Homeless in San Jose
by Albert Bliss
Four weeks ago I walked into San Jose’s “Labor Ready,” an employment agency that doled out day jobs. There was a cute chick behind the counter. I waited for her to finish talking with a new employee about his job application. Her shiny, brown stiff hair curled just above her shoulders. And when she smiled, I could see her clean white teeth. Four weeks ago I walked into Labor Ready and today was my last day in town, I hoped.
“Hi Al. What up?”
“I’m heading east, Hon. I’m leaving San Jose late tonight, by thumb.”
“Well, good luck to you.”
“Can you hook me up with a job? I need the extra coin for the road trip.”
“Saturdays are slow but we are getting calls. All I can say is put your name on the list and wait.”
After signing the first-come/ first-served list I sat in a white plastic lawn chair and looked around the room. There were twelve guys waiting for a job, no gals. Some were watching the video (Gladiator) on the television, some were reading the sports page and some were snoozing. The phones were not ringing and that was a bad sign. I looked at each face to see if I knew any of them from Montgomery Street Inn, the homeless shelter where I was staying. I didn’t and so I took my notebook out of my backpack and wrote out my final impressions of the San Jose homeless scene.
There were good points and bad points to every job agency, and Labor Ready was no different. “Work Today Get Paid Today” was their motto and it was true. I got cake jobs through this joint and I got backbreaking jobs. I did catering and construction work, mostly. Employers that I worked for paid Labor Ready and the agency paid me. The employers paid Labor Ready sixteen to eighteen bucks per hour but laborers like me only got half of that figure. In my opinion, laborers should have gotten the lion share of the hourly rate, but I kept my jaws shut because I needed money. Monday through Friday was busy; the phones were always ringing and I always went out on a job. On-the-wait for day jobs were Mexicans, Blacks, Whites and a bleached blond dude with a big silver hoop through his left lobe. There was a middle aged Asian fellow with a stainless steel clipper attached to his wrist and a younger White dude who wore a black patch, pirate style.
I mention the men I shaped-up with at Labor Ready because some homeless guys won’t travel America on the cheap. Why? Because they don’t know if they’ll be accepted for being aboriginal, gay, midget or disabled. Everybody had a fair chance to get the day jobs, dig?
San Jose’s Labor Ready had a bathroom inside the shape-up hall, a wash up sink outside the can and a couple of soda and candy vending machines against the wall. They showed video films at Labor Ready, while you waited for your name to be called. The agency also offered free coffee. I have gotten jobs out of temporary employment agencies around America and none have offered video films as I waited for work and only a few joints provided free fresh coffee.
Except for my first seven days in San Jose, Montgomery Street Inn, also known as InnVision, was my home. I slept in bed twenty-three, top bunk. The bed had clean sheets, blanket and pillow. My Bunkie, Don, a sixty-year old court appointed parolee, occupied the bottom bed. InnVision served three free meals per day, seven days per week, to residents and non-residents alike. Breakfast was five o’clock till seven; lunch was one o’clock till two; dinner was six o’clock till seven. Members of a church group did the cooking Thursday nights and the line to get a sit-down for that meal was one hundred plus long. Except for Thursday dinners, the food at InnVision was basic.
Everyone had to do a daily chore to keep his bed. My chore was to sweep and dry-mop the kitchen. It took me a half-hour to forty minutes to do my do. All the residents had to leave the shelter by eight o’clock in the morning and return to the shelter by seven thirty at night. The curfew was way too early for grown men to be holed-up for the night, and I voiced my opinion to InnVision Staff on a suggestion form.
The first thirty days at Montgomery Street Inn were free; after that the cost was forty-five bucks per week. Many of the residents had full time jobs but most earned their rent money doing per diem work out of Labor Ready. It was my opinion that these working residents should be given brown bag lunches to save money and I put that opinion in the suggestion box, also. There were other shelters, CityTeam Ministries, Salvation Army and Little Orchard Shelter. Montgomery Street Inn was the best; it had the most to offer and that was why I stayed there.
Compared to other cities, San Jose did not have a sizable homeless population. Four hundred would be a liberal head count and any higher number would be false. Nobody panhandled for money there and few men did the tin can and plastic bottle gig. I have traveled all over America and have written about the stuff I observed. Every single city that I had visited had pigeon feeders, except San Jose. I have witnessed and participated in that homeless ritual, feeding the pigeons, for five whole years. It was strange not hearing homeless men asking soup kitchen volunteers for extra bread and cake. It was odd not seeing them breaking bread into morsels and feeding the winged creatures. I often wondered what had happened?
San Jose cops were everywhere! I did not hear any first hand accounts of police brutality perpetrated against homeless people, but I did see a huge police presence. Black and white squad cars circled downtown streets all the time; ditto for police vans and shiny black motorcycles and blue uniforms on foot patrol.
Despite what city slackers said, “You’ll never go hungry in San Jose,” in my view there were not enough free restaurants to feed the hungry. It was difficult to get hygiene supplies but easy to get spare threads. I stood in line at a social service window every three days or so. (In case you decide to do the San Jose homeless scene, the address of the social service window is 80 South Market Street). The window was womaned by Cathy, a short brunette with tweezed eyebrows and upturned nostrils. I got bus and train passes from Cathy, soft drinks and snacks, toilet tokens and clothing vouchers.
One of my favorite haunts was lounging inside transportation terminals. I saw no grifters working the San Jose bus depots and there were no con artists scamming tourists as they exited Amtrak train terminal. There were no homeless baggage handlers in either depot, earning tips in exchange for handling luggage. Upon arrival, I camped-out on the banks of the Guadalupe River. During that first week I saw few of San Jose’s homeless, hardly any slept outside and that surprised me. When I loitered in San Diego and in Los Angeles hundreds of men and women slept on sidewalks, on loading docks and on abandoned lots.
The distinguishing personality traits of San Jose’s homeless men were timid and submissive. I was not at all impressed with what I saw and heard. Most were friendly dudes and followed InnVision staff rules but none behaved as arrogant outsiders. Not one man regarded himself as an American rebel. I hope my read on them was wrong but I believe that San Jose’s street men do not have the guts to become homeless nonconformists. What a loss for the city of San Jose! What a terrible loss to the street nobility that I picture and predict! A few InnVision residents played the “I got over on the system” game, but I was not bamboozled. A few men had prescriptions for painkillers, Vacadin, Zannex, Codein3 and Morphine. By means of the “meds,” they cloaked their dope addiction and kept their beds at InnVision. Big deal! A few dudes got drunk early in the morning, others skin-popped before they left the shelter, so that they’d be sober by curfew time. Big fucking deal! Some dudes made shelter headlines when they got “bottled” (made to take a urine test) or breathalized. Others thought themselves clever because they managed to smuggle a vial of cocaine into a federal courthouse without being nabbed.
I humored the motherfuckers, but between you and me, homeless sir, what difference did their pranks make? Even if they did get thrown in the slammer, their antics were not deliberate deeds of civil disobedience designed to create social chaos. Their acts did not draw attention to the plight of San Jose’s homeless, and so what good were they? Rather than destroying their bodies with hard booze and excessive sleep, I wished that they used their energy to think-up and execute strategies to dismantle the San Jose police state. Rather than mainlining H. and popping pills, I wished that they used their time to become first rank anarchists and top shelf artists.
I was ashamed of these men and it pained me deeply when I wrote the following: San Jose’s homeless men had no higher purpose other than to get numbed-out; they had no personal destiny to fulfill other than to make rent and tobacco money. This, my last day in San Jose, was filled with distress and despair. I was distressed because I came to San Jose to meet the blessed lambs of the new age of homelessness and found only cowardly chickens. As I had hitchhiked from Vancouver, Canada to San Jose,California, I remember I had such wonderful daydreams. My mind pictured mastermind bums that had evil plans to lead a street revolution. As I held my thumb out for a car ride along Interstate Highway Five, I envisioned skilled musicians who would write battle songs to be sung by vagrant warriors hell-bent on establishing a brave new Homeless Republic. As my skin burned under a scorching sun, waiting for a ride, I saw myself sitting cross-legged around a campfire, rapping with San Jose’s street poets, men who wanted to create romantic rhymes for the ages, to be recited before lovers do the do. I imagined myself competing with down and out writers for the highest prize, homeless immortality. I saw myself penning everlasting street prose for lonely, hungry and courageous road masters. I had such high hopes when I got here, four weeks ago. I sought homeless pariahs who were ready to give themselves a sublime direction and equally ready to sacrifice their lives for the new order. I hunted the transportation depots for cunning criminals who could persuade the cream of street life to join an elite class of fearless lords. I searched the parks and scoured the banks of the Guadalupe River for powerful vagrants who could change the course of homeless history. When I first got here I walked the pavements for days, feet aching, searching for San Jose’s best bums. Now, hours before I hit the road, I felt only despair and failure. That is why I must leave San Jose promptly and waste no more of my precious time.