I started writing this story yesterday. I had already put the title on the page and everything - "They call me Howard." But in the end, it turned out to be the story of the serendipitous way I ended up in Santa Rosa and not about Howard at all. So today I'll try to tell you Howard's story once again.
When I moved to Santa Rosa I had no job and no apartment. I was an hour away from my daughter but couldn't afford to go back and forth every day. I had everything I needed in my car, including my sweet and faithful dog Suzie. Suzie, was about 10 years old and totally blind, having contracted Meningitis while we were living in Nicaragua. She was my companion, and my friend, and because of her, I never felt totally alone.
We stayed at the most inexpensive hotels we could find, that were clean and livable, and would accept dogs. It still cost $54 dollars a day. I would need to find work fast.
A month later, I still had no job and getting a place to live without a job proved to be difficult. I visited my daughter on weekends and looked for work and apartments during the week. I spent most of my days at the library where I could get free wi-fi for my laptop. I was basically living out of my car. I felt homeless. I WAS homeless.
Suzie and I drove around Santa Rosa a lot, getting to know the town, and discovering where the best parks were to spend the hot afternoons. Every day we would drive by the same busy four-way intersection with a fast food restaurant on each corner. Every day we saw the same man. He stood on the island in the middle of the intersection in the hot sun, with a little cardboard sign that read, "Hungry. Please help." I started to notice more and more people that were living on the streets and thought to myself... "If I didn't have a car, and a family that loved me, that could easily be me." I wanted to know why they were out there. A lot of agencies try to help the homeless. But was anyone asking these people what they wanted help with? ...what they needed? So, I decided to try to have a conversation with some of these folks and see.
I made up a list of questions I would ask. Where are you from? Do you get support from anyone? Why are you out here? Would money make a difference? If yes, how much?
And so on. I would talk to this man standing in the sun... if he would let me. He would be my first interview. One day I pulled up next to him and gave him a couple of dollars for lunch and asked if he would be willing to talk to me about his life. I told him I'd take him to lunch at any of the restaurants on the four corners and he could order anything he wanted if I could interview him for a story I was writing. He said yes, and we planned to meet the next day at noon.
I was there the next day, but he wasn't. I went the day after that, and he was still a no- show. On the third day he was back and said he was sorry but he'd had a problem getting there. We left it at that. He wanted to go to Burger King and ordered very little. I added to his order so he could take it with him for later. He was a big man. He looked like a construction worker, but unshaven and scruffy. He looked like a man who'd had a hard life.
We sat down and I introduced myself, and he said, "They call me Howard." Not, "my name is Howard," but, "they call me Howard." So who knows if that was his real name.
Howard told me he had grown up in Sonoma County, Geyserville. He was one of four children and he had a twin sister. Howard said he came from an abusive household. His father was a "VERY bad alcoholic." Howard said he had been an alcoholic himself for many years, but never as bad as his father. His father was a rancher and worked the kids hard. He died of a heart attack in 1998 and his mother died in 2005. He lived with them on and off until they died. Howard started drinking as a kid to get away from his "home situation." He dropped out of school by the time he was 14. He had started taking Meth amphetamines and he was hooked. He said he'd been living on the streets for 12 years. He'd had psych problems for many years and blamed his abusive childhood. His diagnosis was depression but he also heard voices. He said his psych meds. seemed to help, when he could get them, and stay on them. He was married and had four children. His wife and kids were out on the streets and homeless with him for a while. He said his wife slept on the ground and never complained. They had been staying at the Village Park campgrounds in Sebastopol until one night when he was drunk, he got into a fight with a guy and "beat him up pretty badly and cut him in the gut with a knife." He got prison time for that. While he was in prison, his wife, (who was also on psych meds. and who had been sexually abused over a long period of time as a young girl by her uncle), lost custody of their children. Howard said they tried to get him to sign over custody to the court while he was in prison, but he refused. Eventually he lost all legal rights to his children because of his drinking and his prison time. He said he used the probation system as a way of staying out of BIGGER trouble and avoiding longer prison terms. He would purposely violate his probation and go back in for short periods of time to dry out and stay out of trouble. Then he'd be back out on probation again. He said prison was bad, but this system worked pretty well for him.
He worked in a lot of fast food restaurants but the jobs didn't last very long. He couldn't stand being bossed around and told what to do. His anger would build up and then he would blow up!
Howard said, very seriously, that he never laid his hands on his kids. He didn't want them to suffer like he had. He thinks that's why he took his rage out on other people. To keep from venting on his kids. He did go to jail once for beating up his wife. Howard said he was sorry and regretted so much of what he'd done. He said he knew he'd done things he shouldn't have done. He was offered a counseling program once for anger management, but the counselor started pushing him in the chest one day. He wasn't sure if this was part of the program to see how much he could take before blowing up, or if the guy was "just a jerk," but he thought it was the latter. He said he warned the guy to stop, explaining that he was tired because he had put in a 15 hour day where he was working, but the guy hadn't stopped and shoved him a couple of times, so Howard hit him. He was arrested and sent back to prison and was told that he was too violent for the anger management program. Howard gave a bitter laugh at this point. It was clear that he found this ironic.
Howard said that in all his time in prison he was never offered any kind of rehabilitation and that the medical system in the prison was very bad. He said that one night while he was in prison, he suffered sudden and severe chest pain. Years before when he was about 23 or 24, he had been taken to the hospital unconscious and when he'd awakened the doctors had told him he had "suffered a small stroke." That night in the prison they sent him to the clinic but had done nothing but give him a couple of ibuprofen. He's sure he had suffered a mild heart attack. He says he had a friend who died in prison because of an illness that went untreated. He says it happens all the time. At one point during one of his prison stays, he was taken to a local hospital and admitted for two weeks for an infection. He was given antibiotics but they never gave him any information directly about what it was he had.
Howard says he's a loner and he likes living on the streets. There's "too much drama" any other way. He gets some food support, but if he had about $100 dollars a month he'd be much better off. He lives in an encampment that is part of a park, several miles from where we were. He'd like to get some camping equipment, and he already has some cooking gear. He's happy if he collects $20 a day standing out with his sign. He quits when he gets $20 dollars. That's enough for him.
Howard said that if he could change anything, he would go back 25 years, and he would change his attitude. But more than anything, he would like to see his children. He said his kids would be about 14, 12, 10 and 8, and if I could ever help him with anything, it would be to try to arrange for him to see his kids.
I thanked Howard for telling me his story and asked him if I could write it down and share it with others, and he shyly bowed his head and said, "yes." After that, he was on his way.
I know this is a long story, but I've been wanting to share it with others for a long time.
I think there are many reasons why people become homeless and lose their way and sometimes lose their lives. Howard's story is an intimate portrait of many of those reasons.