Editor’s note: the term panhandling used in this story is American street slang for begging. The American description, on-ramp, is known as a slip road in British terms.
I heard her screams, before I saw her. She sat on the curb in front of the Pizza Hut all alone and poured out the most heart wrenching wail I had ever heard. I headed toward her, but my husband stopped me. “Kathy, leave her alone. She is, well something isn’t right with her.” “Maybe she’s hurt.” I offered. “Trust me Kathy, she has problems.”
He urged me toward the door of the restaurant. I could have insisted I help her and walked over despite my husband to check on her, but in truth, I was a bit nervous – the world is crazy, so much violence and I didn’t know how she would have reacted to a stranger approaching her. So, I turned away from her cries and walked into the cafe with my husband. I could no longer hear her from inside the establishment, but she remained at the forefront of my mind. What if she was hurting, hungry or had received bad news? I silently cursed myself for being such a coward. Seeing that woman in distress brought my mind to a different time.
“Thing is, no one hassles us, we don’t have to bother with rent or bills, rules and judgements. We live life on our terms. We don’t answer to anybody. We are free.” Beckie Myers.
My sister, Beckie had died five years earlier – she was my younger sister. She had been both wheelchair bound and homeless. I sat there with a whirlwind of memories spinning round in my head. At one time, I had wanted to single-handedly take every person off the streets. Yet, with my limited understanding of homelessness and my very unrealistic expectations, that dream was never realized. I couldn’t even get my own sister off the streets.
Beckie lived on the side of the freeway for many years. She panhandled and dug into trash containers behind fast food establishments for food. I tried to understand her. She had a good heart and never tried to hurt anybody – forever helping other homeless people, sharing what little she had. My parents tried to help her. We all tried to help her, but no matter what we did, she always ended up back on the streets and back on drugs. Once I asked her, if I could come see where she lived. I wanted to understand what she kept running back to – it didn’t make sense. I thought, perhaps if I spent some time with her in her world, then her life choices would become clear to me.
Beckie lived with her boyfriend Dean, on a little cement rimmed island between a bridge and the 405 freeway on-ramp, in Huntington Beach, California. The on-ramp was beautifully landscaped. Trees and Shrubbery decorated the island. They also provided the ultimate hideaway for a band of people with diverse issues and/or struggles. You couldn’t see anything from the on-ramp, save the trees and foliage, but if you crossed the street to the island, just beneath the stand of trees, you could barely make out a narrow dirt path. We had to stoop down to avoid the low hanging limbs, we traveled along the path until we reached the opening. I am not sure what I expected to see, but it was astonishing. It was a little community of people who were all, for various reasons, considered the dregs, the forlorn, the forgotten of society. There were little coves that had been hollowed out and cleared. There were lean-to’s, tents, even cardboard boxes made into little makeshift shelters known as hooches. This community had but two rules – you didn’t mess with anyone’s stuff and you didn’t enter a hooch without an invite. Most everyone abided by the rules and it was a peaceful existence. They stood away from judgement, away from the hustle and bustle, away from a society who preferred not to see them.
Beckie pointed to a faded grey, slightly dilapidated tent and said: “The guy who lived there started this place. He was the first one – we called him Seize. He had epilepsy.” I noted that she spoke of him in the past tense, so I asked what had happened to him. “He died a couple of weeks ago.” “Can you tell me what happened?” “Sure. He didn’t talk much. We moved in here, right after he did. We asked him if it was okay and he said yes. Then a bunch of people came and set up here. I think he must have liked me and Dean, because he left doughnuts outside our hooch sometimes. He only did that for the people he liked.” Beckie smiled at the memory. “He lived alone then?” I asked. “Yup, Seize was a loner. But he was cool you know? He had this picture that he carried on him all the time – not sure if it was his mother, wife, or his daughter, he never said; but he always carried it with him. When he had extra of anything, he always shared with the rest of us here.” “Beckie, how did he die?” “Well, none of us had seen him for like three or four days, we thought he was in the hospital or in jail. Nobody knew what had happened to him. Then we noticed this awful smell in camp, like something was dead. We searched around and the smell was coming from his hooch. He was inside, dead. Someone called the cops and fireman and then a coroner showed up and they hauled him away. It was sad – they said he had been dead for a few days, had a seizure or something.” “Oh my gosh that is awful.” “Yeah, nobody wanted to go into his tent or take it down – not because of the smell or anything, it just felt disrespectful. We didn’t know what to do at first.” “Did he have family?” “I don’t know. He never talked about it. He never really talked much at all – kept to himself mostly, except for the doughnuts he left for a few of us here and there, you know? That’s how you knew he liked you – not everyone got doughnuts.” Beckie sometimes repeated herself. “Did anyone ever go inside his hooch?” “Yeah, a few days ago – we wanted to give him a send-off, say a proper goodbye you know? Celebrate his life and all that. Dean went inside – there was an upside-down box Seize used as a table, with a candle, a blue Bic lighter and a rusty can opener on it. His old black shoes lay on the dirt floor next to his bed made of blankets. Oh, and that picture of the lady he always carried. Well, it was upside down on the floor – It was sad, that was his life.” “That is really sad, Poor Seize. Did you just leave everything as it was?” “No, we gathered up his candle, lighter, shoes, can opener, and his picture. We put them all together in a paper bag. We dug a hole and buried it – Dean said a few words and that was it. We decided to leave his tent up, but nobody will live in it – Kind of as a remembrance of him, you know? He was the first one here, so it seemed right.” “Yes, I agree. It is a good thing you all did, to honor him like that.”
Beckie looked around at all the makeshift homes in the camp. Most everyone was gone, either panhandling, trying to score some dope, or scrounge up some food. The few people scattered around didn’t pay us any mind. A few sat around the community fire, and one girl was cleaning out her hooch. Beckie sighed and reached down to pick up her little black dog, Lucky. “Beckie, this seems like a hard life for you. Don’t you miss living in a house with running water, a stove, a shower? This seems like it really wouldn’t be worth it and with you in a wheelchair, I just can’t imagine…” She looked up at me and smiled: “It’s hard at times, I guess. I miss having a shower, but we work it out. I clean up at the gas station restrooms and I charge my chair at the gas station or the store. Most people are pretty cool about that. Dean always helps me get in and out of the chair. We work it out. You know I get my cheque on the first, so sometimes we will rent a motel for a night or two, shower, order pizza and watch tv – that’s pretty cool. Thing is, no one hassles us, we don’t have to bother with rent or bills, rules, and judgements.” “But is it worth it?” “For me and Dean, yes. We live life on our terms. We don’t answer to anybody. We are free. Sometimes it gets cold, we can’t get money, we’re hungry or out of cigarettes or my 211.” (Steel reserve Quart of beer) “There are times we get stressed out and fight, but everyone’s got problems, right? – ours are just different than yours, that’s all.”
I finally understood – homelessness is not a one-size-fits-all. The reasons for homelessness are as unique as a fingerprint – each person has a story, but like my sister, not all want to live the way society thinks they should live. A nine to five job, a house, a car, and all that goes with it, just flat doesn’t appeal to some people. So, they find what works for them and they live their lives.
Beckie is gone now – her health was declining at such a rapid rate; she was forced to move into a nursing home. That spark in her eyes was gone, that free-spirited soul that couldn’t be shackled to four walls were done. She was tired and seemed resigned to this closing of her life.
Dean moved on and met another free spirit, to do life with – Beckie understood his decision and didn’t blame him. Life goes on. When Beckie closed her eyes for the very last time, there was no big send off, it was simple, personal and quiet – just the way she would have wanted it, but I miss her. I miss her more than I can say, She wasn’t like everyone else. I am so glad she was willing to share her crazy life with me, to let me in to her world, to help me understand – bringing me back to the woman screaming in front of Pizza Hut. I went outside of the café and looked for her, but she was gone. I know I can’t fix her life or anyone else’s for that matter. I know there will always be homeless people, hurting people, sick people, but I am not going to let fear be my guide ever again. If I feel led to help, then I will. If I can offer a bottle of water, a meal, a few bucks, a hug or just a smile, I am going to do it. There is enough sadness in the world, and I would like to be one person willing to do what I can to make it better. I may not choose to live free like Beckie did, but I can choose not to be afraid of those who do.