By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
From the back of the ambulance, which has been made into a sort of rolling homeless shelter, McElree and an assistant hand out hot soup and Army-issue MREs (meals ready to eat), surplus sleeping bags, desert night camouflage pants and coats. A storm is coming, and staying warm will be important. They also take a census -- thus far, they have tallied 56 landfill residents, although there may be others who choose to remain hidden.
The procession continues for half an hour. Dogs mill about, sniffing the wind. There are a few women and a few men who look like they don't come out of the bushes all that often. Jean Paul, who can be a hermit at times, doesn't show up. One man strips off his rancid jeans on the spot and dons new military attire. Brian Lee, 48, stands in the freezing wind wearing nothing but jeans and a T-shirt. A burly man with a tangled red beard whose arms are crisscrossed with scratches, Lee points to a heap of concrete and twisted metal and says that it will be his new home, that he will hollow it out, reinforce it with beams, and put a steel door on the front with a sign on it that says he's never there.
Someone once told McElree that by doing what he does, by providing comfort, he is actually enabling the campers, making it easier for them to stay. "People look at it the way they have to look at it," he says. "I'm just trying to do something humane."
He would like to help everyone, of course -- he himself has been homeless, twice -- but many here are too rowdy for shelters, and would get kicked out. There are usually drug or alcohol issues; in some cases there are mental issues; often, there are issues that take months to uncover. It can be a two- or three-year process, he says, and before that even starts, a person has to want to be inside, which many do not.
As the last stragglers disappear into the bushes, the ambulance rolls down to the Plateau, to check on Tricycle Johnny. McElree, who is a paramedic, slips on a pair of rubber gloves and ducks into John's tent, checks his skin temperature, his pulse, has him squeeze with one hand, then the other, to see if he may have had a stroke at some point. Though he lies under seven or eight blankets, John's skin is freezing cold. He has back problems, foot problems, God knows what else, and since he has stopped coming out of his tent -- it's been nearly a week -- this will create still more problems.
Tricycle Johnny begins wailing, a bloodcurdling howl somewhere between dementia and pure raw agony, and continues after McElree has left the tent. He howls as though someone is in there with him, tearing him apart with knives. Everyone stands around, evaluating the situation. It is horrible. There must be something somebody can do.
There isn't, since John doesn't want to go to a hospital, and would rather his own people take care of him. He quiets down.
Sarah passes by with a bundle of food and clothes -- the MREs are killer, and she likes the Tootsie Rolls too. The wind picks up. Council member Maris returns a coat he has borrowed. It is so cold that his lips have turned blue.
It rains for four days. The windchill drops into the 30s. The water roars down in sheets. Sarah lies awake at night, listening to the gale tear at the top of her wigwam, wondering if she'll be blown off the face of the earth. She's well-lashed, that's not the problem. It's just the sound of it, which is terrible.
On Monday afternoon, the third day of the storm, the rain begins to ease off. Puddles of muddy water reflect a cold gray sky. Brian Lee is in his tent, sleeping, and won't come out. Though a radio is playing in Jean Paul's tent, he doesn't answer. He's probably there, since batteries are expensive, but the rule on the Albany Landfill is that you announce yourself when approaching someone's camp. If he doesn't respond, you let him be.
Robert the Rabbit has been reading a Dean Koontz novel. He says his first storm on the landfill tore his tent to pieces -- he sat awake all night, shivering, depressed, surrounded by water, cradling Monkey in his lap. He rebuilt using tarps, and the second storm told him where his vulnerabilities were. Since the third and fourth, he's been doing fine. The key is to have some sort of light, so you can read.
Robert takes a seat and tells his story. He smokes, listens to the rain, watches the lights wink on in the hills. Sometimes he's happy with the way things are, and sometimes he isn't. When he was young, he wanted to be an artist, and figured if he just kept at it he would succeed. At 16, he left Michigan for the Haight, which he'd read about; he got an art degree from UC Berkeley; he worked as a picture framer for 13 years. The pay was never very good; he was never too good with authority, either; he worked temp jobs; he and two friends had a place in San Pablo, but none of them could keep it together. He first lived outside, on private property, two years ago. After that, he had an apartment in Oakland, which he lost, so he came here.