Sandra and Gary
Sandra, 44, and Gary, 55
Sandra and Gary were sleeping near each other and watched over each other’s stuff on the streets of San Diego. They began to trust each other, and gradually became a couple.
Sandra was born here, and moved with her family to Cancun when she was five years old. They soon discovered it was expensive living there. Even with five older brothers and sisters, lots of aunts, uncles and cousins, she had to work two jobs, one working in a restaurant, another cleaning rooms at a hotel. The work was hard on her because she injured her back at age eight, falling from a playground bar onto the concrete below. She was too young for surgery, they told her, because her bones were still forming, so her back never healed properly.
She moved back the the U.S. at age 31 and started working in the fields in Arizona, mostly harvesting broccoli.
She did that for three years, but her back just couldn’t hold out doing that kind of work. And then her husband pushed her backwards, dislocating two discs. She can’t afford the surgery, and certainly has no place to lie still to recuperate for the anticipated three months after such a surgery. Moving away from that husband, and seeking a different life, she moved to San Diego and tried to return to working in hotels. All she found in San Diego, however, were employers who wanted her to work 12-hour shifts, something her back issues wouldn’t permit. So she sent the kids to live with family in Cancun, and struggled to find work that would allow her to survive in one of America’s most expensive cities, while sending money home to care for her children.
“I’m trying to make enough money to bring them back up,” she said. “I can’t go there with my hands empty.”
Along the way, on the streets, she started talking to one of the quieter guys sleeping on the same streets. He was kind enough to watch over her belongings while she looked for work or food. They fell in together as friends, now as partners.
Gary is a veteran of 20 years in the US Marine Corps, a veteran of Desert Storm with an honorable discharge. He isn’t receiving his benefits, however, because no matter how many times he calls the office of Veterans Affairs, or visits their office, they can’t seem to file the right paperwork. Also it’s difficult to send papers to someone without an address, they tell him. He figures he is due $7,000 inback pay, and has been to the VA office three times in the last seven months.
Gary grew up in Minnesota. He dropped out of high school in the 12th grade so he could start working for $2.10/hr building airplane wings. His middle class, strict Catholic parents taught him a work ethic, he said, and sent him to a military academy. He had his own apartment at age 16 and enlisted at age 18. When he got out of the military he returned home with a pregnant wife during the recession of the mid-1990s. He secured two jobs, however, to support his family. Thatall changed when he discovered his wife cheating on him. He moved around, working in the circulation department for newspapers from St. Paul to Kansas City, then San Diego’s North County Times.
He’s been in and out of jail several times, all for crimes associated with being homeless: loitering, littering, encroachment, illegal lodging. “They give you tickets, then issue bench warrants if you don’t appear or pay those tickets,” Gary explained. “Being homeless is not illegal, but everything associated with homelessness is illegal.” He once got a ticket for putting out a cigarette on the side of a curb and leaving the cigarette butt in the street. “Now, if I was wearing a suit, taking a smoke break, and did the same thing, I guarantee no cop would be giving me a littering ticket!”
Most of those laws are on the books and have been for a while, he adds. Homeless people need to read up on them so they can have an intelligent conversation with the police when they are confronted. “If they tell me to move, I’ll move,” he said. “Hell, I’m a jarhead, I’ll move all day!”
Gary rides an expensive looking bike around town. He knows that the police will pull him over, assuming he’s stolen it. “I haven’t stolen anything since I was five years old,” he said. “That’s why I carry the receipt for this bike in my wallet because I know they’re going to think I stole it.”
Sandra says they stay fed by visiting some of the churches, and living on the “drive by” food give-aways. Sometimes well meaning people can cause harm with those give-aways, however. Sandra once spent five days in the hospital with food poisoning from what she suspects is chicken that wasn’t cooked all the way through.
“The hardest part of being out here is staying clean,” Sandra said, washing her hands with water from a donated bottle of water. “It’s hard, but you have to have a good sense of humor and keep your friends around you.”
They don’t consider going into a shelter like St. Vincent de Paul or the Rescue Mission because those places cater primarily to people who have substance abuse issues. “St. Vinnie’s is a program,” Gary said. “I’m not an alcoholic. I’m not an addict.” Meanwhile, he has his name on a list for housing with the VASH program through the Veteran’s Administration. He’s been waiting two years, hoping it doesn’t take much longer.
Gary says he stays positive by learning something new every day. “I try to have a good attitude. You gotta find a way to win.”