Author’s note: The following story is based in part on my recent experience helping a close friend attempt to navigate her way through suddenly finding herself homeless in the midst of a severe mental-health crisis. The names of key individuals described and quoted in the story have been changed to protect their privacy. The events related here happened during the three weeks prior to publication.
A Call for Help
When the phone rang and Bea’s number came up, we’d had no contact for just over 48 hours. I hesitated to answer, but did. She was screaming, nearly incoherent, but I was able to get the idea between sobs.
“They stole everything! I have nothing left!”
“They” were the Visalia police. Officers of the VPD had apparently held Bea and just released her. She said they impounded her SUV, along with all her possessions, including medications critical to maintaining her deteriorating mental state, as well as her clothes, hygiene products and paperwork she needed as she mounted her comeback from yet another brush with near homelessness. Her state-of-mind now led her to believe to the point of absolute certainty the officers had taken anything of value and she was alone and penniless again.
She wanted – she sobbed her desire in that moment, then screamed it, cried it and muttered it again and again for the next 24 hours – to die. Then her phone’s battery ran out.
I learned later from Bea, once her reason had mostly returned, that she had been told during an initial contact with police that her vehicle was legally parked, that it could be left in place, and she was free to go.
Bea described a pair of interactions with VPD officers. During the first contact, she said the lone officer was polite, that he allowed her to explain her situation, and he left her to continue resting up before continuing to Sacramento, where she was to be paid her season bonus for work as a traveling election petitioner. Five minutes later, after the first officer departed, a second pair of officers arrived. They took Bea into custody and took the keys to her vehicle.
Officers held Bea in custody far longer than the four hours she says they told her would be the case. Why Bea was held and how long she was held isn’t clear from her description of events, perhaps as long as until the next day when she called me, and she claimed without proof she had been “shot up” with something. Bea, however, is a recovering methamphetamine addict who works as a political signature gatherer for most of the year, and she suffered a relapse during the heightened stress of an election season unfolding at whirlwind speeds.
Bea grew up in Visalia, but hadn’t come home in 25 years. Living on and just off the streets for much of that time following the end of a bad marriage that’s never been resolved. She’s settled these days in Butte, Montana. There, she participates in out-patient treatment for her various problems, and her healthcare providers are able ship her medications to her while she lives on the road.
Back in April, as spring unfolded itself, everything was going well, and Bea was sober when she came back to Visalia with her brother so the pair could get copies of their birth certificates. Both of them were gathering the documents needed to validate them as citizens: their drivers licenses, Social Security cards and passports, paperwork that gives access to bank accounts, air travel or renting a home. Their return to Tulare County lasted just a few hours before they went back to work in the state capital.
Then things went south, literally.
The “crew” of petitioners Bea works with was leaving Sacramento, heading down to San Diego, as they felt their current location was played out. They would avoid Los Angeles, which they considered a trap for recovering addicts of all flavors; there all varieties of intoxicants are readily and widely available. But trouble was already brewing. There were tensions among the crew, who were being pushed hard to gather more signatures and do it faster. Almost everyone was flush with cash, as petitioning can be lucrative for those who are good at it, and that usually means drugs for those who haven’t yet sworn them off.
But Bea, who has worked at the job for more than a decade, had recently used her earnings to purchase a vehicle large enough and reliable enough to move nearly everything she owned with room left over for a couple of passengers.
Living Like Gypsies
The crew moves like gypsies, caravaning in their vehicles from the hotels they’ve basically taken over by renting the majority of the rooms, to the shopping malls and public areas where they solicit registered voters for their John Hancocks in support of various ballot initiatives. They live closely on the road, all their time spent together, and when one of them breaks down, others tend to follow. When Bea’s closest friend in a fit of rage tore apart another crew member’s truck looking for her lost property and instead discovered a paper bindle of meth, she lined it angrily up for use, and Bea misguidedly felt she couldn’t let her friend fall alone. Besides, she thought with stereotypical confidence that she knew what she was doing.
“I can handle it,” she told me later without irony. “It was just a couple of tiny lines. I could barely feel it in my feet.”
Turns out she couldn’t handle it.
It had been about 10 days since Bea had been in town when we spoke again. Now, she was in tears on the phone as she drove back to her hotel in Sacramento. Her check was short. Her bosses were screwing with her. There was some change in the way the company was run, and one of the people on the way out was taking it out on anyone under her thumb, especially the petitioners, who work seasonally as independent contractors, especially Bea. Details were sketchy, but Bea’s anger and feeling of betrayal weren’t; she was furious.
The Bear Necessities of Life
She had to get away. I invited her to “fall apart in my backyard,” as the old Disney tune runs. I did not mean literally, but what happened eventually was a close approximation. On this second visit, Bea just needed to get her head together, she said, take a couple of days and decide what to do next. She’d already told her boss she was done.
He, however, needed her on the job. She is very effective, consistently bringing in hundreds of signatures with verification rates into the 90th percentile. But at this latest “turn-in” she was told her verification was down near an abysmal 45%. She was sure that could not be true, and she made her opinion known. When her boss told her via text to “get her ass back to work,” all she said was, “No,” and she left town. I gave her a place to stay for a couple of nights while she vented her anger and argued back and forth with her boss and others on her crew by phone and text.
Her boss was already in LA. He needed her there, picking up slack in North Hollywood as the season and the easy money came to a close. Bea was nervous, knowing the threat the area posed to her as a user who’d just teased her addiction in a misplaced show of unity with a distressed friend. She agreed to go anyway, and I told her I didn’t like the idea, but the huge end-of-campaign bonus she’d worked months to earn was too big an enticement. She couldn’t leave that money sitting on the table, as she needed it to make the move away from all this chaos to a mountain home in Georgia a sober friend had promised her.
Tormented by the Committee
By the time I saw her again, she was in the midst of a full-blown breakdown, talking, yelling and screaming out loud at the committee of people only she could see and hear as they badgered her relentlessly. Wild paranoid ideas came one after another. Her state could only be described as psychotic or nearly so, as she ranted and raged, stopping occasionally to describe the faces in the trees and the patterns of hidden messages on every surface, especially in every fallen leaf or bit of crumpled paper.
I was caught completely off-guard. I had never experienced anything like it before, at least not to this degree. My days in attending Grateful Dead shows during the 1980s popular resurgence of the band and its scene let me know that by letting a drug-addled person come down, sooner or later reason would usually retake her seat. That was the expert advice I would again receive when I reached out to a friend from those heady days of psychedelic music decades earlier, a man who works now with people in the same or similar low condition as my friend Bea would eventually be forced by her illness, circumstance and a run-in with police officers, who despite likely wanting to help Bea only agitated the situation to the highest point of the crisis.
The Visalia Police Department has recently initiated a group trained to deal with people suffering a crisis such as the one Bea was undergoing. Unfortunately, the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team doesn’t operate around the clock. This isn’t unusual for attempts to address the problems of homelessness and untreated mental illness in nearly every city in the nation, says Rie Reniers, a long-time advocate for solutions to the crisis of unhoused individuals in and around Tulare County.
“No town in this country has enough services for these people,” Reniers said. “I don’t know how we get there, how we could ever have enough in our country to take care of people.”
Future Solutions in the Works
Reniers has extensive experience working to find enough of whatever it takes to bring those who find themselves forced to the margins of an extremely stressed society back into the fold. She is the current secretary for TC Hope for the Homeless and has been since 2019. She’s been active as a board member and volunteer with FoodLink, the Visalia Homeless Center and the Belay Foundation. She was also a cofounder of the Alliance for Teen Health.
Right now, Reniers is most focused on TC Hope’s role in construction of an ambitious project that will bring a low-barrier shelter with integrated social services to Visalia. The shelter, which is based on a similar project known as 40 Prado in San Luis Obispo, will attempt to give those who seek to pick themselves up a proprietary sense of pride in ownership as they work to reorganize and to reestablish their lives. But opening day for the homeless shelter is still likely a year or so off, Reniers said.
“We have the construction documents in process, and we hope those are submitted to the city by the end of summer for permits,” she said. “We hope to break ground in the fall.”
They are pushing for a late 2023 opening, but Reniers stresses the process is a complicated one, as are all attempts to build social service outlets using a variety of donations from an array of agencies, charities and NGOs usually are.
“There are a lot of variables we don’t have control of,” she said. “Some of that is how fast the city reviews our construction documents. They have been very responsive in working with us. Things have been going very smoothly.”
Some Need, Everyone Wants a Practical Solution
Every person involved in the effort to address homelessness, no matter their motivation, seems to genuinely want a place in Visalia where vulnerable people in nearly impossible situations can go during moments of crisis, Reniers says.
“Everybody really agrees we need a place for these people to be regardless of if they’re high or drunk or whatever,” she said. “They need to be protected from being raped or hurt or killed.”
Bea would eventually tell me she’s been raped seven times during the periods of her life spent living on the streets and abusing extremely dangerous drugs. Her story, Reniers says, is typical for someone with Bea’s weaknesses. Both of us find it heartbreaking.
From Chaos Comes Order
That heartache has been molded into motivation for Reniers, and she and her fellow leaders at TC Hope are now moving their focus from planning the facility to paying for it.
“Now, we’re pivoting to our main responsibility, the raising of funds, not just to build the project but to fund any gaps in year-to-year funding,” she said.
Keeping the shelter open once it’s complete will become TC Hope’s primary business. Finding money to build, however, often proves easier than finding the cash to fund daily operations.
“It’s a little less sexy to give to the day-to-day operations, so that’s phase two,” Reniers said. “Our main goal is to keep it open for the long-term.”
When Bea called, desperate and screaming for my help following her release from police custody, her main goal wasn’t clear to her or anyone else. It was the middle of Tuesday afternoon, the first hot weather of the year had arrived a few days earlier, and we were seeing midday highs into the 90s already.
When I finally caught up to her, Bea was delusional and dehydrated, red-faced and scared beyond what little reason was left to her. It would be another day of incoherent ranting, wandering thoughts and hallucinations, and lots of yelling rage before she could gather herself again into a semblance of herself.
Publisher’s note: This article will continue in our next online edition in June. Besides continuing Bea’s story of how the system addressed her needs, the article will also address recent changes in zoning for homeless shelters, as well other attempts to provide shelter and services for unhoused people.