By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC Staff writer

My brother Joe spent a good two decades homeless on Sacramento’s streets in the 1980s and 90s, overnighting at the American River and pan-handling, getting arrested and jailed. We have the same parents, went to the same private schools and never wanted for anything growing up. I landed on my feet, graduated, lived abroad, thrived in a career and owned property.

But Joe developed schizophrenia as a teenager, self-medicated, suffered a head injury following a motorcycle accident and barely graduated from high school. He gradually disappeared from my family’s radar. My parents were helpless, my brother was violent; and there was simply no appropriate, not to mention affordable, place for him. In the 1980s, as my brother’s life unraveled, state and local governments shuttered mental health hospitals, and the courts limited family members’ ability to manage their relatives’ welfare. It was a perfect storm, and a perfect nightmare, for many years.

Ten years ago, my brother – with my mother’s help navigating across government health and welfare offices, along with better mental health medications – got sober. My mother found affordable housing for him. I’m summarizing here, for the truth is that the road to my brother’s stability took many, many twists and turns and setbacks, and there are still moments when he rebels and threatens to return to the wilds of the streets.

Humana in extremis

homeless man
Photo credit: Ed Yourdon – cc

Therefore, when I agreed to stay overnight at St. John’s Lutheran Homeless Shelter in downtown Sacramento this past summer, I had not only my sleeping bag and flashlight, but also my own familial baggage. I learned of the chance to stay at the shelter from Ron Javor, a retired lawyer who is now heavily involved consulting on affordable housing issues around California. He also is a fixture at St. John’s, introducing curious writers like me, and also local politicians, to the homeless and their world.

And I was curious — in college, George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” had left such an impression on me that I had signed up for a homeless shelter foray back then too. I don’t kid myself into believing I could perfectly emulate Orwell’s masterful prose, but like him, like so many writers, I was and am curious about that certain humana in extremis in modern America. How do you end up homeless and hopeless, filthy and untethered to friends and work, and estranged from family? How do you manage your days and despair and depression and discouragement?
I wondered if this shelter might have been one my brother had frequented. It wasn’t, I later learned. But I heard echoes of his ordeal as I settled in for the evening: mental disabilities, drug use, frayed family relations, interrupted schooling, fractured job histories, cascading problems, one after the other that locked people into poverty.

California, with its budget finally back in the black and economic growth moving at a clip, is still at a loss as to how to offer affordable shelter to the many very low and extremely low-income residents.

“We found an apartment and we think we’ll get it,” Susan told me as she showed me to her “office,” one of the tables off to the side of the large dining area at St. John’s, which would later be cleared for sleeping bags and cots, as well as a screening of “On the Waterfront.” But in truth, it was unlikely Susan would be housed any time soon. She and her husband do not have good references and the required deposit.

Her mother lives nearby in Elk Grove, and has taken custody of Susan’s seven-year-old daughter. I asked her if she couldn’t live with her, for if she’s taken in the granddaughter, why not her own daughter. Susan closed her eyes and shook her head. “My mom and I go way back. We have a history, and I left for good reasons,” she said. Sleeping on the steps of St. John’s, she said, was far preferable. “Out here, these people are my family.” She was resolute with that, but in talking about having slept near the American River some months earlier, she stiffened. “I did it once; never again. Things move in the night; you can’t see what’s coming at you. People get killed out there, you know?”

California, with its budget finally back in the black and economic growth moving at a clip, is still at a loss as to how to offer affordable shelter to the many very low and extremely low-income residents. Following a six-year trend of no public funds for affordable housing, legislators this year nixed a proposed housing trust fund of $1.5 billion. According to the California Housing Partnership Corporation, there’s now a shortfall of more than 956,000 affordable dwellings in the state.

It’s become a vicious cycle — foreclosures increased renter households, which drove up rents, which despite the Great Recession have risen 7 percent between 2005 and 2010. More broadly, too, the economic downturn following the foreclosure crisis has reduced the median income, widening the gap between the wealthy and poor. Every county is feeling the impact of this housing crisis. In Sacramento, which some analysts say is gradually mimicking the San Francisco Bay Area’s frustratingly expensive real estate market, some 36,000 new affordable homes would need to be built to alleviate the city’s homeless crisis.

Susan would have her work cut out for her. Even if she were to get a job – and with barely a high school education, and no practical skills, the prospects are slim – the median rent for an apartment in California is $1,550, while the hourly renter wage is $17.99. Based on numbers provided by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, she would have to work 130 hours per week to pull it off.

And in rural areas, it is even worse. Homelessness is mostly thought to be an urban problem because homeless people are more visible and numerous.
But in rural areas, there are far fewer shelters than there are in cities. The rural homeless are more likely to live in a car or camper, or with relatives in overcrowded or substandard housing. This is why defining rural homelessness, especially for government funding, is tricky. To include only those who are literally homeless – that is, on the streets or in shelters – doesn’t square with the reality of rural America.

“Many rural areas have no meal programs or shelters,” says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition of the Homeless in Washington, D.C. “And if there’s no shelter or no meal program, people assume there’s no homeless around, either.

“In terms of counting the homeless,” Michael says, “it’s always been more difficult in rural areas because if they are not visible, or if there are no shelters that serve them, where do you look? The homeless and poor in America’s rural counties are often forced to go to the nearest city, where they try to find emergency service programs.”

Rural homelessness studies also have shown that it is society’s most vulnerable who are more likely to fall through the cracks: female and homeless for the first time. Homelessness among Native Americans and migrant workers are two additional pieces of the rural phenomenon, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. A 2007 study by the group showed that on any given night, there are around 750,000 people homeless in the U.S. For rural areas, that statistic translates to about 70,000.

I could see lines forming for the buffet dinner and so walked over to the end, only to be told by several men, very kindly, to move further along to the front. Ladies first, they said. Once served, I sat at one of the round tables across from Dottie and Denise.

Motioning to a slim blond man sitting to her right, Dottie told me she was homeless because her boyfriend here – she nudged his arm – had broken a restraining order at their apartment complex in coming to visit her. Both had been thrown out. She’d been living in her Del Paso Heights apartment for seven years. She rattled off a list of her ailments: asthma, cirrhosis, a bad back, bad knees, teeth sorely in need of care. Painfully thin, I would later see her crawl with great effort onto one of the cots set up for the infirm that night.

“I have kids and grandkids,” she told me, but when I asked her why they might not take her in, she shrugged and looked away.

A few moments later, Denise told me that while she was grateful for St. John’s – the meal, camaraderie and a safe place to sleep – that long-term, she had grown hopeless. A medical assistant by training, she proudly described having finished her training and immediately finding a job at a local hospital. Then came a string of lay-offs. Because she had never finished her certification exams, she said, she was among the first to be let go.

“She’s right, in a way,” Ron told me a little later after listening to Denise. “She has the training and a skill, so she’s further along than most. But she would need her credentials to get back on track.” He told her about Women’s Empowerment in Sacramento, which advises homeless women on writing resumes, job interviewing and re-entering the workforce.

“I made bad decisions”

Later, I headed upstairs along a creaking wooden staircase to where the women guests at St. John’s sleep. There were about 30 of us, and most of the linoleum floor was already taken but one woman showed me where I could lay out my sleeping bag, thankfully near a fan. I had left my valuables in my car, but I noticed the obvious: most of my companions for the night had whatever they owned scattered about their mats. I slept fitfully, less out of fear, than out of sheer discomfort. It was very hot, and throughout the night, women wandered over to the fan to station their faces in front of it. There was regular shuffling, bathroom visits, sneezing, coughing, snoring and shifting.

At 6:00 a.m., lights were on and we started gathering up our things. I was groggy and achy, and my eyes were red from little sleep. I was tired through to my bones. The obvious again came to mind, I had done this one night, my brother did it for at least a decade, and these men and women at St. John’s have likely known little different in a long while. I was eager to get home and under the shower. For most of the homeless, there would be none, or else a better part of the day spent scrambling to find where one would be possible.

The evening before, I had asked Ron, the housing advocate, if there was any resentment among the homeless. In talking with the men and women I had met, I heard a lot of “I made bad decisions,” or “I put myself here.” That may be true, I thought, but bad decisions aside, we are also mostly ignorant of many of the forces that shape our lives. That there is so little affordable housing to be had these days might prompt a greater demand, more civic consciousness, more … anger.

Soldiers in combat

“For most, it’s like being a soldier in combat,” Ron told me. “You’re moving through a jungle, you have your weapon, you’re looking at how to survive. The bigger picture, the politics of all of this … many of these people have distilled life to only those things which support survival, including focusing on themselves instead of who is President, or what housing or income maintenance programs are passed by Congress.”

Later, I sat and chatted with Julius, a tall African-American man who had had some recent luck with his own job search, getting on with a lumberyard in town. However, he then showed me his hand, which he had sprained in just the first week. “I don’t want to take time off now,” he said. “It wouldn’t look good.”

A native of rural Louisiana, Julius had migrated to California about a decade prior to be near his daughter living in Sacramento. He didn’t get on with his child’s mother, so seeing his daughter happened only rarely. Worse, she was reluctant to meet him. He was filled with regret he told me, rolling his eyes and shaking his head as he detailed poor choices.

“When you’re young, you don’t think,” he said. “I wish someone had sat me down when I was young and told me how difficult life can be.” But there was a bright spot: another daughter had just qualified as a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. “You can’t believe how proud I am of that. I must have done something right.”

I thought of my brother, who now lives in a tiny one-room apartment across the street from California’s state capitol building. Every afternoon, he strolls the grounds, looking down for lucky pennies. He’s found hundreds during the past several years and is convinced, like Julius, that he must have done something right to have landed on his feet, however fragile.

Homelessness has many causes, including a severe shortage of affordable housing, lack of resources for the mentally ill and the tenuous existence of low-income people in this country. To learn more or promote more resources to address the problem, join the National Rural Housing Coalition ( or the National Low Income Housing Coalition ( Both advocate on behalf of low income and homeless people. Ask your congressional representatives to support programs for more affordable housing.