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Homeless Chronicles: Life Along the Santa Ana Riverbed (Photo Essay)
The Riverside underworld
Hidden beneath the Main Street bridge that crosses the semi-dry Santa Ana River bed in Riverside is a group of tents that house a surprising group of people.
Home sweet home!
Most have addictions or mental health issues that plague their daily lives. Most are down on their luck. Some have chosen to drop-out, not of life, but of an existence with deadlines and pressures that were too hard to bear.
Not who you think....
Some see their current living conditions as temporary and others see it as a way of life. They are not pan-handlers or prostitutes or criminals, they say. They are just down on their luck. They have plenty of food, whether it’s donated or bought.
Some have cell phones to keep in touch with loved ones. Others have no such luxuries. A couple of people have solar panels connected to car cigarette lighters so that anyone can use to charge their phones.
Well worn paths...
There is a barter system and the rules in this area are simple, help each other and watch out of each other. There are dangers in the riverbed. Market Street bridge is known to house convicts because of its proximity to Riverside Central Jail and a couple of half-way houses. There are those who will steal property. Other dangers go unspoken.
Suzette has lived down here for four years. She’s 52 and the mother of 4. Two of her sons are dead. One was shot in the neck and the other died from painkillers and heroin and grief. She came to California from Texas to be with a boyfriend. They ended up on the outs and she ended up in the riverbed. “It was me and three friends,” she said as she walked me down to the tent area. “I didn’t even know how to light a fire.” The death of her mother and her sons has left an obvious hole. Drugs and the streets have taken their toll.
She recently took in two cats. Cats are in danger from the bottoms apex predator, the packs of coyotes. Hers are a smoky gray mother and her midnight black baby. They stay in her tent except to come out and eat. Other animals such as bobcats roam the riverbed looking for small prey.
Several of the residents have hidden themselves in the home of a gentleman who lives in a storm drain. They are not too sure about a photographer coming to town.
Ken is shy and, according to Suzette, not to sociable. He explains that he chose to live beneath the bridge. He suffers from anxiety and depression. He also suffers from PTSD. He once was a student at San Bernardino Valley College.
He studied welding technology and is the community’s resident handy man. He can build or fix anything. He has a cart made from a wheel chair and a shopping cart. He once built a mobile bathtub so the ladies could boil water for a hot bath.
He likes it here, but once lived in an area where he had built a two-room bungalow with a queen-size bed and a pullout sofa for his sister, who is also homeless.
They were run out by the bulldozers that come to cleanup debris or to harass them out of their spots. They all live off of recycling the trash that we dump on top of them from the bridge.
A family affair....
Across the river, there are two camps. One is Ken’s sister and the other is a gentleman who does not want his camp photographed. Daily, we pass them and see only human refuse. We make passing judgments and never stop to ask why. The question we should really be asking is how? How in, the richest country in the world, do we allow people to live like this. How do we become so hard in our hearts that we, symbolically, step over those who need us most every day.