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January 10, 2010

The drunkards of Walnut Creek? Or rather, just some chatty, friendly homeless guys hanging out in front of the former Sunrise Cafe and Bakery


Last week, I was on a lunch break and driving back to work along California Boulevard, passing Trader Joe's, when I saw three scruffy, homeless guys sitting at the picnic tables in front of the former Sunrise Cafe and Bakery.

This is the former popular eatery where suburbanites sat outside, at those picnic tables, at all hours of the morning and afternoon, eating omelettes, salads, sandwiches, and pastries. Now it, and other commercial spaces in that little strip mall near Newell Avenue (site of the former Pinky's Pizza), stand empty.

And, on a recent  misty, sunless afternoon, a couple of those picnic tables in front of the former Sunrise Cafe was occupied by guys in beards, hats, and dirty old jackets. One was chugging from a bottle wrapped in a white plastic bag.

Curious--and nosy as I am--I pulled into Trader Joe's, got out and started watching the guys. They caught me watching them, and one of them came walking across the four lanes of California Boulevard traffic to me.

This guy, in a green coat, had cuts on his nose and looked and smelled like he hadn't showered or washed his clothes in months. He asked me why I was watching them. I told him: that I'm curious about people who are homeless in Walnut Creek (as evidenced by my interest and support of Fresh Start Walnut Creek, the homeless respite and services center, and of Creek Kids Care, which raises money to support Fresh Start programs).

I also told him about my blog. He introduced himself as Larry. He held out his hand which was caked in dirt. After we shook, he invited me to come over and meet his friends.

So, I crossed the street with Larry and sat, for as long as I could, and enjoyed what was a friendly but somewhat meandering conversation with Larry and his friends, Allen and Keith. The three shared their life stories filled with hard luck and, they admitted, their own bad choices.

Before I go on, I should address my use of the term "drunkard" in this post's headline. Well, first, this term is a reference to blogger friend Claycord.com's "Drunkards of Claycord" series, in which the Mayor has followed the misadventures of 13 men who have been identified by Concord police as chronic homeless who are causing trouble in that community.

As far as I know, Larry, Allen, and Keith have not received any such designation from authorities. But they all admitted to having long-term problems with alcohol.

"All three of us have a drinking problem," said Allen, 50, who smoked a cigarette and whose grizzled face and missing teeth contrasted with the sweetness of the Monterey Bay Aquarium sea otter logo on his jacket. He added: "All three of us have a homelessness problem."

As I sat with them, I didn't smell any alcohol. Just cigarette smoke and the smell of their long unwashed bodies and dirty clothes. They had several shopping bags, and one look liked it contained malt liquor; another a cheap bottle of gin or vodka. But also beside Keith at the table was an unopened package of sushi.

As for whether Larry, Allen, and Keith have caused problems in town, like the the "Claycord" drunkards, Keith, 57, stated:

"We're good guys," said Keith, who said he was awarded a Purple Heart for taking two bullets in the shoulder during service in the Vietnam War. "We don't lie or cheat or steal."

Well, that's not entirely the case. Allen told me that he had a couple cases pending in court. For petty theft: shoplifting from Safeway. He said hunger and desperation drove him to steal food. And desperation for for a drink. One case involved trying to shoplift a bottle of booze.

Allen said he grew up in a family of alcoholics, and the stress and cold of living on the streets makes him need to self-medicate with alcohol."You're out here sleeping in the cold. You can't sleep. It helps." Allen said he had also been asked to leave Trader Joe's.  "I got mad at them. Because of all the frustration. They just said, 'don't come back.'"

Meanwhile, Larry said a family member, who lives in the area, had a restraining order against him. He also said he could no longer visit Fresh Start, so he must have somehow violated their terms of visiting and getting assistance.

As for Keith, who had wire-rim glasses, salt-and-pepper beard and hair, and a name identical to a famous rock star, told me something about having a wife or girlfriend in a program for drinking. He also said he had been hit by cars eight times while crossing the streets of Walnut Creek.

They said they had been hanging out together for about eight months, living in different homeless encampments around town. "We help each other." They all insisted they didn't want to cause trouble for anyone. "I hate violence," Allen insisted.

All three said they just wanted to work. To be given a chance to prove they are worth something.

"Homelessness is not against the law," one of them said. Allen said he worked as a painter, Keith said he had a degree in architecture, and Larry said he had worked as a builder.

I probably could have stayed there many more hours, trying to untangle narrative lines from a sometime wandering converation. Befre I left, Larry asked me whether I thought that by talking to me, and posing for this picture, he and his friends would make people more aware of the challenges confronting Walnut Creek's homeless.

I said I didn't know. But I told him I guessed that some of the things they said might make people mad. This would include other homeless who would say they are trying very hard to play by the rules and not cause trouble for anyone else, like this other guy I know who lives under one of the bridges around town. Or this woman I recently met a Fresh Start who almost became homeless after getting laid off 10 months ago from her marketing job.

I also know of some residents near downtown, particularly whose properties back up to the creeks, who are fed up with tresspassing in their yards and the littering in the creeks. I'm sure some business owners aren't too crazy about some--not all--in the homeless population who commit "quality-of-life" and other crimes, like shoplifting. 

I did suggest that they not sit out on busy California Boulevard, drinking liquor, even if it's wrapped in a plastic bag. This act attracted my attention; I'm sure it attracted the attention of other people driving by.

So that's my chat with Larry, Keith, and Allen: a snapshot of three guys who live in our community, not far from the properous shopping destinations of Whole Foods, Nordstrom, and Tiffany & Co. Three guys who are desperate, admit to being problem drinkers, friendly, sad, bitter... That's the way it is, or was, when I was talking to them.

By the way, I recently asked the question whether Walnut Creek's homeless are members of our community or a blight.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not homeless but street people. They like to live this way.

Anonymous said...

Many of these people seem to be pretty intelligent. If they chose to get help for their drug/alcohol addition they would have a real chance to do something with their lives, but I agree with the first comment -- they choose to live this way. No amount of money thrown at the problem will solve this basic problem.

Also, only in California would you find a bum eating sushi.

Anonymous said...

I say throw them in jail for the rest of their lives. It is the only way to clean up our streets.

Jason Wheeler said...

Pretty cool that you sat there at spoke with those guys. Homeless are people too.

Jude said...

I happen to know 2 of the 3 men you met. They have their issues but are people just like you and me who took the wrong path at one point and are struggling to get back on the right one. Thank you for your story.

Anonymous said...

street people who like to live this way are called bums.

Anonymous said...

good story

Anonymous said...

I have met and talked with one of the men that you are talking about. I am sorry to hear the comments of those who are so ready to write off the fellow human beings. Doesn't it stop and make you wonder what a decorated war veteran is doing homeless? Makes me wonder.

Thank you for treating them like the human beings that they are.

Anonymous said...

Nice story.

I saw these guys at Trader Joe's last night hanging around the area near the exit. I didn't find them threatening as individuals but businesses can't let their storefronts be used as public toilets or loitering grounds.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think people post comments about others "liking to live this way" [liking to live homeless, dirty, hungry, shunned, etc.?] because it's easier for people to think that than to face the very real possibility and very real fear that they, too, could one day find themselves homeless.

Especially in this economy, with so much unemployment, so many foreclosures and so many cutbacks of ever-more needed social services, the loss of just one regular, full-time salaried job could easily spend some people on a quick downward spiral into homelessness.

Anonymous said...

Even in robust economies there are street people who are bums.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this story. I passed them sitting together one night outside Macys WC in the courtyard and was intimidated. I don't think I will be next time.

Anonymous said...

I smell a new reality show.

Anonymous said...

Disease, hygiene, theft, intimidation.

How 'bout you give them your home address, Crazy? This will afford you an on-going opportunity to interact with some chatty, friendly homeless guys who will live on your front lawn.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:58pm,
Go troll somewhere else.
Soccer Mom doesn't deserve to be afflicted with you.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like many you on this comment board went to too many sensitive training seminars. Let me know where you'll be next weekend so I can give you my sad story and possibly get $5 from each of you.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:43 said "the loss of just one regular, full-time salaried job could easily spend some people on a quick downward spiral into homelessness."

That is liberal pablum. Very few, if any, people who currently have jobs, savings accounts, houses, friends, church networks, business connections, etc...will ever find themselves homeless unless they start drinking and doing drugs every day. The liberals love to tell everyone that they are just one paycheck away from being on the streets so taxpayers will be guilted into coughing up yet more money for more social programs.

SM said in her article that one guy has been banished by Fresh Start. They are pretty compassionate folks so you'd have to work at it to get kicked out by them. If any of these guys wanted to avail themselves of all the social programs that are out there -- publicly funded or private, usually by religious groups -- they could get some help to pull themselves up and get back into society. The first thing they'd have to do is stop drinking/drugs.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Anon 358 and 414.

And aside from the sensitivity training, where is the concern for our environment. These bums are DESTROYING the creeks. Not to mention the human waste they leave at business doorsteps which is a significant a public health problem.

Fresh Start does far more damage than good. The program attracts homeless people to Walnut Creek. Sadly, most are alcohol or drug abusers who have no interest in doing anything but maintaining their high! And the support services Fresh Start provides just makes it all the easier for them to do that. Let me say it differently. Fresh Start makes the overall problem worse and not better in Walnut Creek.

Lets call them what they are. Bums. There are way too many safety nets and assistance programs in our society. No one living under a bridge in Walnut Creek is not there by CHOICE! Do not forget this and do not feel sorry for them.

Anonymous said...

Anons 4:14, 4:23, and 4:33,

This is a blog maintained by Soccer Mom. It has a variety of readers and contributors, which is good. SM writes creatively and I enjoy that. The items on homeless people in WC are informative.

Unfortunately, there are a bunch of trolls like you sitting under the bridge just firing off your IEDs and enjoying the explosions. You are probably all too lazy to start your own blogs and face the music.

However, if any of you do want to start a WC Troll blog, let SM know on this blog so that her readers can check it out.

Anon 4:09pm

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:16,

Apparently "troll" = anyone you don't agree with.

Anonymous said...

NICE - all emotion and no reasoning. My post (433) is factually based. To call me mean and a "troll" in response is not intellectually honest.

My comments are not directed at Soccer Mom, who I enjoy reading, and who I happen to think does a great job. My comments are in response to many of the other anonymous comments posted above mine, which are emotionally based and not supported by facts.

AKA Soccer Mom said...

Dear Readers,
Thanks everyone to contributing to this discussion about a very serious issue in our community: homelessness. It's one we all know about and deal with, but one that we may never talk about. At least in any public way.

Dear 4:09 p.m.
Thank you so much for (I assume) being a regular reader and saying something positive about my blog, and trying to guard against commenters who might be trolls.

As it stands, I have dealt with trolls, and those commenting so far on this post don't qualify. At least in my experience...

They are offering their viewpoints, and in ways that I actually think add to the conversation about this difficult issue in our community.

Maybe some of their rhetoric comes off as harsh--especially 3:58--but that's okay. As much as possible, I want to encourage people to talk freely on my blog. Even if in some cases, I personally don't agree.
(Not saying that applies in this particular situation...)

I hope I'm providing a forum for a good discussion. I think we need that. As I said, this issue--homelessness--is one we all know is going on in our community. Some of us have dealt with it on a personal level. Either because we've been homeless, been near to being homeless, know someone who is, or been annoyed or upset by a homeless person.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to sentence these men to life in prison?

Anna, The Lemon Lady said...

Unless we're born with a true silver spoon, many of us are not so far away from not having enough money for all that we hold dear, food, shelter, and clothing.

Homelessness. A fear. A discussion. A topic. Yes, even in Walnut Creek. Well done article Soccer Mom.

Anonymous said...

There are so many homeless in WC. If you drive everywhere you won't notice them.

Anonymous said...

I drive by this locale every day. The gathering had become more regular and started to grow. When not at the Sunrise location, there were often two men at Olympic and 680, another waiting outside Trader Joes, another outside KFC, all asking for handouts. Walking home from the movies one night, there was violent, threatening, crazed screaming coming from the corner.

There were six men sitting there drinking malt liquor at last count a couple weeks ago. Then a couple days later the for lease sign was gone. A few days later, there was no sign of any homeless people. Someone had left a pair of shoes on a shoebox on the benches as a donation, but they went unclaimed for about a week. Then, late last week, the benches were removed. They're gone. Anyone know the details?

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