Homeless in Visalia: A personal view, Part II

A man sets up camp at Plaza Park in Visalia. The city’s parks have become a refuge for those with nowhere else to sleep. In response, the city now requires those living in its parks to have their tents up no earlier than 10 p.m. and down by 6 a.m. Dave Adalian/Valley Voice

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 weeks prior to publication.

Since this is a personal piece of journalism in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson – a social and sports reporter who inserted himself into his stories and came to prominence with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an autobiographical novel that employed a technique he called gonzo journalism where the reporter is the story – I should give some background about myself.

 

How Did I Get Here?

I have never been homeless nor have I ever abused substances often referred to as hard drugs. My mental health suffered during my youth and became acute, but through therapy decades ago I was diagnosed with a form of depression that I treat today with medication. None of this really matters to this story, but even I wonder how I allowed myself to become entangled in it. This background speaks to that question.

I was sympathetic. I felt for Bea on a very deep level. I, too, struggle with a deep addiction to nicotine, a mind-altering drug more difficult to escape than even heroin. I was exposed starting at birth; even before, as my parents were smokers when I was conceived. My father didn’t stop until I was 5.

I had my first cigarette at age 7 – perhaps I had an unrecognized craving – but I didn’t make it a habit until I was a teen. I smoked for 15 years before quitting, and I thought it was for good. It wasn’t. I relapsed during a difficult period, a sudden and unexpected divorce and collapse of my family, a structure I’d depended on for 25 years. This led to a highly unpleasant interaction with the Visalia police that left me shaken and questioning the ability and desire of that group to help people in crisis.

So I lit up.

Back on the Water Wagon

But I quit again. I went cold turkey on my own the first time I quit, but the second time I needed help, something along the lines of the help that keeps my depression mostly at bay. It worked, and I weaned myself painfully off again.

I had a secret though. I became an occasional smoker, indulging with friends over drinks in intimate settings or while in deep discussions of the strange ways of the world. It was a guilty pleasure I was able to contain. Then it wasn’t. When the former publisher of this newspaper, the late Joseph Oldenburg, would pay me, we would meet together in a parking lot near my home to go through a ritual of exchanging a check. It seemed almost clandestine, and we would talk about politics and baseball and the troubles of the world. And we would smoke.

Joseph was like a brother to me, a brother-in-arms more truly. We understood each other. I looked for a cigarette at his funeral, but no one had one. I didn’t relapse then, but the craving was certainly there. On my birthday about six months later, I bought a pack. The relief was palpable.

The Slippery Slope

The next weekend, I bought another pack. You see where this is going. I’m smoking as I write this now. This July, it will be a year since I relapsed. I’m not sure if I can take on that beast again, so I waste my health and my money. Yes, this is my fault; I don’t feel any less trapped knowing that.

The point is I have some small sense of what addiction feels like. I understand how Bea felt in her moment of crisis; I could not let her go through it alone, not in the state of severe mental breakdown she was experiencing. This had nothing to do with our relationship, as we didn’t have one. Bea and I are recent acquaintances. I don’t know her very well really. Much of what I know about her past I gleaned from her rantings during the two sleepless nights we spent talking and smoking while the meth worked its way through her system.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Bea grew up here, and the time I met her face-to-face was the first time she’d come back to Visalia after leaving town following a failed marriage. She knew she had a mental illness, and not a mild one, and it was being treated to the point it was manageable. And she was clean then.

Then just like that she wasn’t.

A Friend in Need

On her second visit to Visalia – two weeks after the first in late April – Bea let drop that she’d snorted methamphetamine with her friend, one who found a coworker’s bindle while rifling through his truck in a fit of rage. This, Bea’s friend said, would serve as her revenge.

Bea was right when she said it hadn’t been an excessive amount of the drug, not much at all, just two small lines. Any at all, I’m reliably informed by one of my closest friends, a man who experienced a period not unlike the one which Bea was going through now, is enough to set in motion a cascade of failure astonishing in its quickness.

My friend has managed against incredible odds to overcome his addiction, becoming a leader in the local recovery movement in the process. After beating addiction, he became a loving father. He is a good provider, as well, heading Western operations for a large ag company, a position he earned after working his way through a four-year college degree.

Like me, Bea could not let a friend suffer alone, and, like me, she suffered in turn. The fallout, of course, is much worse for her. My addiction is acceptable; hers isn’t. I have resources; she doesn’t. And I am not alone in the world.

Bea is completely on her own. It is assuredly her fault. She is no less trapped, and no one seems willing or able to help her in any meaningful way. I arrogantly thought I could be a buffer between her and her addiction. I would learn – this time from another friend who works on a daily basis with people in the same state of crisis Bea was in – that’s just not possible. In fact, it’s damaging to the addict.

Calling It Quits

When a relapsed Bea came back to Visalia and my home, it was because I’d invited her. I didn’t know she was in such serious trouble. On a whim, I’d called her and caught her in tears, driving aimlessly down a stretch of highway somewhere near Sacramento. A paycheck she’d expected to be several thousand dollars was only a fraction of that. When she complained it only resulted in verbal abuse from her longtime boss.

His text told her to get her ass back to work collecting signatures for political petitions. This is work done by initiating cold contacts with members of the public. She was in no fit state for that interaction. She just wrote back, “No,” and left town.

I told her she could lay low here for a couple of days until she felt better. She needed a break after four months of nonstop work. She was still more or less rational at this point, but that wouldn’t last for long. The next day she was almost in a good mood. A bit of sleep and some food had helped. Then she called her boss.

He’d gone to the LA area to gather signatures and taken Bea’s crew with him. That was a dangerous move, Bea said, as in LA it’s very easy to get high. Drugs are everywhere. The big year-end bonus she stood to lose if she didn’t go made up her mind and she left to catch up with them.

The plan was to get down to San Diego, then back up to Montana to collect some things she’d left behind. I thought I’d likely never see her again. She was moving to Georgia, where a friend who had left drugs behind promised her clean living. She never made it out of North Hollywood.

No Rest for the Wicked

After a few days, I gave into the impulse to check on her. I was shocked to learn she was back in Visalia and had been for a day or two. It wasn’t clear how long she’d been driving without any destination around the area. She was out of money and out of gas. She’d be right over.

When she arrived it was clear she was in a far worse state than she’d let on. She was talking to people who simply were not there. The trees had faces in them, a hallucination she’d apparently experienced many times in many ways. I’m fairly sure she hadn’t slept in at least two days and showed no signs of slowing down.

Right after she got here, she spent four hours cleaning out her SUV. The forces working against her had “lit” the vehicle, polluting it with some kind of mysterious agent that had to be washed away. She wiped down the entire interior of the SUV with bleach-infused wipes, along with the carload of possessions that represent almost everything she’s got, most of it acquired in the last few months of work.

When hours later she finally gave the cleaning job up as being the best she could do, it was nearly midnight. She – and I along with her – wouldn’t sleep until the sun was rising.

Actually, I’m not sure she slept that night. When the sound of our handyman’s chainsaw woke me up around 10 o’clock, I found Bea in the driveway, slumped in the front seat of her SUV. She’d finally given in to absolute exhaustion, but not before resuming her attempts to rid herself of the dark influence until she passed out mid-process.

Hot Coffee Won’t Cut It

It was very clear Bea was little better than she’d been when she arrived. Now, however, I was under suspicion. I was keeping her from getting the relief, whatever it might be, that she needed. I was holding her back. My reaction was bad, perhaps the best I could muster in that state of physical and emotional exhaustion. I wasn’t keeping her, I said. Go.

So she did.

I told her she was free to leave more angrily than I meant to probably. I don’t really recall. My friend who now spends his nights dealing with one person in a drug-induced crisis after another later explained what I did was just the right thing to do. Get her functionally sober and send her down the road, hopefully in the direction of the professional help she needs.

Whatever you do, he told me, don’t let my home become her landing pad in times of crisis.

Bea showed up at my house the next morning at 5 o’clock looking for a cup of coffee. She had spent the previous day wandering and spent the night in the Walmart parking lot on Mooney. It’s a safe place, with security on site, and they don’t disturb the parking lot campers. Plus, RVs and the homeless alike often shop at the store after their night’s rest.

I gave her a cup of coffee, but she didn’t make it halfway though it before she became enraged with me again. It was as though my mere presence made me culpable. My response, which I won’t detail here, wasn’t hostile, but it was cold.

She left again, this time with me hoping I had seen the last of her. I was beyond my own ability to be compassionate. I had dropped into defense mode. I realize now she was venting to the only person who would listen, then I stopped listening.

They Have to be Somewhere

I didn’t hear from Bea again for several days. What transpired while we weren’t together is not clear to me, and it probably isn’t clear to her. She apparently found a friend from decades ago, but their reunion turned black when she learned he had late-stage cancer. Where she spent her nights isn’t clear. It would later turn out that at one point she parked her SUV in a residential area where the police would arrest her and impound her car.

She may have slept, like so many others who have nowhere else to be, in one of Visalia’s parks. Blain Park on Court Street is notorious for its homeless population, and cars come and go there at all hours. The city’s policy for the parks is to allow tents to go up at 10 p.m., but they must be down by 6 a.m. At one point there were as many as 10 tents set up there every night, and the homeless slept surrounded by the homes of the city’s upper middle class.

I was told this by Jorge, a worker for the city’s parks department who was relaxing at the end of his day recently at the side of the road in Plaza Park. While we talked, around us those with no other home were settling in for the night as the sunset began. At a van loaded with an array of odds and ends, a man was caring for the two dogs he kept in a portable kennel. In front of him was a decaying RV, one of two or three parked along the winding road that cuts between the park and the golf course.

Closer to the dog park out on the soccer fields, a couple had set a ring of chairs under a shade tree in what seemed to be their regular domestic arrangement. It looked as if they expected others to join them that evening. This is normal now.

Heading to Tulare

Jorge, whose identity I hope I’m protecting, said the situation in Visalia’s parks, though still terrible, has improved recently. The homeless, he heard, are moving to Tulare, where the lack of city policy makes it more difficult to displace them. That may soon change, however, as just yesterday the Tulare City Council voted on a plan to build an emergency homeless shelter just outside the city limits.

The plan would make sure the indigent are nowhere near established business zones or homes. Instead, the land they’d like to use is in an industrial area on Bardsley Avenue, well away from the city’s general population. In March, Tulare received a $1.5 million grant from the state to put at least 50 people into housing.

Jorge, who runs into the same homeless people over and over, says some of them have managed to find a home, only to lose it again because of their untreated drug dependency and underlying mental health issues. One such man was living in the park with his two small sons when he found himself unable to put up with the stipulations demanded of him at the home he’d been provided.

Jorge is often confronted by those unhoused people, people he tries to help when he’s able, and so he’s found himself in potentially violent situations as he just tries to do his job. Perhaps, he says, the city should convert a large part of Plaza Park into spaces those with nowhere else to go can rent. Offer them some semblance of security.

“I really have no idea what to do about this,” he said. “I’m not sure there is anything you can do.”

Like so many others, he’s had his own brush with meth, and so Jorge gives advice to those who will listen.

“I tell them not to spread out, to keep their shopping carts clean,” he said, recalling a typical, but hypothetical interaction with those who live where he works. “‘Don’t draw attention to yourself. Do you have warrants?’ ‘Yeah, I got a bunch.’”

He shrugged his shoulders in remembered frustration. Like far too many of us, he has reached compassion exhaustion.

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

It was late on an unseasonably hot Wednesday afternoon when I heard from Bea again. She called me in a state of absolute hysteria, screaming that I had to come help her. The phone was dying. I was barely able to make out that she was somewhere near Mt. Whitney High School on Sowell Street before it went.

Foolishly, I suppose, I rushed to help her. Finding her was surprisingly easy. I graduated from MWHS years ago, and I’d had friends who lived where Bea was now lost and wandering. She was easy to spot, the only person walking in the sweltering heat. All she had left of her SUV-full of possessions were the clothes she was wearing, her phone and a bottle of lukewarm water.

The police, after taking her into their custody, had held her for several hours, during which time her SUV was impounded. The reason why it was towed isn’t clear at all. The officers apparently responsible for it being removed did exactly what another officer who Bea had interacted with minutes before had promised would not happen.

Finding this out was not easy, as the information had to be teased out of the manic flood of rage pouring out of Bea. What she wanted now was clear: She wanted to die, and she repeated the wish often and loudly.

The next day, I would accompany Bea to the Visalia Police Department’s headquarters as she attempted to retrieve her SUV and worldly goods from the impound yard. It took most of the day to achieve it, and we barely made a 5 o’clock deadline that would have seen the impound fees Bea absolutely could not afford to begin with go up another $100. It would eventually cost Bea more than $500 to get back to having almost nothing.

While I witnessed all of Bea’s interactions with the police once I got her off the street, I reached out to the VPD for an interview about Bea and her situation. I hoped and still hope to learn what happened and how. The VPD did not respond.

This story will continue in a third part in the next edition of the Valley Voice.

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