As We See It

[Pyramid of Biscuits]

As the season changes, one writer connects with Las Vegas’ homeless

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Homeless gather on Foremaster Lane near Main Street Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.
Photo: Steve Marcus
Stacy J. Willis

When I was a kid, I dressed up as a hobo for Halloween. Twice. That’s not the same thing as being grossly politically incorrect by dressing up as a homeless person, right? A hobo wore an oversized patched jacket and had a stick over his shoulder with a bandana tied to the end to carry his belongings. In my quaint imagination, he was a romantic nomad who often hopped trains and was, of course, hilarious.

So then, as tradition dictates, I’d go door to door dressed as a hobo and ask for handouts. I was completely oblivious to my own guerilla theater—I was just a child dressed as a vagrant, trick-or-treating, and the suburbs were equally blind to brilliant satirical art.

But if a real homeless person came knocking now, I imagine he’d be less welcome. It’s interesting that a homeless-person costume now seems offensive, but our actual treatment of homeless people somehow offends us less. Though the homeless are everywhere, we often look right through them—or down on them, with hostility or judgment, or guilt and fear. We want them off park benches and neighborhood sidewalks. We want them out of sight, deposited in the area near the overcrowded/underfunded social services shelters, on those curbs, in those empty lots, in a neighborhood that’s already downtrodden.

Similarly, we have a plan for Las Vegas’ chronically mentally ill: a bus to San Francisco. And a place for low-end, indigent drug offenders: the overcrowded cots in Clark County Detention Center. Long-term help for the causes of homelessness—mental illness, substance abuse, joblessness, a lack of affordable housing—is harder to come by.

*****

Just before 8 o’clock Sunday morning it’s drizzling, and dark clouds hang low. All around Main and Owens, duffle bags and blankets are stacked against building walls, wet. A few people who slept on the street last night had tarps, and one’s still wrapped in a blue tarp, feet sticking out. A long line awaiting a meal at the Salvation Army winds from the door down the sidewalk on Owens.

An older lady is heading up the hill, westward. It’s a slow journey. She stops at the top and takes a seat at the foot of a light pole. I sit down with her.

Lynn is 75. She’s tan and wearing a red “Las Vegas” T-shirt, blue sweat pants, purple socks and black shoes, and she’s carrying a leopard-print purse and a plastic grocery bag full of disposable underwear. She has short gray hair that curls around her ears. She’s been homeless off and on for 20 years. Right now she’s got a bed at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, but her time there will expire soon, and she’ll try to get back into the Shade Tree shelter for women and children. But it’s full now, and she needs a bottom bunk because she can’t climb up to the top. A few weeks ago, she slept outside on the corner of Foremaster and Main, where many homeless people gather when shelter beds are not an option—either because the beds are full, or because a person lacks ID, or is not sober, or has met the 30-days-at-a-time limit (or chooses not to try a shelter).

She tells me she was a bookkeeper many years ago, when bookkeeping was done by hand. She got pushed out with the onslaught of computer bookkeeping programs, and sought employment at a grocery store but says she was told she was too old, too slow. Her family security net had already fallen apart after a divorce. The streets and shelters have since become her life.

We talk for a while, about various failed attempts to get an apartment, about frustrating agency bureaucracy, about people she’s known and lost. “Are you ever afraid?” I ask.

Yes, she answers. But what she fears more than other street people are telephones, because, she says, you never know who’s listening, and stoves, because without a firewall around them, they’re very dangerous.

*****

Halloween is about fear, about making scary things into something manageable by making them fun. Haunted houses, ghosts, zombies—all of that is pulled out, front and center, for us to face and contain and laugh about.

If Lynn’s fear of phone-listeners and deep distrust of bureaucracy seem indicative of a troubled mental state, consider this: The 2015 Chapman University Survey on American Fears showed the top fear was “Corruption of government officials” followed closely by “Corporate tracking of personal information” and “Government tracking of personal information.”

Stove fires didn’t make the top 10. But “Running out of money in the future” was No. 9. We are not such different animals. Maybe we’re more afraid of what we have in common with the homeless than what we don’t.

*****

As Lynn and I chat in the sprinkling rain, my butt is getting numb on my chosen rock. She seems unfazed, and I would feel like I was being impolite in someone else’s home if I complained. She already declined my offer to take her for a meal; cars and self-serving suburbanites rank with stoves on the danger meter. So we just get rained on.

And then, strangely, there’s a sudden burst of sunlight—but the rain keeps on falling. It’s a weird, inside-out experience, rain and sun at once; a melding of melancholy and joy. Things don’t seem right, and yet they seem perfect.

“A sun shower!” she says, turning her tanned face skyward. “I love these, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do, too.”

I turn my face into the sprinkles and we laugh a little, like two kids.

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