Life under the bridge: Homeless and mentally ill in SLO County

Sad stories of county’s homeless population are rife with mental illness — but also hope

bmorem@thetribunenews.comAugust 10, 2011 

Until recently Marilyn lived with all her posessions under the Prado Road bridge over San Luis Creek. David Middlecamp 7-14-2011

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Marilyn doesn’t know where she was born exactly, although she believes it was in the desert near railroad tracks because she remembers men on a caboose waving to her as they rode by. Many of Marilyn’s 58 years of life and memories are indistinct, cloaked in haze.

I talked with Marilyn one recent morning, me buying her a coffee and she offering me a piece of cardboard on which to sit while we chatted. The front porch of her “home” was a crawl space under Prado Road bridge spanning San Luis Creek, a place where as many as two dozen people would shelter during the night.

Marilyn’s belongings — multiple blankets, bags of clothing and sleeping bags given to her by those meaning well — surrounded her. “I’m psychologically attached to this stuff,” she said.

Although Marilyn may be a member of our community’s homeless population, she isn’t necessarily dispossessed. While a bad knee, an ulcer and asthma — as well as her attachment to her things — had kept her under the bridge morning, noon and night, she had a network of friends who had been bringing her buttered toast and sweet rolls in the morning and Chef Boyardee in the evenings.

On this particular summer morning, the air had a faint smell of urine, and a rat brazenly scampered near Tribune photographer David Middlecamp’s shoes, staring him down from a bridge abutment.

“When you live down here,” Marilyn said in a high, childlike voice, “you make things work.”

Marilyn had been “making it work” under the bridge for eight months. She was only going to spend a night or two and then friends were going to take her to a campground in Grover Beach, but they never showed up.

As she sipped her coffee, she explained in almost a singsong rote that she’d once gone to Pierce College to take real estate classes. Later, she’d worked for 11 years as a midlevel manager at an electronics company in the San Fernando Valley.

As trucks rumbled over the bridge, releasing fine wisps of dust that landed on her shoulders and cap-topped head, Marilyn said she’d loved the electronics job, but she had lost it when she went out on disability. When the company filed for bankruptcy, she signed up for Social Security insurance.

That safety net evaporated as Marilyn moved from campgrounds to motels to makeshift campsites next to creeks and in brushy areas, missing a Social Security recertification appointment in the process. By her reckoning, she’s been homeless for 15 years.

• • •

Sadly, tragically, Marilyn isn’t the only person who has made the banks of San Luis Creek a refuge.

On July 8, 54-year-old James Kristopher Wadsworth crawled into his tent next to the creek off South Higuera Street and Elks Lane and suffered fatal burns after a candle lit his tent on fire. One of the last acts of his life was to get a woman out of the tent before she, too, was burned.

Or, take Roger. At 56, he’s been self-medicating with alcohol since age 12. He believes his father used to put beer in his baby bottle to make him sleep. Later, when his mother died when he was 6, his father, an alcoholic, would leave him alone for long periods of time.

Although Roger worked as a telemarketer and came within three classes of getting an associate’s degree in accounting at a community college near Sacramento, he ended up living under a San Luis Creek bridge for 15 years.

Or, take Moose, 63. He, too, suffered neglect as a child, was in and out of juvenile detention centers and started drinking early. When he wasn’t traveling around the state, he made ends meet by working in maintenance and as a mechanic. He’s been living in San Luis Obispo since 1989.

According to Dee Torres, director of homeless services for the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (formerly the Economic Opportunity Commission), one of the threads that runs through each of these individual’s lives is mental illness.

According to the most recent countywide Homeless Enumeration, children account for some 49 percent of the 4,000 people who reported themselves as homeless. That number may be accurate, and it’s a harsh indictment of our society at large and this county in particular if that’s the case.

But Torres and those who work with the homeless at the Prado Day Center, the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter and other homeless outreach services around the county aren’t seeing as many homeless children as they are those who are abjectly homeless and mentally ill.

In fact, case management statistics show that 64 percent of those seeking help are found to be clinically mentally ill, with many of those abusing alcohol or drugs.

Now, if you’re looking to blame Ronald Reagan for closing mental hospitals during his tenure as governor during the 1970s, thus releasing a torrent of mentally ill homeless people onto California streets, keep your powder dry. Lawsuits by the ACLU and other liberals were just as responsible for closing hospitals.

The antidote to institutionalization, they believed at the time — and still do — is one of fully funding medical treatment. Before that happens, though, those who live along the banks of San Luis Creek have to be located and brought within the system. And that’s what Torres is doing.

• • •

Through the efforts of CAPSLO and Torres, Marilyn is now out from under her bridge and is living in temporary Section 8 housing in a downtown San Luis Obispo hotel. She’s being re-enrolled in Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income and is under case management.

Roger is now living in a small apartment in Pismo Beach, clean and sober, although he takes prescribed medications.

Moose is living in a small studio apartment in Grover Beach through a federal grant program called the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Project. He’s enrolled in SSI and receives medication for schizophrenia.

As Torres notes: “Our tax dollars are not going to waste by providing them housing. By living in the creeks, they are polluting the environment, and living on the streets, they are polluting streets and neighborhoods. The police and court system become overburdened when giving tickets out to people who can’t pay them, and hospitals lose money caring for someone who can’t pay their bills.”

Now, for Marilyn, Roger and Moose, at least, those problems are solved. And that, in this day and age, qualifies as a win-win-win situation.

Reach Bill Morem at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.

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