This morning, I decided to not just walk through the plaza, but to stop and talk with some of these folks. I first approached the stage and saw two young men reading Bibles. I asked if I could speak with them and one of them, a man named Raymond, said, "We're just finishing up a Bible study. Could you come back in 15 minutes?"
I said sure, and approached three people seated on benches. I recognized all of them, as I see them almost every day, but I'd never taken the time to learn their names. Their names are Mike, Victoria, and John. I asked Mike why there is an increased homeless population in the plaza, and he confirmed what I suspected. In the aftermath of the Kelly Thomas beating and death at the hands of Fullerton Police, the FPD is more sensitive to the plight to homeless people. In the past, the FPD would simply force homeless people to leave, but now they can't get away with that. The public is watching.
John said that the Cold Weather Armory is about to open in December, and all of the homeless people will sleep there. The Armory is open from December to February, during the cold months. Everyone agreed that Fullerton needs a year-round homeless shelter.
"What about the NIMBY (not in my backyard) effect?" I asked, "Do you think Fullerton residents would be okay with having a homeless shelter in their city? Do you think people would be afraid it would make the city look bad?"
Mike, Victoria and John grimaced at my question. "It wouldn't make the city look bad if it was run properly," Mike said. "Lots of people think we're all pieces of shit, but we're not."
"Plus, a homeless shelter is better than having all these people sleep in the plaza," Victoria said.
I glanced over at the stage and noticed that Raymond was finished with his Bible study, so I shook Mike, Victoria, and John's hands and headed over to the stage.
Raymond is a well-spoken young man who has been homeless for the past couple months, since his house burned down. We sat on the edge of the stage and spoke for a while. I immediately liked him. I learned that he is a photographer/videographer and has been documenting homelessness in Fullerton. This got me excited, because I'm putting together a photography show called "The Changing Face of Fullerton." Raymond defies all stereotypes of homeless people. He works with local nonprofits. He leads Bible studies. He is an artist. He's a normal dude who fell on hard times.
As we're talking, Victoria walks by, puts her hand on Raymond's shoulder and says to me, "This is a very good man."
"Thanks, Vicki," he replied.
Raymond said that, if you are homeless, you don't have to starve in Fullerton. There are churches and organizations that serve meals every day of the week. He explained how the police have been in constant communication with the local homeless, often through a liaison person.
"This is important so that we don't have another Kelly Thomas," he said.
I invited Raymond to submit his photos to the Hibbleton show, we exchanged facebook info, and I headed home, saying goodbye to Mike as I left. I felt I'd taken an important first step toward getting to know these people. If I'm honest with myself, I must admit that I feel a certain apprehension about speaking to homeless people. But today, when I made a conscious decision to cross the invisible barrier, I was immensely rewarded. The people I spoke with seemed like decent people just trying to get by, to get on their feet. Both Mike and Raymond were quick to point out that each individual homeless person has a unique story.
If we can get past stereotypes and fears, I think Fullerton has a great opportunity to do a better job meeting the needs our local homeless population. We have the resources, we have the people, we even have a city-sponsored Task Force on Homelessness and Mental Illness, a direct result of Kelly Thomas. We have Pathways of Hope, which offers resources and information. We are changing, and we will continue to change together.
Here are some photos of homelessness in Fullerton taken by my friend Josue Rivas:
And, lest we forget, two men who helped change how Orange County views homelessness.