The invisible December

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The invisible December

View from the clocktower: The median where homeless just like Woods can be found every day.

View from the clocktower: The median where homeless just like Woods can be found every day.

View from the clocktower: The median where homeless just like Woods can be found every day.

View from the clocktower: The median where homeless just like Woods can be found every day.

By Sonja Hutson

The Median

View from the clocktower: The median where homeless just like Woods can be found every day.

She sits on the curb between Tam and Safeway. Clad in a purple down coat and orange head wrap, she rests her weary legs as she places herself on a deep green walker holding a white poster board asking for help. People see 59-year-old December Woods every day. They try to not get too close as they cross the street or pull up in their car. But what if they didn’t? What if they took just fifteen seconds to say hello?

As I approach her, attempting to understand a little bit more about this lady so different from us, the prejudices stack up and make me nervous. Is she safe to talk to? Will she even be willing to speak? Woods needs only to open her mouth to set me at ease. Her words come out soft and slow as she runs her finger slowly across the rough skin of her cheek, the years of hardships visually presented as she explains how she ended up on this street corner, sitting for hours on end on a walker, asking for money.

Woods has been everywhere. She’s lived in 37 states. Her life started in Salinas, CA, where she lived until she was 6 years old. From there, she moved to San Jose until she graduated high school. After studying nursing at St. Mary’s college and moving around, her life started to take a large turn for the worse. Her fiancée bought her an expensive ring, but literally “tore my head open,” she recalled, and looked off into the distance crying, going back to another time. The ordeal resulted in 16 stitches in Woods’s head. “I took my kids and ran,” she said.

Woods has had a series of ups and down from there. She lost her bank accounts and her car. She now stays some nights in shelters and others in her apartment in Merced when she can afford to travel there and her days on the median.

“You never know, it could happen to anyone,” Social Studies teacher Bettina Mow reminds us. Woods knows this in all its difficulty. Her daughter is currently being treated for bipolar disorder. Two of Woods’s granddaughters, Darlene (21 months) and Jaslene (8 months), live with their father and paternal grandmother, although according to Woods, their father isn’t around much. She doesn’t get to see them in person—only pictures. “It’s tearing me apart,” she said of the situation. Her other granddaughter, Selmalique (13), who is of a different father than Darlene and Jaslene, is in foster care. Woods is petitioning for custody of Selmalique, whom she cares for greatly. She wants to buy her a TV, jewelry, and cosmetics. Woods has been asking for money since 1992. “It’s enough of this,” she said of her financial and emotion difficulties. “It’s really enough.”

Woods is one of those rare people who have a terribly hard life, but still remain optimistic about the future. Contrary to popular belief, she does not sit on her walker passively as she waits for donations. She has a plan to build an affordable housing unit in an abandoned building in San Francisco that she describes in great detail. First, she wants to obtain a real estate attorney to help her with the legal aspect of buying the property and then go to KCBS radio to spread the word and “shout out to the people.” From there, she plans to raise money by having everyone donate “just a dollar.”

All she expects is success in “Woods-Harris Finding Happy Real Estate,” she reads from a yellow notepad. “If you wanna do right, people stand behind you. That’s what makes the world go round… I have this whole chain of ideas,” she said, sounding overwhelmed with possibility. “I’m so anxious about starting [the business], I can’t hardly sit still long enough to do [my hobbies.]” As Woods puts it, “I want to climb to another level.” It is this that sets her apart. Woods has the optimism of an adolescent with the world set out in front of them and the wisdom of an elder who has seen the severity of the world we live in. “It’s a struggle,” she said. “I’ve been through hell.” Talking about “busting” her knee in 2006, she shares some of her wisdom. “That was bad,” she said, “but I got something from it- a blessing on the other side.”

Woods also faces an issue that is familiar to many: prejudice. She wants to set the stereotypes people place on her due to panhandling straight. “I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’m square,” she said. According to Woods, people think “’She’s dumb, she’s stupid, she’s retarded, what is she doing?’…I need help is all,” she said.

Racism also affects Woods. She chokes up talking about stereotypes of homeless people and of African Americans. Woods takes the high road. “I was born dark. I’m gonna die dark,” she said. “They don’t have to help me, but they don’t have to be nasty,” she said of people walking or driving past.

Stereotypes of homelessness that Woods spoke of are present at Tam. “They’re dirty. I think they’re uneducated. Most of the homeless I’ve met look kind of stingy and scary and like they’re going to rob me. Just really bad people, criminal,” said sophomore Connie Chong. Although many people we see on the streets appear disheveled, we must not forget that all panhandlers do not fit the stereotype that Chong describes. Woods has a place to stay every night in either a homeless shelter or her apartment, and keeps herself clean. Every night there is an estimated 109,812 people without homes, as of January 2010, according to the United States Integrated Council on Homelessness (USICH.)

Woods knows the value of a place to stay, unlike the 60 percent of people that check in to homeless shelters that leave after a month, and the 30 percent that leave after a week. These statistics pose a question about that 60 percent: is it their fault they’re living on the street?

Living in the county with the highest median income of the United States, it’s hard to imagine that any of these statistics relate directly to us. However, in 2009, according to the Marin County Civil Grand Jury, Marin had a homeless population of 1,770. 3,038 residents of our county are “precariously housed” and close to becoming homeless.

Pretty shocking, right? Why have we never noticed? “No one ever wants to think about it [and] we chose to ignore it,” said junior Elliot Siu.

The bigger question is: how did these people get on the street? In December’s case, she just hit bad times. However, according to MVPD officer Mike Lane, “the people who work corners are generally not homeless…we have the occasional one or two, but 99 percent of who you you’re seeing out on the corners [are not].”

“You’re the first people ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, to take time to talk to me.”

A demographic of homelessness overlooked by many Tam students is war veterans. According to USICH, veterans are two times more likely to become homeless compared to all Americans. The same statistic applies to foster children. Yes, drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness are also factors that put people on the streets. “Addiction is an illness, too,” said Mow. When you are addicted to something, it takes priority of your needs, which include shelter, food and water. Addiction is very hard to overcome. “We don’t take care of our mentally ill citizens and that’s how they end up on the streets as well,” said Mow.

What can we do to help these people? The obvious answer is donating money to anti-homelessness organizations, including the USICH, which has very in-depth plans for solving homelessness. On the more basic level, “Say hi to them,” said Mow. “It’s good to say hi, even if you’re not going to give them money, so they don’t feel like invisible people, because they’re people too.”

Anything you can give these people, including your attention is greeted with gratitude. “You’re the first people ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, to take time to talk to me,” Woods said with tears in her eyes. A little effort goes a long way for the homeless. “One dollar is a blessing, just one dollar.”