Pleasanton's hidden homeless
Displaced individuals and families find refuge wherever they can
They fly under the radar, staying out of sight for the most part. If you didn't know where to look, or when, it would be easy to miss them.
They live in cars and campers in parking lots, under overpasses and "couch surf," staying with family and friends.
They're Pleasanton's homeless.
Homeless in general seem to fall into two classes: those who are homeless by choice and those left homeless by circumstance. Many of those who choose to live on the street have a history of mental illness or substance abuse; some have fallen through the cracks.
"Bob" (not his real name), for example, likely falls into the first category. He's hesitant to speak, but admits he's been homeless "for years and years." When asked where he lives, he replies, "That's between me and my God."
Asked how he came to be homeless, Bob launches into a complicated tale involving identity theft, the Internet and English, offering a photocopied letter to prove his point.
Another homeless man, 50-year-old Randolph Gonzales was found dead in his sleeping bag last month. Gonzales was found mid-day on Dec. 5 by a bicyclist on the Alamo Canal, not far from Johnson Drive, a stone's throw from the Pleasanton Hilton hotel and ClubSport.
Jenna Jurich said her husband and daughter were nodding acquaintances with the man, who, she said, had lived there for about three years.
"He seemed like a very nice man," Jurich said. "He stayed in his sleeping bag most of the time and he would say 'watch your head' and wish them a good ride."
"He really did touch our family. They were sad when he was gone. They miss him -- he was like an old friend," Jurich continued. "Their rides won't be the same."
Gonzales died of congestive heart failure, according to the Alameda County Coroner's Office, and his death highlights one of the struggles of the homeless -- access to health care and other services. A 2011 preliminary human needs assessment notes that Axis and Tri-City Health Center are crowded and wait times can be very long.
"Axis is in high demand and over capacity. Not everyone is guaranteed access ... and only some services are free," said one participant in the survey, who is dealing with a foreclosure and needs low-cost health services.
Gonzales also had an alcohol problem, according to Jurich. Axis has a program for that, but a participant must want to attend.
Bob and Gonzales are evidence of the traditional motion of the homeless, but the economy has created another kind of homeless: people who have lost their homes and are living in cars, vans or trailers. Some of them still have their jobs and head off to work like usual, although others have lost it all.
On a recent morning, the parking lot at Wal-Mart contained eight cars and nine campers with people inside. It's not easy to tell until one looks for the signs, according to "Al" (again, not his real name), who slept there for a couple of months after losing his home. Those signs, Al said, include vehicles with their motors idling overnight, and those with frost inside as well as outside, car seats laid flat with sleepers braving the winter cold, and sheets, blankets or silver solar reflectors set up to provide some privacy and block the parking lot lights.
Wal-Mart is a safe haven for the homeless, Al said. The company has for years had a policy allowing overnight sleepers, largely to encourage people traveling in recreational vehicles to wake up there and come inside.
"One thing about the homeless, the people on the streets, they're very stealthy, they stay low," he said. He said those staying in parking lots know one another, but rarely talk, although many head to McDonald's on Santa Rita Road just after dawn to warm themselves with a cup of coffee, typically gathering in one section of the restaurant.
Al said his story is about the typical American dream turned bad. He had a house, cars and big screen TV until the economy and his business crashed.
"It was a long process," he said. "I used to have a home in Tracy. I lived there for about 21 years."
He raised his son, who's now 19, there.
"I was a self-employed painting contractor," Al said. "I had the house, I had the business, I had good money. ... When you lose those things, they're no longer important."
Al is now staying with a friend, couch surfing, so he doesn't have to worry, at least for the time being, about the cold weather.
"I didn't have a lot of people backing me when I went down," he explained. "A lot of people, they do this on their own. ... (But) blue-collar workers, we were just pounded."
There are a number of reasons Al's dream soured. He said he was in a bad relationship, and as his troubles worsened with the economy, he got involved in substance abuse. He's been selling his possessions to get by, and had a small insurance settlement to draw on for a while.
Now, he's working to rebuild his life on a smaller scale. He's clean and sober, thanks to a 12-step program, getting about 25 hours a week in a different field, and hopes to start his business again.
"I've cleared a lot of legal issues, a lot of fines, a DUI, a lot of legal costs -- 2008 to 2010, those were rough years," Al said.
It's hard to come up with an exact figure of homeless people in Pleasanton, according to Samantha Burrows, director of homeless and family support services for Tri-Valley Haven, which offers temporary housing for families.
"It's a really hard thing to do because they're not all congregating somewhere -- they're hiding; they're going to be somewhere secure," Burrows said. "It's not an exact science."
She said a 2011 one-night survey showed that on any given night, there are 4,178 people in Alameda County who are homeless, but the numbers shift and don't count people who don't show up at shelters or food banks. That number is down from 4,341 in a survey done in 2007.
While there is a core of the homeless in Pleasanton, there are others who are just a paycheck away from being homeless.
That's the case for Joe (again, not his real name). He is one of the 50 or so people who come to Open Heart Kitchen's free meal in Pleasanton on Fridays and hit the kitchen's other giveaways in Dublin and Livermore
"I make my rent, but food isn't something I am able to afford," he said. "I used to be an upper-middle-class person."
With temperatures recently dropping into the 20s overnight, the choice between food and shelter for Joe and those like him, at or near the poverty level, may be an even more difficult one.