EL CENTRO, Calif. – Vagabonds, vagrants, transients, nomads, hobos, or even the more polite term we use for them, the less fortunate. There are plenty of names for them, but they all refer to the homeless – a subculture of our society that some people often feel uncomfortable with.
We often encounter them on a daily basis. At the end of freeway off-ramps, in city parks, fast food restaurants, or sitting outside our own homes under a shady tree.
The Imperial Valley is home to 143 homeless people, according to Francisco Marquez, director of the local Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, and the 2011 Imperial County Point-in-Time count held in January by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department.
The discomfort many people have with the homeless might stem from misunderstanding or fear. But, after speaking with some homeless men and women here, all who claim to not be the “average bum,” you come to understand that, like us, they too have some rules and mores. For example, the homeless in the Imperial Valley have divided themselves into classes:
1. Panhandlers (the people who ask you for money or food)
2. Signers (the ones holding the sign waiting for you to give them donations)
3. Recyclers (the ones who pick up cans and trash from dumpsters and the streets to recycle)
4. The “Troublemakers” or “Desmadrosos” (basically, homeless people on drugs)
They have also come up with some basic unwritten rules for survival:
1. Never give out your full name (in case you’re on probation or have a warrant out for you)
2. Stay under the shade
3. Avoid attention from the police
4. Drink a beer and smoke a cigarette
5. Stay away from the shelters except for food and showers.
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The last rule may come as a surprise. According to Rod B. (unwritten rule number one), a 14-year homeless man who “lives” with his 29-year-old son in front of Costco on Imperial Ave., said, “The shelters are too strict, it’s like being in prison.”
Juan, a homeless man who stays at the park on Adams Ave., said that the Salvation Army staff was “disrespectful” and “made me feel degraded.” One of the staff members, he claims, crumpled up an application Juan had filled out and threw it at his face.
Capt. Jerry Esqueda, director and pastor for the Salvation Army in El Centro, said, “Sometimes the people come in with anger, an attitude that disrespects the volunteers and employees.” Esqueda mentioned several instances when he had to call the police to escort some of the homeless out of the building. “We’re here to help,” Esqueda said, “but we can only tolerate so much.”
The Salvation Army offers one noontime meal for the homeless Monday through Friday, as well as lunch following Sunday worship. The shelter, where beds and a roof are provided for the homeless, was shut down in September 2010 to undergo remodeling and will reopen in June – just in time for the searing and unforgiving summer months.
“I’m used to the heat already,” said Larry, who panhandles on the sidewalk in front of the Chase Bank in El Centro, and manages to claim the coveted, rare spots of shade at a strip mall just to make a meager $8 a day.
Some of the homeless, however, do perform manual labor in exchange for food or money. Hector and some of his fellow homeless friends who stay by El Sol Market on 4th St. claim that they get picked up by people in need of labor.
Jake, a Vietnam War veteran, and his friend Gary, who hang out by the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Imperial Ave. near I-8, also work for their survival. “I sometimes help the people from KFC put the signs up,” Jake said. He also says that he and Gary do construction, flooring, refrigeration, and other jobs as well.
Jackie Estrada, general manager of the KFC, said, “They don’t bother me at all. They aren’t doing anything wrong.”
“I feed them every once in a while,” she said.
Unlike vagabonds of bygone eras in this country, today’s homeless strive for more than just sustenance. Rod B. and his son, Rod B. Jr., will always try to catch the latest release at a movie theater.
“Yes,” Rod Jr. said. “Homeless people watch movies.”