Talon writers Cameron Avery and Danny Vesurai spoke with several homeless people on University Avenue in Palo Alto in an attempt to understand their lives and philosophies.
In order to interview homeless people, we go to University Avenue because we recall that we’ve seen some homeless people here before — more than on Castro.
Within a few blocks we come across a man stationed outside Walgreens with a sign on his wheelchair. We pass him by at first, both stymied by our irrational fears and the stigma around homelessness. We walk a little farther, then pause in front of the Apple store. We look at each other, both guilty and fully aware we’ve just shirked our responsibilities.
We turn around, and say hello.
Zachary is a 23-year-old man who’s been disabled since birth with a deformed back and legs. He was forced to turn to asking for money on the street in 2011 after the death of his mother, his sole caretaker.
Since then, he’s perfected the art of panhandling along with his mindset, ignoring derogatory remarks about him from mean-spirited attackers while brightening the days of passersby. He seems to know everyone in this city; he often exchanges a wave and friendly greeting with people walking past.
“I’m a simple, organized money collector, somebody who’s just simply moving about his day and wants to make things happen,” Zachary says.
In the middle of the interview, a little girl comes up and hands him $5. He responds with a genuine, heartwarming smile.
“Thank you very much,” he says. “Have a nice day.”
When we ask him whether he’s ever been mistreated because of his situation, his initial response seems cynical.
“Yeah,” he says. “Pretty much all the time, considering that it’s improper to be 23-years-old and healthy enough to get a job… and be asking people for money on the street.”
Despite the derision he experiences, Zachary says the remarks don’t bother him.
“I don’t really care what anybody thinks,” he says. “They can call me a ‘piece of shit bum’ and I’m gonna be like ‘Alright, cool, you don’t even know me like that anyways,’ so it doesn’t bother me. Every once in awhile, people need somebody to scream at [and] I can understand being that somebody.”
The conversation lulls to a halt, and we thank him before bidding him goodbye.
Farther down University, we meet Buck. He’s reading intently, and when we try to get his attention, he doesn’t look up — we later find out he’s hard of hearing.
In a routine physical six months ago, Buck found that he needed a kidney transplant. As a result, he had to quit his job as a carpenter, which he’d held for over 40 years. He now spends his days on University Avenue collecting donations, though he’s decidedly less passionate about doing so than Zachary — Buck doesn’t actively greet people, instead choosing to sit quietly with a box and sign next to him while he reads a book.
“I’m not really your common homeless guy who sits around and drinks all day,” Buck said. “That’s not me.”
Buck views his situation with disbelief and attributes it to mere misfortune.
“I never thought I’d be stuck out here… in a million years,” Buck said. “It’s all just bad luck. I was doing fine, working steadily [with] a house in Portola Valley.”
Stigmas surround the homeless community, stigmas which even some homeless people themselves can’t seem to escape. Even Buck thinks of the “common homeless person” as a lazy drunkard.
But after our day spent talking to four of the same people that Buck had vilified, it was clear that his views were rooted only in mainstream folklore, urban myth that painted the homeless in a negative light.
For example, there was the woman who had cancer and had just undergone another round of chemotherapy treatments and didn’t have the energy to talk to us, but looked genuinely sorry that she couldn’t and told us to have a nice day and God bless us. Or Zach, who’s been deemed by society as inferior based on his disability, yet still manages to remain positive in the face of legitimate hardship. Or any number of the thousands of homeless in the Silicon Valley who didn’t choose to be homeless, who suffered factors beyond their control and were forced into their situation.
Buck was right about one thing: bad luck definitely plays a part in homeless people’s situations. Sometimes, people aren’t a product of their decisions. And in this supposed meritocracy, this valley of opportunity and success and wealth, this is overlooked far too often.