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Road Warrior

homeless on bench
Photos by Christopher Gardner

Life among the homeless men and shelters of Santa Clara County reveals a system struggling under the weight of both compassion and co-dependence

By Peter McNally

Peter McNally, 58, became homeless in 1994 after business went bad at his Palo Alto human resources agency and he was forced to close the company. Strapped with debts and an admitted drinking problem, McNally sold his BMW, lost his home--and wound up on the streets of Palo Alto and, eventually, San Jose. Prior to owning his own business, he was married and divorced, and worked for 20 years as an analyst on Wall Street. One of 11 children, he was raised in Boston and attended Boston University. For the past three years, he has devoted himself to keeping a journal of his experiences living among the homeless in Santa Clara County.

VEN, CAMINA CONMIGO. Come, walk with me, through a world you have only heard about distantly, the world of the homeless men of Santa Clara County. There are no "bag ladies" here, no families with little children. No, these are the lowest of the low on the homeless ladder, the "neediest of the needy" as the homeless advocacy groups endlessly chant. In truth, the majority of these men, who represent 70 to 75 percent of the county's homeless population, are able-bodied men who work mostly bajo la mesa--under the table. The tragedy, which most of the homeless advocacy groups either fail to recognize or admit publicly, is that their groups' very generosity toward these men perpetuates the men's problems. My observations are based on living for 18 months in many of the shelters for homeless men in Santa Clara County.

Banana Run

ONE OF THE MANY FASCINATING daily rituals of life in the homeless male world of Santa Clara County is what is known as "doing the Banana Run on the El Camino Real." Among the true alcoholics--about 5 percent of the homeless population by my estimate (but the social gurus and most senior officers at the shelters would say anywhere from 20 to 25 percent)--this is business as usual.

A homeless man named Ken, 48, an admitted alcoholic, does the Banana Run on a regular basis. On those days when Ken wasn't delivering fliers inside newspapers for a distributor in San Jose, he and I would leave the Montgomery Street Inn and hit the Lucky Store on East Santa Clara and Seventh streets in San Jose at 7am. Ken would hand me a food stamp with a face value of $1. Then, Ken would head for the onions and I would purchase a small banana, each of us getting change from the checker for our $1 food stamp. Outside, I gave Ken my 87 cents in change, and he would pocket the 91 cents he netted. Then it was off on bus No. 22 to a Safeway store near Santa Clara University. Here, 84 cents for me and 90 cents for Ken. And so it would go on up El Camino Real until we reached the bus stop on Castro Street in Mountain View, where we would drop in at the 101 Club, a popular local pub. I asked Ken once, why bananas at all, when the onion clearly netted so much more cash? His reply: "Who the fuck wants to eat onions all day? Bananas are good for the stomach and leave no trail--if you get my drift." I only made the banana run with Ken three times in the year I knew him. With the two of us hitting many of the supermarkets on the El Camino, we could do the run in less than three hours, net $20 to $22, be finished before noon, "kick back" at the 101 Club and drink the afternoon away prior to returning to the shelter at 5:30pm.


More on homelessness in the valley:

As real estate booms, families fight for
affordable rentals.

Shelter operators say dismal rehabilitation rate
pales next to higher mission of saving lives.

After three years on the street, a homeless man
rates the service at our local shelters.


Profile of a Man-child

THE HOMELESS MAN IS NOT at all what you picture him to be. He is not among the "neediest of the needy." In fact, I believe many of these men choose this lifestyle. After conducting more than 1,000 hours of interviews (what else do a bunch of homeless men have to do all day?) and talking with staff, I have concluded that the key to understanding these men is to view them as one would a "man-child." His values are frozen somewhere between the age of 14 and 16. In this permanent state of teenage rebellion, he holds negative opinions toward his own family, toward women in general and toward society at large. He constantly challenges conventional behavior in almost all matters, including his appearance. When his clothes gets too filthy, he simply goes to one of the many "clothes closets" scattered about Santa Clara County and gets free clothing. But the manner in which he too often wears this clothing must be seen to be believed. Some, especially the hard-core, long-term homeless men, wear their pants so loosely that they expose the upper half of their behind to public view. This is their way of literally mooning society, of expressing hostility for its values and sensibilities.

These men are the only group of Americans who have 100 percent discretionary income. They receive free housing, free food and free medical care. Thus, every single dollar they receive, be it from General Assistance, food stamps (tradable on any street corner for between 50 cents and 80 cents cash per $1 face value), pay received for day labor at the Labor Ready or Labor Connection in San Jose, working under the table--you name it--is available for cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, whatever.

In one of the months I stayed at the Montgomery Street Inn in 1995, I worked for a week with a professional woman trained in personnel placement and career counseling. My task was to help put together résumés for a group of 22 randomly chosen homeless men. I found the work an enlightening experience. Only five of the men had held a job for more than one year out of the previous five. Admittedly, the county experienced a recession between 1990 and 1993 but I suspect, on average, the typical single male did not whip through 10 to 15 different jobs during that time.

This job-hopping further diminishes the attractiveness of homeless men to prospective employers. Over time this lifestyle works to trap the men behind an invisible prison. For most adult men there are such things as dead-end jobs, but I don't believe this is true for the homeless man. Getting out of bed five days a week, getting to work on time, putting in eight hard-working hours a day in return for eight hours of pay, week in and week out--developing the work discipline and self-respect that honest labor gives to the worker--this is what most homeless men are unwilling to do.

I think the turning point for many of these men comes in the first one or two years of living on the streets. If one can catch them at this early stage, the chances of saving them from self-destructive behavioral patterns are reasonably good. During my years going from shelter to shelter, I could not get out of my mind a Russian proverb I learned while studying history during my university days: "Give me a boy of five and I'll make him into anything you want; give me a boy of fifteen and I'll shoot him, for there is nothing I can do." The average age of the men whose résumés I worked on was 35.

homeless behind bars

Poverty Inc.

AS A GENERAL RULE of thumb here in Santa Clara County, salaries are low for management in the collection of social services I call "Poverty Inc." The result is that you get a lot of paper-pushers but very few men or women of real managerial ability. Rather, one finds an army of bureaucrats skilled at extracting money from the government, foundations, corporations and individuals. The one institutional exception is the rotating church shelter programs. The case managers I met at three successful rotating church programs were extremly dedicated and capable. Interestingly, not one of them had a degree in the social sciences.

What makes these programs successful is that the men are pre-screened. One does not simply walk in off the street. Two, the men know from the get-go that getting a job and saving money for an apartment are the reasons they are in the program. I mentioned earlier in this article that this church program is the most cost-effective of any in California, if not America. I have seen numbers which lead me to believe that an annual out-of-pocket budget of from $55,000 to $60,000 will fund a full complement of 75 men a year, costing roughly $700 to $800 per individual.

[L.E. Boydston, executive director of Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, says that unless its staff is 100 percent volunteer, a rotating shelter program costs, at minimum, $250 per person per month to run. Boydston says UMPA's monthly budget is $260 to $270 per person. --Editor]

I have read of government programs ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 per man. And these programs have a failure rate of 80 to 90 percent in terms of getting the men jobs and into affordable housing. This compares to a success rate of upwards of 80 percent for the church programs--without a single dime of taxpayer money involved.

Homeless Inflation

FROM THE very beginning of this research project, I have found a consistent bias toward exaggeration on the part of both the shelter people and governmental agencies. This is a money game: If there are more men out there, then the problem is larger and requires more governmental, foundation, corporate and individual financial assistance.

When I first attended meetings at City Hall in San Jose and they were debating the merits of Emergency Housing Consortium's request to get City Council approval for a 250-bed shelter last year (which was quite properly denied), both EHC and the "captive" county bureaucracy estimated between 15,000 to 20,000 homeless men in and around San Jose. Only Councilman David Pandori, in answer to a direct question from me from the floor, had his feet close to the ground when he challenged this estimate and offered his own best guess of 8,000 to 10,000. Recently, Barry del Bono, the executive director of EHC, was quoted in the local media, estimating a population of 5,000 homeless men. We are getting there!

There are only so many bridges to sleep under, only so many abandoned buildings--plus, the homeless men know to the nearest hundred the number of beds available each night, and their nightly usage. One night, a man may sleep in the San Jose armory; the next night, or even next month, he may choose the armory at Sunnyvale or Gilroy. Given that benefits are nearly 100 percent higher at certain programs in San Francisco, he may choose to stay a week or two in the city. Nevertheless, for hardcore homeless men, my highest guestimate would be about 2,000--absolute tops.

Notes from Underground

THE MOST FREQUENTLY asked question of me today from family and close friends is, "Why are you still in that world?" I am determined to chronicle my experiences here, because I feel the system is in dire need of change.

I traveled to Mexico last year and discovered that everything--and I mean everything--I had left behind was stolen. Travel bags, clothes, radio, a word processor purchased only a week before at Office Depot--gone. But these were only physical and material things, replaceable things. What really hurt was the loss of hundreds of hours of notes from interviews with the men and the many pages of a manuscript I had written.

This almost broke my spirit, but I kept on as a result of a remembrance of a night in Sunnyvale, a Friday night, sitting on a bench in front of a Presbyterian church in a rotating church shelter program, smoking a great cigar. It was one of those few times in life when happiness--normally always experienced in retrospect--flooded over me and I could not stop the tears, nor did I want to. I vowed then that nothing, absolutely nothing, would stop me from completing the task I had set out for myself. This article is but the opening shot. My mission is to expose the rottenness of this welfare world, the monumental hypocrisy of the professionals in the field, the patronage and job-creating cancer at both the national level and in the local urban centers of America.

What can be done to improve the system? For a start: stop the giveaways. At Montgomery Street Inn, for example, men in the transitional housing program pay $70 a week for program management, which includes room and board and case-management services. At Emergency Housing Consortium, where the men sleep on mats on the floor of the armories, why not charge $2 per night? These two organizations, respectively the oldest and largest shelters for homeless men in Santa Clara County, are chronically strapped for operating funds. The aforementioned policies, after they are fully implemented, would generate $5,000 to $6,000 a month for Montgomery Street Inn and between $30,000 to $35,000 for EHC's cold-weather program.

There are dozens of other ideas out there too numerous to mention here, but nothing will ever really change unless the fundamental relationship changes between the homeless men and the organizations serving them.

Since this article was written for Metro, some local shelters have adopted McNally's recommendations. He also secured 10 days of employment on the set of Mad City, a movie recently filmed in downtown San Jose, where he played a stand-in, not for a homeless character, but for a news reporter. He has moved out of the shelter system and is currently renting a room in a private home. As of last week, he had secured a full-time job.

Anne Gelhaus contributed to this report.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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