Responsible parenting and leadership are a start. In between reaching for the sky (Toy Story rocks).

Screw the darkness. I prefer the lightness of Pop.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Human Like Us

As we drove by, I watched him cut his hair with an electric razor as he stood on the sidewalk. I’d seen him park his older nondescript van there before, in front of our neighbor’s house three houses down. But I’d never seen him outside shaving his head with an electric razor plugged into the neighbor’s porch outlet.

That’s odd, I thought, watching him in the rearview mirror.

“Did you see that guy?” I asked my wife.

“What guy?”

She obviously hadn’t seen him, so I waited until we parked in our driveway and got out.

“That guy,” I said, pointing down the street along the sidewalk.

She stopped and nodded. “Yes, what’s he doing?”

“He’s cutting his hair. Maybe shaving his head actually. On the sidewalk. And he’s plugged into our neighbor’s house.”

“Maybe he’s a friend of theirs,” she said.

“Maybe, but I’m not sure they’re home.”

It was Christmas day and we’d just returned from an outing with our girls. Immediately I felt conflicted – on the one hand I wanted to walk down and ask him who he was and what he was doing there, and on the other hand I wanted to check with our neighbors first if they knew him. There had already been other neighbors finding phone chargers plugged into their front porch outlets, which unfortunately wasn’t unusual with the homeless traffic that frequented our way. We live on the edge of town and just beyond our neighborhood are homeless encampments in the hills. In fact, there have been more brazen encampments on either side of Highway 1 near where we live.

I felt conflicted because I thought it pretty bold for a homeless man to park his van in front of a neighbor’s house and start living in their front yard and driveway while they were away. Our new police chief recently mandated that, unless there is a complaint by someone in control of that property or some other crime or nuisance behavior is taking place, they wouldn't enforce the city’s overnight sleeping/camping ban. He also encouraged city and county leaders to work together to create better long-term solutions to homelessness.

There are pockets near us around the outskirts of the city limits where homeless camping via cars and motorhomes is constant. Our county’s overall homeless population exceeds 2,000, which made it the eighth largest in the country, compared to 306 other small regions, according to our local paper and a U.S. Housing and Urban Development report.

And the population has increased, "Overall, homelesssness increased in Santa Cruz County by 15 percent in 2017, compared to a similar one-day count conducted in January 2015. With the exception of 2015’s significant 44.5 percent drop, the region’s homeless population has generally remained steady through the years, according to homeless census data."

“Should I call the police?” I asked my wife.

“Not yet. Why don’t you try to contact the neighbors and see if they know him first.”

I emailed them and then called them, leaving a voice mail. I still wasn’t sure they were gone, but it looked more like it. My conflict grew, primarily because I felt like if it were us being the ones gone, and someone was doing that in front of our house, we’d want them to do something. Contact us. Call the police. Ask the person who they were and what they were doing.

“I have to go down there,” I said. "What if he's a pedophile? I don't want him down there."

My wife stopped what she was doing and channeled her Kidpower. “We don't know that. We don’t know who he is and yes, it could be a safety issue, so I don't want you going down there. Maybe he’s mentally ill. Either way our rule is to be aware, move away and get help if needed.”

“But what if it was us? I should at least call the police.”

“I understand, but they may not do anything. They aren’t enforcing the camping ban.”

“But I have to do something.”

“It’s Christmas, Sweetie. Let it be. If he’s still there later doing questionable stuff, then we call. But do not go down there.”

“Fine,” I said. Although I still didn’t agree about not walking down to talk with the guy, about not doing anything. I thought of my father, a policeman and detective for 32 years, and knew he would've walked down the street and asked the guy what he was up to. Not to aggressively confront, just to be neighborly. But I'm not a policeman, and I'm not my father. I realized that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So best to monitor and wait and call the police if I need be.

On the eve of our annual holiday Disneyland trip, I remembered the homeless women in Anaheim from last year. She was a large women, parked quietly at a bus stop, and she smelled really bad. The girls asked why she was sitting there like that. We told them the poor woman didn't have anywhere else to go. She didn't talk with anyone or ask for any money, just sat with her eyes closed, seemingly asleep. Everyone walked by her as if she didn't exist. We struggled with what to do, if anything, and ended up not doing anything. Two days later she was gone.

I struggled with what to do again this time, although the circumstances were much different. Of course homelessness is much more complex than any experience we've ever had personally. According to an analysis earlier this year in Santa Cruz, over half the homeless have been homeless for a year or more and also suffer from one or more disabling conditions like substance abuse, psychiatric conditions, physical disabilities and more. Sadly one in three have been in jail within the past year as well. Then there's the harsh reality for too many homeless is that there is a potential violence and sexual abuse that comes from living on the street. I went on a ride along with an officer recently and we picked up a transient felon with weapons who had violated his parole.

Safety first for our families and communities, but we talk about the homeless as if they're another species, one whose poor choices, addictions, mental illnesses and/or other tragic circumstances have evolved them into societal blights. The reality is they're human like us, and at any given time we can become them because of the same genetic disposition and/or unfortunate circumstance.

The day after Christmas on our way to Disneyland this year, I received an email reply from our neighbors about the van-driving hair trimmer:

Hi Kevin,
Thanks so much for watching out for us, much appreciated!
In this case all is well. He’s our long-time friend, and in this case house sitting for us.
He does cut his own hair and didn't want to get little bits of hair all over inside.
Hope you all have enjoyed your Christmas, we wish you all the best in the new year.

Well, I'll be damned, although cutting hair on the sidewalk is still odd. We wish you all the best as well. 

Happy New Year. 

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