room to stretch when you live in the world.”
“When you begin to take the journey inward, you find that home, the very root of its grounding foundation, already exists inside of you. I am home everywhere I am.”
“And then a butterfly flies by.”