Home-Less in Paradise
In a hilltop forest bordering a wealthy Peninsula enclave, renegades and outcasts practice bare survival.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
In a densely wooded, stunningly beautiful 140-acre greenbelt located in the heart of the Peninsula, 30 to 40 homeless men, women and teenagers eke out a hidden existence. For years, maybe decades, these disenfranchised people have floated through the trees, lived in tents and tried to keep a low profile.
This underground community’s existence is no secret to local law enforcement officials or other agencies. Early one morning in September, a fire broke out in one of the upper homeless camps and rapidly burned two and a half acres of surrounding wildland. It took 60 firefighters from five communities to bring the fire under control, and sent smoke signals out to the rest of the Monterey Peninsula that a large community of homeless is surviving on the margins of our ultra-rich society.
A week after the fire broke out I was wandering the trails, looking for signs of the homeless encampment mentioned in Fire Chief Gregory Glass’ press release. It didn’t take me long. I found what appeared to be long-abandoned camps—old mattresses, decomposing garbage and sleeping bags moldering into the forest floor like dung-colored patches of moss.
It’s an eerie feeling, sensing other humans. It’s like seeing a ghost. I continued up the hillside, my peripheral vision picking up flickers of motion through the dense trees and poison oak. The first camp I came across was empty, with two small dome tents covered in tarps, a large midden of garbage, an open barbecue grate and unwashed cooking gear. I listened for any sign of life from inside the tent, then, feeling like a trespasser, turned around and started back down the hill.
As I descended, I saw her moving through the woods on a parallel path. She was there for a moment then gone again. There then gone. As our respective trails converged I could see how young she was—no more than 18 and dressed in classic gutterpunk issue: black on black, hooded sweatshirt, boots. She hadn’t expected to see me and I startled her.
Hesitant to speak at first, she opened up when I asked her about the fire.
“It was just some asshole passing through who didn’t follow the rules. He passed out with his fire burning or something. He’s ruining the whole thing for everyone else,” she muttered quietly before moving down the trail and disappearing onto the road below.
“Beth,” a 22 year old, ran away from home when she was 17. She says she started living up in the area all the kids called “White Mountain” because she didn’t have a car to sleep in.
“It’s a combination of traveling kids, gutterpunks, train hoppers. Occasionally you get the local yuppie kids, but they never stayed long,” she says. A group of ever-changing runaways live and party along the lower flanks of White Mountain—they make up one of the area’s most recognizable tribes.
“We were just sleeping there,” she says. “We’d have some beers and smoke some pot. Some of the kids were there just to party, but for the most part it’s where we lived. People had all their possessions with them.”
Beth says White Mountain used to be way more crowded.
“Back before my time, it used to be that Monterey had this pretty huge, traveling, hippie drug scene. People say that the tourism industry has sort of driven that whole scene out though. A lot of traveling kids knew about this town and you’d get a lot of people passing through. It has a reputation for being a rich community so the local kids have lots of drugs.”
Beth also insists the place is haunted by the ghost of a kid who hung himself in 1999. “Anyone who’s spent any time there has seen or heard stuff,” she says.
The next day, at the top of a hill, I found where the fire started. The ground was charred hard and black, though the large pines seemed to be intact. In the burn area I found scorched cookware, beer cans and, oddly enough, a small wooden cross with the name “Beau” on it.
Wandering west, I came across a great stump that continued to smolder in the afternoon sunlight. Surprised to find that the fire was still burning, I didn’t notice Brian until he’d almost managed to slip back into the trees. When he realized I’d seen him, he waved and smiled, so I bushwhacked through the thick poison oak to reach him.
Brian was living just down the hillside from where the fire was still burning and offered to bring me back to his camp. He walked with a heavy limp, but was dressed nicely, shaved and groomed, and even looked like he’d just washed his hair.
When we reached his camp he went ahead to warn his neighbor, Tim, who was taking a nap. The view from here was stunning. The bay sparkled through the trees and far below I could make out the Coast Guard breakwater and Cannery Row. It was the kind of camp site you come back to.
Brian has been here for roughly three weeks. He has a titanium rod in his leg. His shin was shattered by a tree on a job site last May. He says he has medical bills exceeding $18,000. After spending the summer with his leg propped up, he met Tim and his girlfriend and brought his tent up to their camp. He plans on wintering on the mountain. “Better than going back East,” he says. “Too cold back there.”
Combing back his gray hair with his fingers, Tim emerges from his tent with a warm but slightly nervous smile and welcomes me. The three of us sit and Brian quietly nurses a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English 800. Tim lights a Marlboro and begins fastidiously sweeping the entry with a little whisk broom he keeps on a hook by his tent flap.
Their camp is tidy. Tim’s been “on the mountain” for three months. Once upon a time, not too long ago, he was an engineer. He helped his boss, Dave Fuller, design Ryan Ranch Industrial Park, and even did some of the map work on Monterra. But when he inherited some money, he tried to start a business and it failed, leaving him broke. He admits that a hefty cocaine habit didn’t help the tailspin which finally crash-landed him on this mountainside.
“Coke is a fool’s paradise,” he says with a sheepish smile. “You just rationalize everything. What we have here, though, is a clean and somewhat sober camp.” He glances over at an empty 12-pack of Amstel Light. “Except for the occasional beer, of course.”
Tim is funny and intelligent and tremendously engaging. It’s hard to imagine how he could end up homeless, but he says it’s really not all that much of a mystery.
“You’re just one paycheck from here,” Tim says. “Well, that’s not true. You have friends you can rely on for six months, but then you just kind of disappear.”
Tim manages to do a day or two of masonry work each week. “Just enough to get the basics. We try to avoid going on food stamps,” he says. His girlfriend cleans houses every now and again. And Tim says sometimes he relies on an informal network of support that exists on the mountain.
“You rely on people when you’re not independent financially,” he says. “Other people think they understand. But unless you’re out here, living like this, you don’t. You need other people some time. We look after each other some.”
He offers me some cheese and crackers, promising with a sly smile that “there’s no dirt or anything on it.” A mouse scurries through the duff. “There goes our tent mouse,” he says.
“We don’t have a governing body per se. I don’t know if it’s delegated or what, but there are certain individuals who take it upon themselves to keep some order around here.”
When pressed, Tim just shrugs. “There are rules. I can’t give you specific guidelines, but if you break them you find out real fast.”
He says one of those rules was broken a week earlier when the fire broke out. “It’s pretty quiet on the mountain. Most people are respectful and clean, but there are exceptions.”
Tim says his girlfriend got up before dawn to watch the sunrise, and came back to tell him, “‘Honey, the mountain’s on fire.’” When Tim climbed out of the tent he saw “a little patch of orange through the trees.”
“Not to sound like a pyromaniac, but it was really quite pretty,” Tim says. “It didn’t look to be coming this way so I didn’t worry about it, but after laying in my tent for a while I decided I’d better go tell someone about it.”
Just as the sun was breaking Tim and Brian hiked down off the mountain. Coincidentally, a fire official was driving by as they emerged from the woods and they flagged him down. He knew there was a fire, but didn’t know where. Tim and Brian told him how to get to it.
Although no one knows for sure who started the blaze, Tim’s heard rumors that an older transient called Firebug Bill is responsible.
“He has a reputation on the mountain for pyromania,” Tim says. “Firebug Bill’s the guy who set the Whole Foods dumpsters on fire a while back. He was just passing through. Causing problems.”
According to Tim and other mountain residents, it’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t have a fire pit, that you should always have a fire extinguisher on hand and at least 20 gallons of water. Most of the mountain residents cook using a grill.
Tim shrugs as he hangs the whisk broom neatly on its hook. “You get a lot of people with psychosis passing through here. They tend to ruin things for the rest of us.”
“Darryl” is paranoid. There’s no getting around that fact. Darryl lives alone deep in the woods. He doesn’t like the way I’ve suddenly appeared in his camp. I get the impression he rarely sees a soul.
As soon as I wander into his camp, I wish I hadn’t. His eyes clearly dart over to an ax stuck in a log beside his ragtag tent of tarps and moldy blankets.
He wants to know what I want, but clearly doesn’t believe me when I tell him. He keeps asking me who I’m with. “Who are you with? Who are you with?” Before long the tone of his single-minded interrogation grows increasingly belligerent.
I smile benignly, trying not to look dangerous or scared and back out of the camp. I sense him shadowing me along the trail for a while and then he’s gone and I hurry back out the way I came.
At the bottom of a secret hollow, hidden away among the dense pine trees, a dirty little generator chugs outside a bunker made of taut blue tarps. Chugga chugga chugga chugga…the white and orange machine dutifully squats among bags of trash, cooking utensils and a small, blackened barbecue.
“It charges the batteries for my embolizer,” Fitzgerald cautiously explains, each sentence deliberately punctuated by a long breath. “I got to breathe in the tent every night…I need a battery to operate the machine…I have to keep the battery charged in case of an attack…When it’s cold out I have more attacks…When I’m having an attack I can’t holler out.”
Today may well be the vet’s last Veterans Day. We’ll call him “Fitzgerald” because that’s what his green baseball cap says: Fitzgerald’s. Fitzgerald lights a long GPC 100 and takes a shallow drag.
“He’s dying,” his neighbor Jim tells me with a grim satisfaction. He points at the cigarette dangling from Fitzgerald’s lips. “You’re dying and you still smoke those things.”
Fitzgerald exhales with a grimace. His bearded face may be the color of an old shoe, but a fire still burns in his eyes. “Well, you smoke them cigars,” he replies. “One of these days they’re going to hit you hard too. You’ll wind up just like me.”
Jim shrugs and shakes his head, but says nothing. It’s obviously a topic that’s been revisited a few times during the years the two men have been neighbors out here in the woods. A deeply treaded trail connects Fitzgerald’s camp to the tent where Jim and his girlfriend have lived for the past three and a half years. Despite their morbid bickering, the two men share a strong bond of circumstance.
Jim and Fitzgerald belong to a group commonly known as “the vets,” though they’re quick to point out that there’s only one other guy who can prove he’s really a vet.
“Other people will tell you they’re vets, but they’re lying,” Jim snorts derisively. “When they have to go to the hospital why do they go all the way to Natividad instead of the VA? You got guys like Steve, who says the government lost all his paperwork. They didn’t lose my paperwork.”
“They didn’t lose mine neither,” Fitzgerald says.
Fitzgerald has lived “all over these hills” for seven years now. He has to catch three buses to get to the VA hospital to receive regular treatment for his late-stage emphysema, but he has nothing but kind words and gratitude for the care he gets there.
“Disability’s been real good to me. I got one of the best doctors in the world—a woman doctor,” he says.
Cigarette still clutched between his fingers, Fitzgerald moves off to check that the batteries for his “embolizer” are charging properly. Jim motions up the hill behind their little hollow with a nod.
“There are seven or eight other guys call themselves vets up the way,” Jim says. “I only talk to them when they always come around asking, ‘Man, you got a cigarette? Got a beer? I’m hungry.’ Well, go get yourself something to eat. My girlfriend and I take care of ourselves. We don’t go around asking for things from other homeless people. I mean, c’mon.”
Fitzgerald agrees that a lot of the other people out here can be a pain in the ass, then disappears into his blue tarp-covered tent.
Linda Forkash is the program director of I-HELP Monterey, an organization that helps homeless men transition back into society in partnership with local churches. She says that most of the men living up in the woods “are hardcore substance abusers.”
“If they’re using drugs and alcohol we can’t take them in. We have an agreement with the churches,” she says. “We’ll give them a shot, but most of the people who choose to live up in those woods refuse to accept any direction or won’t follow their case plans towards self-sufficiency.”
According to Forkash, I-HELP doesn’t simply “warehouse” homeless men. “You follow a case plan that will get you into housing or a supportive program. If they won’t take medication and can’t get along in a community environment, then we can’t help them. They must be compliant.”
When I tell her there are a number of people living up in the woods that have jobs but can’t afford housing, Forkash concedes that she’s heard the same thing from other people, but insists, “A lot of them also are not who they say they are. They suffer mental illness. Grandiose delusion. They’re very convincing about where they come from or what they’ve done. Men who are into substance abuse are very strong in the denial mode. They feel wronged. They say I-HELP won’t let them come in because I-HELP is the enemy. They won’t disclose that they were kicked out, that they did something like steal from a church.
“We’re not a flop house where you can be intoxicated and be ornery,” Forkash says. “We even have hygiene rules. If a man refuses to shower and his smell becomes ungodly, we’re not going to help housing them or feeding them.”
Forkash says that most of the homeless who live up on the hill are incapable of being helped.
“They are the hard cases,” she says. “Many men you talk to up on the hill might come across as holier than thou. Typically a man does not become homeless overnight. They have to work very hard at it for a long time. For many, it becomes a lifestyle that they’ve chosen.”
THE TREE MAN
“I’m a friendly person, I just don’t come across that way,” Jim says as he leads me down the trail to his tent. It’s true. He is friendly but initially he doesn’t come across that way. Among the other tribes on the mountain, I’ve learned that the vets have a reputation for being particularly drunk, surly and mentally ill.
Jim introduces me to “Tigger Tagger the Tailwagger,” an affectionate little tabby that eagerly rubs itself up against Jim’s ankles as we walk into the camp. The DJ on a little radio is playing the Johnny Cash song, “Drive On” in honor of Veterans Day.
“Now I got a little limp when I walk/And I got a little tremolo when I talk,” Cash sings. “But the letter I got from Whisky Sam/Said, ‘You’re a walking, talking miracle from Vietnam.’”
Although Jim was in the Navy from 1971-1975, he never saw Vietnam. He did his time in Spain.
“That was tough, laying on the beach in the sun. Talk about a rough assignment,” he laughs. “While some guys were getting shot I was getting college girls.”
Yet despite avoiding Southeast Asia, he says the Navy did his head no favors. Jim grew up on the Monterey Peninsula. Back in the ’60s he used to surf Asilomar and Carmel on a 10-foot-2-inch O’Neill board. “Big blue-green thing. Like a battleship.”
“I was a whole different person after the Navy. My head was all twisted up,” he says. “The military experience was a little more than a human being needs to put up with.”
When he came back to the States, he found a job as a garbage man, then fell into “tree work.”
“I did that for 25 years until I ruptured a disk in my lower back,” he says. “Not bad enough to get disability but bad enough that I can’t do anything. Realistically, I’m 54 now, there aren’t too many places you can go get a job you have no experience for.”
Unable to cope with an increasingly foreign work world, he started living rough down by the freeway.
“But I couldn’t stand the traffic down there,” he says. “So three and a half years ago I found this spot and been here ever since.”
Jim’s camp is relatively well-maintained and organized, unlike many of the other campsites scattered through the woods, which resemble old dumps. He’s got a radio and a small television that he runs off a car battery. Empty beer cans are conscientiously bagged along with trash.
The DJ comes on the radio and wishes everyone a happy Veterans Day.
“People, non-veterans—they’re always taking the day off on Veterans Day. They go and have picnics and shit. I never took a Veterans Day off when I worked,” Jim says. “But then I’m used to not getting any recognition—listen...there go my neighbors, the bastards.”
Three raccoons scurry through a small meadow next to Jim’s camp and one by one climb the trunk of thick pine and disappear up into its boughs overhead.
“Those three are trouble,” Jim says.
By the looks of Tigger Tagger the Tailwagger’s defensive posture, his cat agrees. I stare up into the branches, but can’t see the raccoons, though I know they’re up there, looking down at me.
It’s a familiar feeling. Walking around out here you can’t help but feel watched.
Monterey County Sheriff Lieutenant Randy Roach has been called out to the homeless encampments numerous times.
“I’ve always found the individuals up there to be very friendly and they’ll answer any questions you ask them,” he says. “Some of them have been there for quite some time.”
Roach’s policy is simple. “If they’re on city property we move them on. If they’re on private property, we’re asking private property to take ownership of their property and submit letters of complaint regarding the trespassers.”
Although city of Monterey Fire Chief Greg Glass acknowledges there have been “several fires in the area over the last five years,” he doesn’t consider the encampments a major problem.
“We’ll cut back the undergrowth and the homeless will go deeper to remain out of sight,” he says. “We’ve been dealing with the issues as they arise and are trying to work with the property owners, because it’s really up to them.”
According to Fitzgerald and Tim, the two vets have permission from the land’s owner to be there, though neither can agree on what his first name is.
“He knows we’re here and he hasn’t asked us to leave,” Fitzgerald says. “He always says we got to clean up more, which I try to do.”
And it’s true. As the generator chugs away, charging the batteries that keep him alive every night, Fitzgerald putters around his “front yard,” cleaning up this and that between drags of a cigarette and preparing his kitchen area to cook one last Veterans Day dinner.
As I leave the vets’ camp one last time and make my way back down toward the road, I am conflicted about how to tell this story. Over the past three weeks, almost every person I’ve met in these woods have proven him or herself to be open, engaging, thoughtful and intelligent. As Roger, a homeless man who aligns himself with the vets told me, “There are a whole lot of college degrees out here in these woods.”
Yet despite their firmly-held belief that both property owners and city and county officials are tolerant of their presence, the clock is clearly ticking on this ragtag community. As the Monterey Peninsula continues its surreal über-gentrification, a process which is quickly transforming us into a millionaires-only paradise of pleasure palaces and empty fourth homes, what will become of our truly destitute—the ones who even refuse aid from social programs like I-HELP?
Some, like Jim and Fitzgerald, may actually have an understanding with the landowners; others assuredly do not. They are living in a limbo created by our community’s inability to deal with its most anti-social citizens. It’s a story of good people under difficult circumstances. Addiction, mental illness, bad luck...every one of us suffers from all three to one extent or another. Ultimately, whatever happens, it doesn’t seem right to persecute people—even hard cases—for trying to be independent.
Behind me, the chug of Fitzgerald’s generator blends in with the sounds of the highway, and the blue tarps disappear behind the protective screen of pine and shadow. From the road, the only indication their encampment even exists is a faint trail winding through the woods.
Out on the highway, four lanes of cars and trucks and buses roar by, their occupants intently focused on their families, their jobs, their cell phones, the time of day, the next exit. Lost in the drama and drudge of our comparatively comfortable lives, we peripherally sense the hidden homeless among the blur of pines, but we demure.
In a perfectly imperfect world we would just let it pass. Let them be. Because in the end, it’s just a story about people—socially inept, deeply flawed, but sincerely good people. Men, like Fitzgerald, who don’t ask for much—just a little control in an otherwise out of control world.
“Drive on,” Johnny Cash sings. “Don’t mean nothin’. Drive on.”