At Least Someone Knows My Name

The houseless pandemic hits Palm Springs

Karl Marx wrote that capitalism creates two distinct social classes, the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (workers). So, where does that leave the homeless, whose crisis-level numbers in California have risen more than 16 percent since the Great Recession, according to government statistics, and nearly seven percent from 2019–2020?

Walking through Downtown Palm Springs, the forgotten class is hard to ignore. In the dry heat a man in his late 50s wearing a white, button-up Chanel shirt and khaki shorts walks past a woman in her late 40s who is bathing in the Sony Bono Fountain, a popular watering hole for pigeons and other local birds.

While it’s apparent, anecdotally, that the homeless population in Palm Springs, despite its often inhospitable climate, has risen from few in numbers to being hard to deny, local police and officials complain that the city is being used as “dumping ground” by surrounding areas, especially for homeless people who need to quarantine during the pandemic. Officials say they are quarantined in unidentified hotels and then released into the city. City leaders claim they had no idea it was happening. Last week, officers discovered about 30 people had been bused in from outside the Coachella Valley, Palm Spring Police Department Chief Bryan Reyes told city council.”

Homeless people seeking shelter from the elements can be spotted in makeshift encampments in the wash under the bridge by the KFC on South Palm Canyon Drive. Many hope for change in their life while others struggle with mental illness that stops them from seeking the help they need.

Sonny Bono Fountain (Bird fountain)

Working at the popular downtown restaurant, Sam’s Place, it’s normal to see homeless people in the back parking lot trying to find shade from the desert heat. Sam’s Place took over Ruby’s Diner when it foreclosed in 2019. Houseless people took to seeeking shade under the umbrellas left behind. They bathe in the Sony Bono fountain.

In the mornings, before my shifts starts, Monica sits on the edge of the parking lot to make sure no one is watching. She enters the fountain fully clothed in her big, black tee shirt and patched jeans. When I come outside to set up the patio, the smell of urine fills the air. Monica, with her sulking face embarrassed at being seen, runs back to her ledge by the parking lot, dripping wet dragging along the stench of urine and body odor. It’s difficult for homeless people to find a place to bathe or even go to the bathroom. Shop and restaurants owners and managers won’t allow them to come inside and use the restrooms anymore due to Covid protocol and guidelines.

Well In The Desert food distributers for the homeless 2018 (courtesy of: Wellinthedesert.org)

If I disappear one day, at least I know someone knows my name.

Antonio Rivera, a local homeless man, sits on the bench in front of Sam’s Place in the desert heat everyday. He is 5'11" and weights 300 lbs. Antonio has had a rough four years battling with depression and alcoholism.B But he hasn’t given up. “Everyday I try and find something new to do but it’s hard,” he says. “I’m a repeat offender of alcohol. I’ll be perfectly fine in the morning but somehow find myself at the casino. People feel bad and offer me drinks so I just keep going.”

Sleeping on the sidewalk in downtown Palm Springs

Rivera grew up in Sacramento California and how he got to Palm Springs is baffling. He had dropped out of high school his junior year and moved in with friends because his family struggled to care for him the correct way.

“I came from Sacramento, somehow ended up in Los Angeles by hitchhiking and having long nights in random benches or parks. But a while ago, this man offered me food at the shelter and then offered to take me to somewhere with housing and I got on a bus and now I’m here,” he says.

Rivera mentioned they took him and about 30 other people. He wanted to see the stars, and thats why he came. He gets upset when explaining that the bus driver promised to help. Rivera says he just wanted a bed a shower. He hasn’t taken a real shower in over two years. The only shower he gets close to taking is rinsing under a random hose or the fountain next door to Sam’s Place.

Rivera has been offered a job washing dishes that would offer him a chance to clean up before work, but he’s not interested. He makes $10–20 a day panhandling and people give him free food and drink.

“I am not ready for help yet. I’m not ready to give up the free booze I get, man.” he admits. “People feel sad for me and give me stuff. I won’t get the help until I want too. You’ll see me here a lot more but if I disappear one day, at least I know someone knows my name.”

“Do you know a good drug dealer?” and “Can you help me find my baby?”

Monica is in her late 40’s, her blond hair in knots that look impossible to get out. She weighs less then 120 pounds and has abrasions all over her body. Monica suffers from mental illness and drug abuse. She strolls around downtown screaming at storefronts while carrying all her belonging in a ripped backpack. He belongings often drag along on the ground behind her sometimes and she’ll start yelling.

“WHO STOLE MY SH*T! IT WAS YOU WASN’T IT? WHERES MY SH*T! WHEN I FIND OUT WHO STOLE IT, I’M KILLING YOU.”

Monica doesn’t know her last name. She’s hard to talk to as she can switch personalities and react erratically. She rocked back and forth on her bare feet, the concrete burning hot from the heat. Grabbing some extra flip flops from the back of the car, her face had this smile that reached from head to toe. From sulking that morning to screaming to smiling you could see the difficult life she lived.

Monica didn’t want to answer my questions but she had a couple of her own for me. “Do you know a good drug dealer?” and “Can you help me find my baby?” Monica says everyone always gives her the wrong stuff, all she ever wants is her baby back and some coke.

Homeless encampment by the “wash” hear KFC (PC desertsun.com)

Although many of the newly arrived homeless here don’t understand why they are being dropped off within our city limits, it’s too late to reverse what’s already in motion. According to Riverside County’s estimates, the city’s homeless population rose from 126 in 2018 to 196 in 2019, and likely more since. The city is currently debating what to do with $10 million in state funds earmarked for helping the homeless. California is home to more that 160,000 homeless, according to a recent federal report. That’s a quarter of the nation’s homeless population. Our city’s $10 million question is the state’s $20 billion question. And, yet, the numbers seem to just keep rising.

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