Being Homeless Is Not A Crime

When I arrived home from the office about 8 p.m. on a Sunday, I could smell a pungent, sweet smoke smell as I exited the car. It was not pipe tobacco or marijuana. It was unlike any smoke I had ever smelled. I had no idea what it was or where it was coming from until I was a few feet from the staircase to my second-story townhouse.

I was startled by a large black man, well over 6 feet tall and probably 300 pounds dressed in heavy winter clothing with a large black ski cap on his head. The outside temperature was in the high 40s and the temperature was dropping; it was very cold and damp for the Silicon Valley.

My wife heard my startled reaction and came out on the second story deck. Normally, if I am out at night and see someone, I say, “Hello,” to let them know I see them and to make sure I do not startle them. This man just stood there rocking back and forth on his feet. He had a wry grin on his face — the look of someone “spaced out.” He took a sip from a 20-ounce plastic orange soda bottle while staring at me not saying a word. Perhaps he thought or hoped I would not notice him — that he was invisible.

I said, “I was not expecting you there.” He responded, “I live around the corner — I just stepped outside to have a smoke.” I headed upstairs. I knew he did not “live around the corner.” So I called the San Jose Police Department to let them know about the situation. About 45 minutes later, a police car drove around our circle at about 20 miles per hour but never stopped to investigate.

Why did I call? Fear and concern for my family’s safety? I have no idea what this guy’s intentions were or why he was there, or whether he had drug, alcohol, perhaps psychiatric issues, PTSD, or was doing a drug deal, etc.

Later, I tried to take my dog out for the last time that night and he refused to walk down the stairs with me. While unusual, I did not think much of it. Then, the same thing happened Monday night. While I thought it strange, I did not suspect anything was wrong.

Tuesday morning, I left the house about 7:30 a.m. Soon after, I received a call from my wife demanding I get back to the townhouse quickly—she was sure someone was sleeping under the outdoor staircase as she had seen tennis shoes protruding from the stairwell. I drove back, confirmed someone was there and called 9-1-1. The police dispatcher asked if I saw any guns or knives. I said no. He asked if the person was breathing. I said there was no way for me to tell. He said he was dispatching police and paramedics to our address and asked if I would stay to direct them to the location. I of course agreed.

The fire and paramedics arrived shortly after I had hung up the phone with lights and sirens blazing. They roused the man awake. He crawled out. They confirmed he was oriented and told him he was not allowed to be there. He expressed no surprise — I would call his reaction “quiet resignation.” He simply walked away. The police never showed up.

I was able to get this guy kicked off our property. Mission accomplished, right?

My wife and I soon felt horrible about kicking this man out of our town home community — we felt genuine compassion for him. Yet, we did not really did not have a choice. We could not ignore the situation. We are not responsible for assessing him, his medical status, etc. We knew he had slept there at least 2 nights. We were very uncomfortable knowing he had been there. Perhaps our exterior stairwell — which is not that clean and likely has spiders down there — was, for him, a valuable source of refuge from the rain and cold if only for 2 nights.

I am certain he spends his life moving from what little refuge he can muster for himself and waits to be told to move along. He knew the drill. He did not protest. He did as he was asked.

Does he not have a tough enough life just being homeless? Does he not deserve our compassion? Is this the best our society can offer this man? Is this the best my wife and I can do for this human being? I hope not. But, this time, it was. We wanted him out of there because, to us, he represented a potential threat to the safety and security of our family. Yet, for all we know, his only “crime” may be just being homeless for which he is punished every day of his homelessness. Homelessness is not a crime.

My wife and I were left with the questions: What could anyone have done differently. What can society do to support people like him differently? We did the right thing by calling for assistance — he could have been in real distress.

We pray for the homeless man who got 2 nights of refuge from the rain and cold under our stairwell. It was not much. It really was not anything. Yet, it meant something to him. We hope he is getting help and compassion somewhere in this wealthy area of the world called Silicon Valley.

I encourage you to follow the Twitter handle @InvisiblePeople to learn more about the plight of the homeless in our country today.

Dave Gardner

© 2013 Dave Gardner
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