Photo: Dogwood tree flowers at Capitol Park, California State Capitol, Sacramento, CA.
[This is for you Sara…it was a pleasure crossing your path and sharing the Dogwood blooms with you on those warm Spring mornings when the sun kissed our cheeks. My deepest hope is life is finally good for you wherever you are and you are safe from the dangers of the streets….]
Last Spring I did a whole lot of walking with my camera in tow. I was immersed in work for my thesis project pitch and would head out every morning in search of the homeless. After I slipped on a pair of comfortable sweat pants, a nondescript t-shirt and a hat, I would don my walking shoes, grab my shoulder bag, stuff five singles and some change in my pocket and head off. Each morning brought with it a new adventure. Always uncertain who I would meet or talk to along the way, I left myself open for any possibility. I had a fairly regular path that took me through the shoddy motel district of West Sacramento, across the Tower Bridge, through Old Sac, up edgy and unpredictable K Street and then over a few blocks to Capitol Park. I would walk for a total of 8 miles.
There were a multitude of reasons I chose to walk. The first was for my health, both mental and physical. I desired to get back into shape for running again after going through Achilles re-attachment surgery a few years prior. Walking was also my stress reducer. My project had begun to wear on me mentally due to the intense subject matter and memories that were conjured in relation to my childhood. Walking would provide me with more opportunities to come in contact with the homeless and I also wanted to know what it felt like to walk around the city all day with very little money at hand.
One unseasonably cool morning with a dusting of frost, I added gloves and a mismatched wool hat to my toned-down fashion statement. I walked as briskly as I could to keep warm. The streets were strangely vacant as if something was about to happen. I made my way along West Capitol through the motel district without passing a single cart-pushing soul nor lady of the night. It was a bit eerie so I picked up my pace.
Before I reached the now burned out shell of the former Experience Motel, West Sacramento’s infamous 1970’s-style house of debauchery, an old banged up Chevy van slowed along the Avenue and kept pace as I walked. I glanced over at the driver in a sly manner behind my pseudo Rayban’s and felt my heart skip a beat. I realized this unshaven, swarthy man in this well-used minivan assumed I was for hire. “Ewwww…” was the only thought I could fathom. With my best “don’t mess with me I know martial arts” face on, I walked straight ahead as he pulled into the last remaining motel driveway, stopped the van and leered at me through his open window. He must have thought I was playing hard to get because minutes later he drove by again when I reached a section of the Avenue that had no place for him to turn around. He eventually made a u-turn in a business park, slowed as he drove towards me and raised his eyebrows as if posing a silent question. I didn’t even crack a smile which still did not dissuade him. He turned around a third time and continued to cruise me until I reached the Tower Bridge with its one-way entrance.
At that moment I knew how a homeless woman must feel. Vulnerable. Exposed not only to the inhospitable elements, but required to deal with the fear of constant threat (sexual and otherwise) and the need to be on permanent guard for your own survival. After my brief encounter I began to imagine how much energy it would take to survive out on the streets.
The rest of my walk I was lost in thought until I reached Capitol Park. My regular routine was to stroll the Capitol steps and shoot any rally’s or protests that might be gathered. On this day I chose to walk towards the rose garden in the back of the building instead. I turned the corner and was instantly mesmerized by the beautiful blooms on a row of Dogwood trees near the Koi pond. After losing myself in the play of shadow and light on the blossoms I packed my camera in my bag and decided to make my way back. I hoped to find more homeless out now on K Street since the warm sun had taken the bite off the frost.
It was then I noticed her. A woman in her early 30’s sitting on a park bench in the sun just beyond the row of Dogwood’s. She was dressed in a pair of gray sweatpants, running shoes, and a white ski jacket accented with red. Leaning against the bench was a rolling suitcase with two spare jackets wrapped neatly around the handle. She looked like an ordinary tourist waiting for her bus to arrive.
As I approached, her dark brown eyes immediately locked onto mine and she smiled the sweetest smile. I asked if I could join her on her bench and we began a conversation about the warm sun and the beauty of the Dogwood trees. She told me her name was Sara and she came from Eagle Point in Oregon. She was of Pawnee ancestry and both her father and partner passed away within 6 months of one another a few years back. After they died she was overcome with grief, lost her job and was unable to continue to pay the rent.
Sara moved into her father’s small RV and decided to head for California with the hope of finding a job. She landed in the Central Valley and soon found two part-time jobs. Sara did her best to save money while she lived in the RV on the streets. One night she came home to her RV after work and discovered it had been broken into by a group of ‘nere do wells. They had rifled through her belongings, trashed the inside of the RV to the point it was no longer usable and threatened her harm if she didn’t leave. That night was the first night Sara slept out on the street without shelter. The next day she cashed her paychecks, bought a one-way ticket to Woodland and hoped she would find better luck in a smaller town.
Things did not improve much for Sara over the next few months and she soon slipped back into the depression she had fought for most of her life. When I met her she had been living on the streets for a little over a year. Most nights she would sleep in the bushes near Capitol Park, sit in the morning sun on her bench behind the Koi pond and admire the Dogwood blooms then read for the remainder of the day inside the safe walls of the County Library. Sara loved the Dogwood trees and made a point of visiting them every day. She told me they reminded her of transition and of the better times in her life. She also loved the Red Slider Turtles that lived in the Koi pond. They reminded her of her Pawnee father, his connection with animals and his wildlife carvings in wood.
The week prior, a local nonprofit group had convinced Sara to sign up for safe housing and she had plans to put her name on the list the next day. She had dreams just like the rest of us. She longed to transition off the streets, to live in a quiet place by herself, to make a cup of coffee on her own stove and to paint again, which she found therapeutic. The simple things the rest of us take for granted.
A week later I took my walk to Capitol Park and stopped by Starbucks to purchase a hot coffee and a bagel with the hope Sara would be there on her bench. As I rounded the corner to the back of the Capitol, there she sat. She beamed as I approached and was very thankful for the breakfast. Sara had been accepted into the safe housing program and was to move in over the weekend. She was nervous as it was a 20 minute bus ride from the core of the City and she would be sharing the house with 5 other transitional women.
After a two-week vacation to Colorado, I decided to journey back to Capitol Park. That morning a thunderstorm was forming so I chose to park in Old Sac and walk the direct path back to the Capitol. At first I didn’t recognize her. She was wearing a clean pair of blue jeans, sandals and a white hoodie with a large flower stitched on the sleeve. Her luggage was nowhere in sight and she held a small backpack in her lap. When she saw me Sara jumped up and gave me with the tightest hug I have ever received and started to cry. It took several minutes for me to loosen her death grip and get her to sit down to tell me what was going on.
Sara had moved into the transition home a few weeks prior. She had applied for and received some monetary assistance to aid her job search. But things were not going so well at the house. She struggled to get along with the intense personalities of her housemates and had already had her backpack ransacked twice. The night prior Sara felt her emotions spiral (it was the anniversary of her partner’s death) so she bought a bus ticket to Woodland and spent the day away from the City. As her emotions began to overwhelm her she purchased a bottle of alcohol and proceeded to drink until she passed out. Hours later she hopped the bus into Sacramento but was too late to catch the last transfer out to the house. Sara slept that night in the bushes with nothing but the light clothing she wore. She felt defeated. She felt as if she had failed. We talked for a while and Sara decided she was going to catch the bus back to the home, shower and have a discussion with the one woman there who she felt a connection with. That was the last time I saw Sara.
A year or so has come and gone since the time the trees were in bloom in Capitol Park. I think of Sara often and wonder if she has made it into her quiet little apartment. I envision her rising to greet the warm sun as she makes coffee on her own stove before she breaks out her easel and begins to paint. Her paintings are of Dogwood flowers, of sunshine, of turtles. Every night she feels glad to lay down to rest in the warmth of her soft bed and she dreams happy dreams of her father, of her partner and their life together at Eagle Point.