Street People

It was a slightly windy, overcast day. Roosevelt, a large, strong black wino wandered over to me while I was doing a little work in Wino Park and said, "Mike, I need some food money, man, can you help me out with a couple of bucks?"

"Roosevelt, you know my policy; if I'd stopped to loan money to folks around here I'd never have gotten any work done in the past three years. The answer is no." He saw a flicker of insecurity on my face, because we were friends, and a second later he burst into a confident, loud laugh. He was about to let me in on one of the neighborhood secrets. He pulled open his black overcoat with both hands, like a bird unfolding its wings. There, in the lining on both sides, were about twenty specially designed pockets, with a McDonald's hamburger in each one. Roosevelt was the food supplier for twenty other street people.

Wino Park was a project I conceived and executed in San Francisco in the late 1970s. It was intended to be a safe place for the lowest outcasts of American society, the black winos, to sit relax, talk, and be human . My heart could not stand the treatment I saw, and still see, of winos being beaten by police and being forced to sleep on the cold concrete. The park was designed by the winos who wanted toilets, a water fountain, a fire pit, greenery, a shelter, and a basketball hoop. We the built it for them, they loved it, and it lasted three years. ("We" was Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, where I was business manager, some friends, volunteers and the California Conservation Corps.)

During the planning, building, and operating of the park I came to know many street people quite well, and a half dozen of them became my friends.

Most of the people I got to know were living on the street because they preferred that form of life to the alternative. In fact, from their point of view there really was no alternative. I'm not talking about welfare handouts, government-created jobs, or housing programs, but in the life of the larger societal world. They seemed to see three options: the underworld, the straight world, and the street.

Nearly every one of the hundreds of people I knew from Wino Park were warm, kind, compassionate people. The criminals and crazies were very few but also very dangerous. The winos couldn't be part of the underworld because it was too dangerous; it was even more brutal than street life. The day-to-day hustling of drugs, theft, and running numbers was also a cruel way to live. Winos are usually sweet people. Even the kind of wine they drink, Thunderbird and Night Train, tastes like pure sugar, like a cherry cola with more sugar added.

The straight life also has elements of cruelty, as it can be superficial and hypocritical, but above and beyond that, it is too hard and demanding for some people to be part of. And it is becoming increasingly so.

Let's assume that you have modest physical skills, a moderate attention span, and adequate health and energy. You're an adult, out of work, with a few clothes and some local friends&emdash;many like yourself, plus lots of other friends and relatives around the country.

To get most jobs you need an ID, a phone number, an address, and some work references. You almost never get paid until after you have worked the first two weeks, and often not for a month afterward. You are paid by check, but you can't get it cashed very easily unless you have a checking account. To get a place to live, you need a job, and if you want something even barely more habitable than the street you need references and a large rent payment plus a deposit.

The bank won't open a checking account unless you already have one or you have a credit card (that's true, and a lawsuit was filed to stop that Catch-22 practice, it failed). You can't get a phone, and most of your friends can't either. (That was true up until 7-ll phones came on the scene in 1998). The ID is usually a driver's license, which won't be reissued if you have past unpaid parking tickets (and even if you have already paid them by doing time in jail, the computer has probably screwed up the records). Dealings with the police and judicial systems are mired in uncomprehensible paperwork, such writs, subpoenas, and outstanding warrants that can never be straightened out; and even if they were, a couple of forgotten ones from other states could show up to throw everything back into turmoil.

Add to this medical insurance rules that won't grant you coverage until you've been on a job for many months, and which usually require you to pay medical or dental costs before you get reimbursed. Add also the fact that most jobs for which you are qualified are boring and meaningless, with very low pay and strict rules about being on time, working long hours, and groveling to an arrogant boss who has the power to fire you or extort money from you to keep you on the job.

It's far easier to exist on the street, where there is no shortage of food, either from soup kitchens, garbage, or restaurant handouts (remember Roosevelt, who was given leftover hamburgers each day); change is also available from begging and borrowing. Except for having to sleep in the street, and for the criminals and police who make life painful, winos have little incentive to join the straight world.

Wino Park provided safety; with benches and a fire pit, it also provided camaraderie, and the cops didn't move the winos along and hassle them. The mutual support among the winos grew stronger, and they even formed a staff to water the grass and sweep the pavement clean every day. Food and sleeping bags, gifts and clothes, were left constantly by generous working-class people who drove by and by the workers who had jobs in nearby buildings.

The many street people who cannot join straight society because of its Catch-22 complexity want nothing more than a place like Wino Park: a place to sit, see friends, be safe, go to the toilet, get a drink of water, be protected from the weather&emdash;and be in the center of town, where the action is. In the thirties, hobos were concentrated in the countryside because of the railroads and the relative surplus of food and shelter there. But their descendants are in the city, where the information exists to find food and other resources.

I validated my observation that many street people have chosen to live outside a system that is too difficult or unappealing for them to join, when I spent time with street people in Tokyo.

Japan is a society where no native ever need be an outsider. Living on the streets is such a shame to the Japanese that they will give the street people anything they want: shelter, food, cash, anything to make sure people stay off the streets. No deal; regardless of the hassles, about two dozen street people lived in my neighborhood, Asakusa, on the streets and in the parks in1983. Tokyo is a much easier place to be homeless, with many parks, covered malls, warm subway halls to sleep in, and great full-course meals in the garbage.

My spoken Japanese is very poor and most street people were afraid to talk to me. Perhaps they are meek like our street people, and especially so since foreigners are somewhat frightening to ordinary Japanese. The two dozen with whom I spent time for two months were in every age bracket from 25 to 80; about six were women aged 45 to 70. Remember, Tokyo is safe for a woman to sleep on a park bench at night, as crime is almost nil; women can behave pretty much the way the men do, but the social shame cast on them is even greater.

I learned several interesting things. The homeless seem to be a new class here, but one that is growing in number. They work when nobody is looking. They clean up the park after dark, they collect cardboard to give to one of their own who has a cardboard collection truck, and they construct hidden cardboard homes that fold up in the morning. They seem just as industrious as all the other Japanese.

No one I talked to said he or she had "just checked out of a too complex society," but it seemed that way to me. The closest statement to this that I heard came when the police moved the street people from a storefront or the subway officers moved them out of the subway at the 12:30 P.M. closing time. Then the street people said things like: "We just look messy, does that disturb you?" "You don't have be the enforcer of public values"; "The common people don't mind us being here." There was a strong tone of defiance in their reactions that people who know Japan are frequently shocked to find; they have confidence in the validity of their own demeanor.


Street people (now called "homeless") in San Francisco and Tokyo, seem to include a large proportion of kind, gentle, shy people who find mainstream society unacceptable and they have conciously chosen an alternative.

Michael Phillips, 1985 (revised 2000)


Note on Wino Park:

Wino Park was closed in 1983 after the Mayor and a major newspaper brought pressure to bear on the chief minister at Glide Church to close it down. Mayor Diane Feinstein (now a Senator) brought pressure because she thought the park brought shame on her city by catering to outcasts. The San Francisco Examiner wrote a distorted article attacking the park management for not help the people who spent time there to get sober and to get jobs. The Examiner had offices nearby and wanted to do real estate development in the neighborhood.


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